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WFP Vouchers Help Feed Poorest of Burkina Faso's Urban Poor

Rising prices in Burkina Faso have put some staple foods beyond the reach of the urban poor. So the World Food Program has launched its first ever emergency food voucher program in Africa to help make up the difference.

Habibu Sawadogo arrives early to pick up her food vouchers at the mayor's office of a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. With six children and a disabled husband, she carries the burden of sole provider. She is one of 180,000 Burkinabes benefiting from an emergency program to help the poorest of the urban poor feed themselves over the next six months.

Sawadogo says now she can relax. With the coupons she has bought maize, salt and a little oil. She crushes the maize together with its husks, she says, so there is more food for her family to eat.

Before benefiting from the voucher program, Sawadogo prepared barely one meal a day for her family. After a failed harvest, her family had to move to Ouagadougou to avoid going hungry. But city life, she says, is equally precarious, with no guarantee of a daily meal.

Sawadogo says she went out every morning to wash people's clothes for a little money to buy food for the evening meal. But, she says, she did not cook everyday. Sometimes her children came home from school to find no food.

The price of maize in Ouagadougou has almost doubled since global food prices shot up in early 2008. A 100-kilogram sack of maize currently costs around $40 in a country where over 45 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day.

According to the World Food Program, Burkina Faso is prone to food insecurity with recurrent droughts and locust infestations resulting in production shortfalls and high rates of malnutrition.

Ali Ouattara, program officer for the U.N. food program in Burkina Faso, says that after a poor harvest and the global hike in food prices, many urban families were in a very difficult situation. The food was there in the market, he says, but people couldn't afford to buy it.

Ouattara says that the voucher program allows vulnerable families to buy food and also boosts the local economy by increasing demand at participating shops.

Alfrede Vebamba is the shopkeeper of Boutique 2, a shop in a peripheral Ouagadougou neighborhood, that accepts WFP coupons in exchange for staple foods.

Vembamba says that the project is working well because lots of women now come to buy maize, oil and salt. Most of them buy the maize, he says.

WFP's Ouattara says that the project is a short term measure to prevent families from falling into extreme poverty.

Ouattara says that it was essential to give relief to these families and help them get back to where they were before the price hike. The government and partners can then give more long term support, he says.

For Sawadogo, the vouchers are an unexpected relief from the daily pressure of hand-to-mouth living. But she remains pragmatic.

Sawadogo says when the help finishes, she will go back to washing clothes. Even with the coupons, she says, she still only prepares one meal a day. She is doing all she can to economize and not waste so that her family can survive when the coupons run out.