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Buying food from developing countries: an interview with Nicole Menage, chief of WFP's food procurement service

Nicole Menage, chief of WFP’s food procurement service, talks to web writer Michelle Hough about a little-known fact: WFP bought over three-quarters of its food in 2006 in developing countries.

Nicole Menage, chief of WFP’s food procurement service, talks to web writer Michelle Hough about a little-known fact: WFP bought 80 percent of its food in 2007 in developing countries.

“The answer to our problems lies here in our fields,” said a priest quoted in a recent WFP story about the tiny southern African nation of Lesotho.

It’s tempting to think that he had faith indeed if he thought that a nation ravaged by its worst drought in thirty years could find anything in its fields, let alone the answer to its problems.

Conservation techniques

But thanks to conservation techniques, not only have Lesotho’s small-scale farmers produced enough food for themselves and their families this year, but they have also

The great thing about buying locally is that it provides income to producers in the short-term, while supporting the markets that can have a real impact on their lives in the future
Nicole Menage

been able to sell the excess to WFP.

Last year WFP bought 80 percent of its food from developing countries.

Nicole Menage, who has worked for WFP since 1983, living in countries such as Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, says WFP has been “buying locally” for many years now.

Advantages

“Buying locally offers advantages to both WFP and the people we feed,” says Menage. “It’s beneficial because it’s cost-effective, timely, it supports local markets and the food is more culturally acceptable, which is important as people have very precise tastes.”

The idea that WFP buys food off the very countries it feeds does seem quite ironic.

Menage explains that these countries may have areas that produce more than enough food for people’s needs, while others have poor crops or people have little money with which to buy food.

“In these countries we buy in areas where there’s more food and then transport it to where there is little,” says Menage. She stresses that WFP is careful to ensure there is sufficient food in the areas where it buys.

Delicate balance

If food supply is low, WFP avoids buying because this would drive prices higher by further limiting supply. This applies in particular when there’s a food shortage. In this case WFP would bring food in from abroad.

“We don’t want to over-stretch the markets in countries where there is a delicate balance of food security. We have to be careful and buy at the right time,” says Menage.

If the cost of food in a country exceeds the cost of buying from other areas plus the transport costs to import the food, then WFP will buy from abroad.

Top 20 countries

Looking at the top 20 developing countries that sold to WFP in 2007 is quite an eye-opener. Countries usually associated with hunger and malnutrition, such as Uganda, Kenya and Sudan, are among the top ten countries. They sold well over 100 million dollars worth of food to WFP last year.

WFP along with NGOs and other UN agencies help farmers in these countries improve their farming methods, so even in times of drought, they can use conservation techniques to boost crop yield. The farmers also receive training in hygiene, quality standards, storage and how to better market their goods.

Menage says that poor infrastructure can create problems when buying food locally, but with its strong logistics background, WFP is well-equipped to face these obstacles. She says that WFP’s efforts to buy locally have expanded a lot since the early 1980s.

Incentive

Menage says Malawi, where she began her career, is a good example: "This year, we’ve bought nearly 19 million dollars worth of food.”

So, if WFP provides the incentive of buying the crops, and provides training and support to farmers who grow and sell these crops, the fields of developing countries can provide an answer to people's problems, rather than disappointment.

"The great thing about buying locally is that it provides income to producers in the short-term, while supporting the markets that can have a real impact on their lives in the future," says Menage.

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