Entrepreneurs play a key role in fighting malnutrition


October 17, 2013

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  • Mercy Corps' food voucher program not only helped feed hungry families, but boosted the local economy by partnering with local vendors. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  • Store owner Fadhel Saleh Abdu was able to pay off his debts and get medical treatment for his son. The new customers he received from the voucher program have convinced him to make more deliveries to rural areas, making food more accessible for those families. Photo: Matt Styslinger/Mercy Corps

[Originally posted on InterAction's blog as part of their series for International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, October 17, 2013.]

“One of my daughters wasn’t eating much,” Salem Mohammed Saleh recalled. He lives in southern Yemen and has six children. “She was tired of the same meal of bread and tea, and she was very thin. For lunch we’d have rice and potato,” he said. “Or fish if we could get it.”

But fish hardly ever showed up on Salem’s table. In fact, Yemen is one of the most food-insecure places on the planet. According to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) 2012 survey, more than half of its children are chronically malnourished.

Yemen is a youth bulge country facing a daunting array of challenges: rapid population growth, high unemployment, low literacy and scant resources. Approximately 17.5 percent of its people survive on less than a dollar a day, making it the poorest country in the Middle East. Thirteen million people — just over half the population — don’t have access to clean water.

It wasn’t always like this.

“Life in this rural area was totally different 20 years ago,” said Sala Abdullah Mohammed Fairoos, head of a community organization in southern Yemen’s Taiz Governorate. “The sea provided enough wealth to meet people’s needs.”

“The situation is different now,” she added. “Pirates are stealing boats from our fishermen. And there is aggressive overfishing in the Red Sea by international fishing fleets. Desertification has taken over because of the overuse of groundwater and the lack of rain. The land is becoming drier and drier. And the crops don’t grow well.”

Sala has seen her local economy upended by conflict and climate change. A bad situation was exacerbated by Arab Spring-inspired upheavals in 2011. Widespread violence, basic service breakdowns, fuel shortages and steep cost of living increases drove families that were already food insecure into acute food shortages and malnutrition. Millions were affected.

In April 2012 Mercy Corps, with support from USAID’s Food for Peace Program, launched the Taiz Emergency Food Aid Program (TEFP). Operating in the hard-hit rural areas of Al Mukha, Mawza and Dhubab, Mercy Corps distributed food vouchers to allow almost 9,000 highly vulnerable households — about 75,000 people — to obtain essential daily food supplies.

This voucher program was very successful. Across three indices — the Coping Strategies Index, Household Food Insecurity Access Scale and Household Hunger Score — food security improved by well over 50 percent.

Salem and his family were grateful to receive the vouchers. Life got better; his daughter ate more. “Her health is improving,” he told Mercy Corps.

But the Mercy Corps program was designed to do more than feed the hungry. The agency also wanted to support the local economy. So Mercy Corps created partnerships with 72 local businesses that agreed to redeem its vouchers and provide food to beneficiaries. While responding to a hunger emergency, the program also helped shore up the local economy.

That’s good news for vendors like Fadhel Saleh Abdu. “Business has increased and I’ve started stocking new products in my store as a result of the voucher program,” he said. Soon Fadhel was able to pay off his debts and get medical treatment for his son. Then, to meet new demand from his customers, he developed business relationships with new wholesalers. He even reached out to a new group of rural customers. “To increase my competitive edge and convince voucher recipients to use my shop, I’ve been doing regular deliveries to more remote areas,” Fadhel told Mercy Corps. “I’m hoping to continue providing the service even after the voucher program, now that I know the people living in those areas.”

Mercy Corps’ Taiz Emergency Food Aid Program concluded in May 2013. While the program averted life-threatening food insecurity for voucher beneficiaries and contributed to local economies, the root causes of the crisis have not yet been addressed. Yemen is still unstable and poor. There are few jobs. Water is scarce, agriculture has been undermined, and pirates still haunt the coast.

In other words, Yemen has serious programmatic needs. Future efforts to address poverty and food insecurity in Yemen should employ integrated, systematic responses that mix the short and long term, combining emergency response with building resilience and helping families lift themselves out of poverty. These are areas in which Mercy Corps has deep expertise, and we know what such responses look like. Programs should unleash local potential, help foster sustainable livelihoods, improve household nutrition practices, and protect the health and assets of vulnerable households.

How does this work in practice? To begin with, we must improve coordination between local and international NGOs, and between donors and governments and the United Nations, to leverage the momentum created by relief and recovery programs.

On the programmatic side, an array of approaches is needed. Our work on TEFP suggests pairing conditional aid — such as vouchers for work and/or training — with investments to improve irrigation, build roads to markets, curb destructive agricultural practices, support village savings and loan groups, and promote kitchen gardening.

There’s no silver bullet for Yemen. And there will never be enough aid money. So we must work to stretch dollars farther and invest smarter — through programs like TEFP, a market-conscious effort to give Yemenis the tools to respond to crisis and fight poverty. Mercy Corps hopes that such programs can be expanded and enhanced. For unleashing the potential of entrepreneurs like Fadhel is, in the end, the best way to help Salem and his children.