WENHAM, Massachusetts — In Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African country slightly larger than Colorado, around 20% of the population struggles with food insecurity. With over 40% of the population living on less than $1.90 per day, according to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), Burkina Faso is one of the world’s most impoverished nations. Food systems in Burkina Faso are fragile: for many, that poverty manifests in the dangerous reality of food and nutritional insecurity.
While the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that the food systems employ over half the workforce, several factors make the realization of a secure and sustainable food system very difficult. Within the context of an already impoverished nation, these factors are primarily environmental (ever-worsening desertification, drought and degraded soil) and socio-political (namely high rates of terrorism, one of the worst displacement crises in the world and a recent coup d’état).
Glimmers of Hope Remain
Since the turn of the century, stunting in children under 5 went down from almost 44% in 1999 to 21.6% in 2020 according to the World Bank. This achievement was largely due to nutrition-targeted health policies including increased immunization rates and free health care to pregnant women and children under 5; improved coordination between health and agriculture/food security sectors and community health education.
The Great Green Wall, an African-led initiative now underway, promises to create millions of jobs and restore millions of hectares of land across the Sahel.
To address the current crisis, organizations like WFP are providing food and cash assistance to those who the displacement affects. In November 2022, for example, WFP distributed 1,530 metric tons of food, made $5.3 million worth of cash-based transfers and assisted over 870,000 individuals in the country. For food systems in Burkina Faso to fully and efficiently feed all Burkinabé in the long term, these efforts will need to be paired with intentional investments at all levels of food production, storage, transportation and distribution, according to FAO.
Research on the faultlines of current food systems by groups like FAO, WFP and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has indicated several features of impactful and sustainable solutions.
Reports from these groups recommend:
- The IFPRI recommends improving and expanding subsidies to the food industry. This would boost the affordability of staple foods and encourage employment in the sector, as many in the workforce are turning to the mining sector or emigrating in search of more stable income.
- Both IFPRi and FAO recommend developing value chains where they are necessary and improving them where they are weak. Value chains in this case refer to all business activities necessary to grow and distribute food — examples would include infrastructure development and increased processing and storage capabilities.
- WFP and FAO note that ensuring farming practices can draw on the full breadth of human knowledge today, particularly as the global farming community responds to the climate crisis — in essence, distributing knowledge and technology to improve yields and biodiversity.
- FAO recommends using agroecological approaches, which emphasize local knowledge and address broader ecological and socio-economic systems when working with family farms.
These approaches are central to building resilience, increasing crop diversity and decreasing Burkinabé dependence on single-crop rain-fed agriculture and imported foods (particularly cereals, which are high in calories and low in nutritional value).
As aid, investments and mobilization efforts work in tandem to address the gaps in food systems in Burkina Faso, the IFPRI notes that influential stakeholders will need to balance the drive for overall food system growth and profitability with nutritional needs. Cash crops with low nutritional value are a prime example.
Burkina Faso has rich cultural diversity and longstanding intercultural unity. To retain these important characteristics, interventions can draw on Burkinabés’ pre-existing intra-country networks and almost universal family farming. Initiatives like The Hunger Project’s “Epicenter Strategy” exemplify respect for these values through mobilizing rural villages to influence local government, collectivize resources and ultimately eradicate hunger and poverty in their own communities.
Ultimately, it is possible for food systems in Burkina Faso to adapt to challenging climatic and social conditions. Government programs, foreign aid and partnerships between African nations and outside institutions (such as the Great Green Wall project) are already underway to provide the resources, knowledge and platforms that are necessary to build resilience and abundance in the food system. With conscious investments and a maintained focus on nutrition, all Burkinabé can not only experience food security but also enjoy the foods and practices central to their identity.
– Hannah Carrigan