In the classic imagery of an African hunger crisis, a wave of airplanes and ships arrives with emergency shipments of food from wealthy foreign donors, often thousands of kilometres away. But the image could soon be relegated to history. For the first time, a local factory in the heart of West Africa's drought region is producing all of the emergency food needed by malnourished children in its own country. It's part of a dramatic shift in strategy by the world's biggest relief agencies as they search for local solutions to humanitarian crises.
Facing problems of donor fatigue and rising criticism of foreign aid, many relief agencies are trying to boost the efficiency of their operations by working with local businesses.
The new strategy is evident in the latest crisis in the arid Sahel region of West Africa. The crisis, affecting nine countries, will require life-saving therapeutic food for 1.1 million severely malnourished children this year, according to new forecasts.
Nearly 250,000 children have already received emergency food this year. But the region is now entering the hunger season – when the food from the last harvest has run out – and malnutrition could rise fast over the next three months.
In the past, the emergency food would have been shipped in from European or U.S. suppliers – a process that can take weeks or months, with no economic benefits to the impoverished recipients.
But the United Nations and other big donors are increasingly turning to local suppliers. It means the food can arrive faster, with fewer stockpiles, smaller warehouses, and less need for a flotilla of foreign planes and ships. And it means local jobs and benefits.
The first factory to operate in the Sahel is in Niger, one of the worst-hit countries in this year's drought. After switching to emergency food production in an earlier drought in 2005, the locally owned company has rapidly expanded. It produced 2,500 tonnes of therapeutic food last year (up from 400 tonnes in 2006), and it expects to produce more than 5,000 tonnes next year.
The factory is now producing all of Niger's "ready-to-use therapeutic food" (RUTF) – the main emergency food for severely malnourished children – and has started exporting to other countries in West Africa. Most significantly, its costs are roughly similar to those of Western producers, once the cost of transport is factored in.
"With local production, we have a more reliable and efficient way of getting these life-saving products to children who need them most," said Melanie Sharpe, a UNICEF spokeswoman. "New jobs have been created in Niger, and the peanuts used for production are bought from local farmers."
The Niger factory produces a peanut-butter paste known as Plumpy'nut, often called a "miracle food," that can help children to recover from severe malnutrition within a few weeks.
It's a ready-to-eat paste of peanuts, sugar, vegetable oil, vitamins, micronutrients, and milk-based proteins. It requires no cooking or refrigeration, allowing children to recover at home in even the poorest conditions. It has allowed relief agencies to save thousands of children's lives, with fewer staff and lower costs.
The formula is patented by a French manufacturer, Nutriset, which restricts the licensing of its product. But the company has increasingly been willing to allow local production in the developing world. This meant that a Kenyan producer, for example, was able to provide some of the emergency food during the famine in Somalia last year.
The UN children's agency, UNICEF, buys about 80 per cent of the world's RUTF rations. After suffering shortages from its main suppliers in 2008, it has diversified its purchases to 19 different suppliers today, ensuring that it's not completely dependent on the French company. Most of the current suppliers are in the developing world, including the factory in Niger and several others in Africa.
In the past, Nutriset's control of the Plumpy'Nut patent was seen as a barrier to cheap large-scale production of emergency food. The cheapest manufacturers were in the West, but most could not obtain a license from the French company.
But the new suppliers in the developing world, often operating under license from Nutriset, have eased the worries about the French patent. "It's less of a concern than before," said Stephane Doyon, nutrition team leader at Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), one of the leading buyers of therapeutic food.
Local production could be crucial in the Sahel because the hunger crises have become increasingly chronic. The region has been hit by three droughts in the past decade. Climate change is believed to be one reason for the frequent droughts.
In Niger, more than 300,000 children were given treatment for severe acute malnutrition last year – nearly as many as in the previous year – even though 2011 was considered a relatively good year for farmers. "We have to rethink what constitutes a 'crisis' and what is 'normal' in this region," Mr. Doyon said.
In addition to the drought, the Sahel is suffering other pressures: rising food prices, for example, and a refugee crisis in Mali, where rebel militia have seized the northern half of the country. At least 368,000 people in Mali have been forced to flee their homes because of the fighting, according to UN estimates.
Plan Canada, a Canadian relief agency, is providing food, sanitation, education and other help for the refugees in Niger. "Some children have been drawing military tanks and pictures of huts and homes being burned down – pictures that speak volumes of the trauma that they've suffered," said Diana Gee-Silverman, manager of emergency response at Plan Canada, who has just returned from a visit to Niger.