The World Food Program is raising the alarm on possible looming food shortages in the chronically affected West African Sahel region, while also focusing attention on new problems in tiny Guinea-Bissau.
The World Food Program's West Africa spokesman Marcus Prior explains the Sahel region is now entering what is called the lean season or hungry season. The region between the Sahara desert and more fertile land to the south includes some of the world's poorest countries, including Niger and Mauritania.
"As far as most of the Sahel is concerned, last year was a particularly difficult year for many of the poorest people in the Sahel," Prior said. "The lean season as it is generally defined is that period after which people run out of their household food stocks and are dependent on cash or in kind purchases to cover their food needs until the next harvest, which in most cases will not be until September or October of this year."
During the lean season, prices for food go up in local markets, making it even more difficult for the poorest families, who often have very little cash, and sometimes none at all.
Last year, lots of media attention focused on Niger, helping bring much needed relief. Prior says last year helped with awareness both inside and outside the region.
"Following the events of last year, it is quite clear that there is a much greater understanding that these kind of food shortages are neither normal nor acceptable," Prior said. "They are abnormal and unacceptable and we are in a much better position this year to make sure that those who need food in those countries do receive it at the right time."
Despite efforts to build a U.N. emergency fund, the World Food Program is again having problems funding some of its feeding programs. For Mauritania, Prior says, the agency only has one million dollars of the $18 million it needs.
Overall, an appeal issued Tuesday said more than $37 million are needed to feed 3.3 million people in the region.
In West Africa, the World Food Program is also tackling food insecurity in Guinea-Bissau, a country not used to shortages.
Stefania Trassari is helping coordinate relief efforts.
"Especially in the south of Guinea-Bissau we are facing a difficult situation," she said. "There was an assessment mission last week organized by the World Food Program, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), and the Ministry of agriculture to assess the situation for people living there."
The government says tens of thousands of farmers are starving in the Quinara and Tombali regions as well as on the Bijagos islands.
The problem started after unusually heavy rains last year caused saltwater to wash away rice fields, ruining crops for a second year. This year, the situation has been compounded by new government fixed prices for cashew nuts, which farmers usually sell to supplement their income.
Trassari says, they could have used that income to get through their own lean season, but market vendors are refusing to buy at the new price.
"There is a problem with rice production so the production is 25 percent less than last year," Trassari said. "So this situation may be worse with the cashew nut marketing and the fact that government fixed the price of cashew nuts at 350 francs per kilo."
That is about 70 cents. As this fixed price system is facing resistance, some farmers are selling their cashew nuts for as little as 20 cents a kilogram, to get some money to buy food. Others are being forced to feed themselves with unripe mangos.
Even though it is not in the dry area of the Sahel, Guinea-Bissau is also one the world's poorest countries. It has been wracked by coups, instability and civil war since independence, with renewed fighting recently along the border with Senegal's unstable Casamance region.