Harne Waddaye and her family are beneficiaries of Oxfam’s food distribution, in Chad. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam
Harne Waddaye and her family are beneficiaries of Oxfam’s food distribution, in Chad. She is one of the 18 million people at risk of a severe hunger across the Sahel region.

We need to break Africa's hunger cycle

13 August, 2012 | GROW

Harne Waddaye, a 60-year-old grandmother, digs for food in the bare earth outside the small village of Louga in the African country of Chad. She is not digging for wild roots or for ones she has planted. She is raiding ant nests for the grain they have stored. The few grains she is able to gather will go along with the leaves from trees her daughter collects to feed her four children and six grand children. It is a meagre fare. 

She is one of the 18 million people at risk of a severe hunger across a band of Africa that stretches thousands of miles from Senegal in the west to Chad in the very centre of the continent - a distance equivalent to the journey from San Francisco to New York.

This year has been a bad year with little rain. The year before last was also bad year and five years ago similarly bad. But even in good years women like Harne resort to raiding ant nests to feed their families during the ‘hungry season’ when food is short. This exceptional act is the norm for many in this part of Africa. 

In a world where there is more than enough food to feed everyone we have to ask ourselves why we allow this to happen and more importantly what we need to do to end it. 

The world knows what to do in the short term to save lives and what to do in the long term to secure people’s livelihoods. The tragedy is that it fails to do it. 

Acting early to save lives and money

For the short term we need to act quicker on the warning signs. A report by Oxfam and Save the Children on last year’s East African food crisis showed that thousands of lives were lost due to the slow response to that catastrophe. Acting early to save lives makes moral sense but it also makes economic sense. During the 2004-5 food crisis in Niger the UN's humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, pointed out that when the warning signs began it cost $1 per day to save a child from malnutrition but when the crisis was in full swing it cost $80 a day. Given that there is rightly such political concern that we get the most from every aid dollar spent it is perverse that politicians are so reluctant to act sooner. 

A swift response is necessary but not enough. We need better leadership and coordination but there are deeper issues to tackle as well. For too long emergency aid has been coloured by the interests of the donors. We need to base our aid on the level of need not television exposure or foreign policy interests. Aid has also been far too much driven by giving people things that we have at hand. This is very much the case in some of the supply driven food aid. As humanitarians we need to listen to people more and work with them to come up with aid that is geared to their needs. 

Food prices and social safety nets

In the long term we need to break the hunger cycle so that women like Harne no longer rely on raiding ants nests. We will not be able to make it rain but we can help people build their own ability to withstand crises and look after their families without needing help from outside. In the aid world we call this resilience, but essentially all it comes down to is building a strong society and economy. 

For the Sahel region this means dealing with problem of volatile food prices. In many markets food is available but due to high prices it is out of reach of poor people. Developing food reserves in vulnerable regions will not only get food rapidly to where it is needed it will also help governments in those areas step in to bring down prices before a crisis develops. 

Added to action on food prices we also need to help the most vulnerable through programmes which provide social safety nets. These guarantee a level of income to those in dire need. Giving people money instead of food or goods it a hand up not a hand out, it gives them the ability to choose what they need and puts them in the driving seat. 

Finally there needs to be much more investment in producing food and moving away from a focus on the export of cash crops. Investing in small scale food producers not only increases the amount of food available it also builds the income of the producers themselves. Back in 2003 all African governments agreed to investing 10 per cent of their budgets on agriculture, very few have ever achieved this. 

The big challenge though is politics. Politicians may be battered by events but essentially they choose whether or not to tackle the scourge of global hunger. The choice is theirs. David Cameron’s nutrition summit is a welcome sign that hunger may be moving up the political agenda. Next year’s G8, chaired by the UK, is a real opportunity to act. 

Related links

Act Now, sign the our Sahel2102 action and help end the food crisis in Sahel

Oxfam's response to the Sahel food crisis

Join the GROW Campaign, to fix the broken global food system, and ensure we all have enough to eat, always



i've been wanting to be a part of oxman and change lives.how can i help?

Campaigns at Oxfam

Hello, I have this year applied for the position of Campaign Manager as advertised on the internet in Abuja, Nigeria. I have no idea if the application was considered or not, but while I wait for the response, I live in a location where there is an agricultural initiative which has been on for over a period of ten years in growing vegetables. These vegetables include the Pumpkin leaves, also known as 'Ugwu' in the Nigerian Igbo language, green leaves, spice leaves, and so on. An initiative of this sort was born out of the need to maximize the land resources within the environment where I live and I am a part of this initiative because my mother is a farmer. She grows these leaves chiefly in order to create value for the society and herself in terms of the economic factor.

Agriculture was a means of the Nigerian economy, that is before the oil boom in the 1960's. Crises have erupted in Nigeria following the era of oil boom and there is a call for Nigeriato go back to where it works as it concerns food security. The level of food insecurity has been responsible for the poor health, hunger, lack of productivity in virtually all areas of activity in the economy. There are only few who have access to good meals and the others just get by all in the name of survival, I like to borrow the words' suffering and smiling Nigerians'.

It is time to get back up on our feet and do the needful, secure the future, the lives and existence of our children to make them better people, secure our environment, fight for our lives and continued existence in our society, our world. This is where we belong and things ought to be put right. I still look forward to an immediate response to my application questions, and I would like to know in the mean time if there is any information you require for this location in Nigeria and what necessary steps can be taken to improve Agricultural output not for this area alone, but in other areas to aid the objectives of Oxfam.

Thanks and regards

Faith C.M. Ositadinma Anikwenwa


Dear Faith,

Thank you for your comments. I suggest you send an email to enquiries@oxfam.org.uk for info about your application.

Best regards,

Joel Bassuk
Digital Comunications Manager, Oxfam International

Merci Beacoup Joel!

Merci Beacoup Joel!

Food security

Dear Oxfam Blogs:

I undrestand that there is an immediate need for the International community to directly get involved in this scene not by only providing one time food supplies, but there has to be a way by which this prudent to the inevetable food shortage be addressed more strategically.

I would propose:

1. Steps that can ensure long term food security in this region. Trade, Agriculture,  canalization and beyond this a long standing presence of the WFP and UN FAO amongst others.

2. This is really crippling to the many families who are bearing the outcome of such a nuisance when it comes to feeding thier kids. Again a long term strategy from the G8 will come to address this issue as no one else can.

3. Means of Sustainability has to be formed; this calls for outcome mapping of the previous activities that has been put forth to address this delima. Indicators found to contribute to sustainability and long term impact should be more focused.

4. For time Being the only way to feed these families is to provide them with food security; combined with the what is mentioned in "1".

I hope there is a solution found out for this disaster.



Fixing the broken food system

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Wais.

Oxfam works with a variety of partners on both short-term and long-term food solutions. Through our GROW Campaign we're pushing to fix the food system. Here are some links to further reading and resources:

Read the report: The Food Transformation: Harnessing consumer power to create a fair food future

All our GROW Campaign research and reports

Blog on sustainability: Can we live inside the doughnut? Why the world needs planetary and social boundaries


We are painfully aware of one

We are painfully aware of one cruel, ironic fact of the Sahel food crisis: many acres of fertile fields are littered with landmines and explosive remnants of war, rendering them too dangerous for seeding.


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