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Horn of Africa disaster didn't happen overnight

Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, August 23, 2011

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    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Hibo feeds her chicken and goats in Lafta Faraweyne village, Somaliland. Photo: Mercy Corps

Photos and stories from the hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa — a region that includes Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia — have brought to light suffering on an almost unimaginable scale. One of the largest refugee camps in Kenya, which was built to sustain 90,000 people, is now housing more than 400,000, with thousands more refugees arriving every day.

The immediate needs are great, with more than 12 million people at risk of starvation in the midst of the worst drought the region has seen in sixty years. As funds have started to trickle in from around the world, nongovernmental organizations like ours are able to expand our operations to save as many lives as possible. But in this age of media myopia, we can’t afford to let our attention waver.

This disaster did not happen overnight. For years, the Horn of Africa has been getting progressively drier. The past two seasonal rains have failed, and some areas haven’t seen rain in three years. The drought is expected to grow and worsen over many months and we need to look at not only short-term solutions to meet families’ needs, but also begin investing in long-term solutions that will enable communities to better withstand dramatic fluctuations in regional weather patterns.

In many parts of the Horn of Africa, the land will no longer support traditional farmers and herders. Improving resilience among these populations is critical, and can be done in several ways. Mercy Corps works with farmers on sustainably increasing their crop yields, through methods such as proven irrigation and planting techniques. In addition, we work closely with entrepreneurs, helping them find ways to diversify their businesses to better absorb price shocks and shortages.

One success story along these lines emerged in Somalia during the 2008 global food crisis. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Mercy Corps initiated a loan program with 193 women in Lafta Faraweyne village, Somaliland. Herders and dairy farmers, like Hibo Sheikh Hassan (pictured here), were among those who participated.

The village was in the midst of drought, and incomes of most dairy farmers had plummeted. Hibo was used to making $1.50 on a good day from selling milk in the local market, but as food prices and the costs of other necessities continued to soar, this was no longer enough to cover the basic needs of her family — which included herself, her husband, and their nine children.

With her first loan of $250, Hibo expanded her milk business, and used part of the revenue to buy and raise chickens. By selling chickens and eggs at the market alongside milk, Hibo earned enough to increase the size of her flock from 10 chickens to 30 in just nine months. As of last year, Hibo’s monthly income was $125, an increase of almost 300 percent.

Having had such success with her first loan, Hibo took out a second loan for $150, which she used to buy six goats. After she fattened the goats, Hibo said she planned to sell them and buy several more with the profits. In this way, she renewed her hope in her family’s future. “My children do not leave for school hungry anymore,” she says, “and I can afford the basic household needs.”

Beyond the Horn of Africa, other small-business success stories have emerged. Binta Assoumane, a 38-year-old mother of three in Niger, was part of a group that received hens from Mercy Corps, along with training in how to care for them. The women in the program were encouraged to feed their children some of the eggs to increase the amount of protein in their diets. They also sold many of the eggs and hatched others, in order to continue growing their poultry business. By joining producer group associations, the women are now able to sell their poultry together to obtain a better price.

Similarly, in the Central African Republic, women like Marie Victorine Maneko, a 39-year-old mother of seven, have joined agricultural groups and village savings and loan associations. Thanks to business trainings and material support, these women have created new economic opportunities for themselves and their families.

Mercy Corps is up and running in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, and we’re already helping hundreds of thousands of people in the region survive thanks to emergency food distributions, clean water delivery and cash-for-work activities. In the coming weeks, our programs will expand to help even more people. Our efforts will focus on villages and towns to help prevent people from fleeing in desperation to over-populated camps, where their lives will only worsen.

In keeping with Mercy Corps’ approach around the world, we are dedicated to helping communities survive this latest massive shock – and also build back better.

Editor's note: This blog post originally appeared on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's "Impatient Optimists" blog.