At close to three feet tall and just over 26 pounds, 22-month-old Souley is a poster child for the power of early childhood nutrition.
Souley's mother, Oumou Oumarou, is a member of one of Bourdounga, Niger's Mother-to-Mother (MtM) support groups. In her village, over 200 women meet in such groups, building their self-confidence and capacity to make healthy decisions about feeding their young children in a collaborative and respectful atmosphere.
In January 2016, the women gathered to learn how to produce and store enriched flour, a blend of pulverized staples such as millet or sorghum mixed with other locally available and easy-to-process vitamin-rich foods, such as cowpeas, peanuts and moringa. After a demonstration given by trainers from NCBA CLUSA's USAID-funded REGIS-ER project in Niger and Burkina Faso, the women of Bourdounga organized themselves to ensure all their children would have access to the enriched flour to help them grow strong by getting essential nutrients into their diet.
Souley is the first child in the village to have been exclusively breastfed. After six months, in addition to breast milk, he was fed porridge made from enriched flour. Souley is rarely sick; even when he had malaria, everyone noticed that he recovered quickly. His mother made sure that he completed the full, recommended vaccination schedule, and he has continued to develop properly thanks to the close attention given to his nutrition.
Souley’s story inspired the women of Bourdounga to learn more about producing enriched flour. But just producing the flour locally wasn't enough; they also wanted to ensure that all women in the village—regardless of their resources—had access to better nutrition. The solidarity of the community was to ensure a better future for all their children.
Once a month, each woman brings the ingredients she can to a meeting organized by the village’s MtM group leaders. Mintou Issoufou, one of these leaders, especially likes her “role as a facilitator of cohesion, mutual assistance, and active listening between one another.” The ingredients are stocked at the home of Haoua and Amina, two village community health workers, who support the group leaders, manage group activities and act as a link between communities and local health services. During the meeting, the women schedule a convenient date for production. On that day, they produce the enriched flour and share it equally among all the women of the area, no matter how many ingredients each woman contributed individually.
“I’m one of the ladies who introduced this practice to engage all the women of the village, because greater understanding and collaboration is beneficial for us all,” said Haoua Boureima, one of the women who often brings more than she receives at the end of the process.
The women in Bourdounga have already held five such sessions, benefitting more than 120 women who—without the support of their community—would not have been able to access enriched flour.
These women have the community's best interests at heart, and they trust each other. Djamila Garba, who had difficulty providing ingredients for the third session, knew that her neighbors would support her.
“As we are all compassionate, the women of my group know that if I give less today, I will give more tomorrow. Despite my lack of means, I was able to get nutritious food for my child throughout the month ...This practice has really made the village more cohesive,” Djamila said.
This success is bringing other members of the community together as well, and husbands have also been supportive. Boubé Hassane, whose wife is a member of the group, explains that the women informed their husbands of the initiative, and because they are the ones providing or paying for these ingredients, childcare and health have become a whole-of-family discussion.
“My wife tells me about the group discussions: exclusive breastfeeding, prenatal care, nutrition of pregnant and breastfeeding women… Now, we discuss our children’s nutrition as a family. My wife’s participation in this group brings wellbeing to the family, especially to our children," Boubé said, adding that husbands have seen firsthand that expenses for their children’s health care decrease when their nutritional status improves.
The women of Bourdounga are looking for more ways to show demonstrate their unity and solidarity. Just after a short time of working together, these women have also created self-managed savings and credit groups. They understand that working together builds not only the resilience of their families but the also the resilience of their communities.
This efficient and sustainable intervention has had a ripple effect. It has already inspired three surrounding villages to adopt similar practices. The capacity of these women for innovation coupled with their spirit of solidarity clearly demonstrates that when women’s leadership is combined with strong community mobilization, women and men working together can address the challenge of their children’s nutrition.
Learn more about the USAID|REGIS-ER program, and why nutrition is at the core of resilient communities.