Oullam, 28 March 2022 – The sun has just risen over Ouallam, a town in the centre of the Tillaberi region bordering Burkina Faso and Mali. A group of women walk in the same direction. One by one, they arrive at a market gardening site. Their feet are covered in dust; some have walked five kilometres to reach the place. With their garden tools in hand, these women are here to claim their economic independence.
The women get straight to work, trowelling the soil and sowing seeds across the land. They grow potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables on this site. The harvest allows them to earn a living and feed themselves and their families.
After hours of cultivating the earth, these women all meet under a tree to share their daily worries and challenges. Sitting in her armchair, Maïmouna listens to these entrepreneurs, and provides them advice and encouragement to persevere. This influential woman, and former mayor of Ouallam, established the market gardening association to give hope to local women and those who have found refuge in the region after attacks on their villages in 2016 left them displaced. Today, 204 women, including 48 displaced women, are part of the association.
The Tillaberi region has been at the heart of the ongoing crisis in the tri-border area. The last few years, the region has been characterized by increasing instability due to attacks by various armed groups. This has forced many families to leave their homes, threatening the livelihoods of displaced and host populations alike. An estimated 99,000 internally displaced persons have found refuge in the region, according to OCHA's 2022 humanitarian needs overview. Many have fled to the department of Ouallam, which has added to the pressure on limited resources and basic services, such as health care, education, water and land, and has led to tensions between displaced and host communities.
Market gardening in Ouallam both provides women with a livelihood and promotes the inclusion of displaced women in the community.
"As a former mayor, I know the situation of displaced women very well. I allocated the first sites for the displaced in the town of Ouallam. It was important for us to support these women, and to enable them to rebuild their lives after having lost everything," says Maïmouna.
"I came to Ouallam after armed groups attacked our village. One day, I had the opportunity to meet the president of the women’s association of Ouallam, who proposed to me to join the market gardening project. I accepted, of course, because I had no job, and it would allow me to earn a living," says Karima, a displaced woman member of the association. "So, I started working with the group of women, both indigenous and displaced. Today we are like sisters," she adds.
Through its Niger Community Cohesion Initiative (NCCI), IOM supports activities that aim to strengthen social cohesion and economic resilience in fragile communities in order to reduce and/or mitigate tensions. All activities are identified and implemented with local authorities and community members.
In January 2021 after the terrorist attacks against the two villages of Tchomobangou and Zarem Darey in the Ouallam department, the prefect of Ouallam requested IOM to support these women to manage this market gardening site. While a pond of water was available close by, they lacked motor pumps to irrigate the garden. NCCI supported the group with two motor pumps.
"The motor pumps have reduced the burden on the women who used traditional buckets to collect the water from the pond to bring it to the garden; it took a lot of effort and time, and the quality of the products was not so good. Today, in less than 30 minutes, we water the whole site. Hence, the women can now concentrate on the productivity of the seeds," says Balkissa, a woman member of the association.
"The host population of Ouallam has been true humanitarians, helping displaced persons in distress showing remarkable hospitality and solidarity," says Barbara Rijks, IOM Chief of Mission in Niger. "It is therefore important to develop inclusive programmes that address the needs of both displaced people and host populations to create more livelihood opportunities for the whole community," she adds.
Another NCCI initiative in Tillaberi during May 2021, upon request from the prefect of the Tillaberi Department, was the training of a group of 60 women in peanut processing and cosmetics manufacturing techniques – two emerging sectors in the Tillaberi region. This activity aimed at offering vulnerable women economic opportunities to improve their access to means of subsistence.
Hadjara is one of the women who participated in this training. She moved to Tillaberi with her two children after her divorce in search of a better life. As she began her new life, she struggled to support herself in this city where economic opportunities are limited.
"I opened a restaurant in Tillaberi, but it didn't work out because I lacked financial management skills, "I learned the techniques to manufacture cosmetic products. For example, we learned to produce soap, incense, room perfume, body perfume, liquid soap," says Hadjara. "We also received training in the financial management of micro-businesses. When you sell your products, you have to know how to manage your money. And that's what I do now,"
"I was able to recruit eight new members through this activity. They witnessed my improved living conditions, so they approached me and said they want to participate in the project," she explains.
Through the project, she is able to take her children through school with one in university, something she was unable to do before.
"Now I can put XOF 99,000 (EUR 152) or XOF 50,000 (EUR 76) aside and help him fund his studies. He may soon have his degree," Hadjara added.
"We appreciate the Niger Community Cohesion Initiative as it contributes to social cohesion and building peace in our communities that are affected by insecurity and conflict,” says Dourahmane Diori, the Governor of Tillaberi. “The programme responds quickly and with flexibility to address the drivers of instability and strengthen resilience to external shocks. Above all, it reaches all layers of the affected communities, especially the youth and women, and this is very important."
The NCCI implements its activities in conflict-hit regions, including Tillaberi, Tahoua, Maradi, and Diffa with the aim that vulnerable communities have more trust in local government authorities and state structures and to improve their resilience and cohesion to resist and address conflict, insecurity, and violent extremist threats. This includes offering sustainable economic opportunities to vulnerable women and youth to improve their livelihood opportunities. The Initiative is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO), the European Union, the US Department of State's Bureau of African Affairs, and UN Peacebuilding Fund.
Through its programmes, IOM works with the Government of Niger and partners, including UN agencies and NGOs, to set up a humanitarian-development-peace nexus approach. This approach aims to improve the resilience of affected individuals and communities, tackle the drivers of instability, and provide sustainable solutions for the forcibly displaced.
Story written by Aïssatou Sy, Public Information Officer, IOM Niger