The "lean season" is a normal part of the life of farming communities in Africa's Sahel region.
Even in the best of years, there is still that period between the granaries reaching dangerously low levels and the next harvest when their income spikes, from the sale of the agricultural produce.
The last few years, however, have seen repeatedly poor harvests that have culminated this year in a food crisis across the Sahel, affecting millions of people - 6.4 million people in Niger alone. The good news is that the harvests is forecast to be good and should ease the current situation.
The farming community of Nakin Fada in Dosso Region, located about 200km south-west of the capital Niamey, accepted a proposal from Plan International four years ago to create a 'cereal bank' to help ease the impact of the lean season.
The 'bank' opened in 2008 with initial 'capital' of four tonnes of cereal which has tripled in four years. This year they purchased 12 tonnes of cereal. The maize was bought at 152.50 CFA (US 30 cents) per kg and sold to the villagers at 162.50 CFA (33 cents) per kg during the lean season. The market price was 270 CFA (54 cents) per kg - 63% higher!
Millet, bought at 202.50 CFA (41 cents) was retailed at 227.50 CFA (46 cents) when the market was selling it at 290CFA (58 cents) - 26% higher.
The profits are reinvested to enable them to buy even more stock next year.
Seydou Saibou, who runs the village bank, said it was under-capitalised. "To be able to adequately feed our community we need at least 100 tonnes of cereal but we cannot afford that much," he said, "the cereal bank does work but it does not totally solve our problem."
Asked how exactly the problem can be solved, Seydou paused, thought for a while and then huddled in a conference with the group of men who had all gathered at the warehouse constructed by Plan Niger for them to store the grain.
They debated in their Zarma language.
"We would like assistance to diversify and produce vegetables," Seydou said, emerging as spokesman for the group. "We need tools and fences to keep the animals out".
I've noticed that all the animals in the village - goats, cows, oxen - were all wearing straw muzzles to stop them eating the millet that was growing in the fields.
"We have not as yet approached anyone for assistance. The idea came to us this year because of the flooding that destroyed some of our farms. We think we can make additional money during the lean season from the sale of vegetables."
During the food crisis, nearly 400,000 children in Niger are at risk of severe acute malnutrition because they have not had sufficient food to eat or a balanced diet. At the Tillaberi CRENI (hospital for children) built by Plan and managed by the government, I've met infants severely malnourished and tottering on the brink of death. They were admitted severely under-weight and suffering from diarrhoea, "flopped intestines", vomiting, parasite infections from being fed dirty water and respiratory infections. The doctor tells me the prognosis is good and they are likely to survive.
Avoiding these side effects of the Sahel Food Crisis is something that Seydou and his villagers have been thinking about. They've also heard about improved millet and seeds being used in other villages with amazing results and it is something they want to try.
They've heard that these seeds produce harvests in 50 days - compared to the normal 90 days - and that there is a greater yield per hectare which means more money for the same effort.
They currently generate their own seeds from each crop and cannot afford the improved seeds. At 30,000 CFA (US$60) per sack that is out of their reach.
These farmers are entrepreneurs. They want to try new ways to be self-sufficient during these times of increasing erratic rainfall but they haven't the means to be able to do so. They can rely on food aid or they can be helped, to help themselves.
Plan Niger Country Director Rheal Drisdelle said that cereal banks act as a buffer to help those in the communities with the greatest need. "Cereal banks are not the answer but they are one of several means to boost food availability during that lean season," he said, adding that there are other means, such as Niger's own plan named 3N (Nigeriens Nourishing Niger), which includes most of the suggestions put forward by Seydou.
"The 3N program also includes improved access to markets, literacy, and miro-finance for women. To provide adequate food and more revenue for farmers especially in the lean years, it is important that the 3N plan be funded by donors.
"This is not humanitarian aid but development support for poor farmers to ensure that they will not have to go through such a year as the one they have just been through.
"The big question, however, is: are donors willing to support this 25-year plan or will they prefer funnelling humanitarian dollars every other year with no sustainable improvement in people's livelihoods and outlook?"
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