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Grounding Food Security Monitoring in an Understanding of the Local Economy: Understanding differences – and making a difference

This article was written by Philippa Coutts of The Food Economy Group, using an illustration from Darfur and work of Yousif Abubaker, Abdel Rahmin Nor Hussein and Mohamed Salih of SCF's Food Information System.

Information systems which regularly monitor food security are used to predict which populations will suffer acute food stress in a given event, climatic or man-made. Typically these systems combine a variety of indicators which are tracked over time, and are used to estimate food aid needs and to target the assistance. However, interpreting what the changes in these indicators mean and distinguishing which geographic area is most likely to be affected by any change, whether political or environmental or economic, can be very difficult without a thorough understanding of the dynamics of the rural economy. The case of North Darfur, Sudan, provides a good example of this.

Much of Darfur, in the far west of Sudan, is a vast sandy plain of goz soil, which supports thick fields of millet after the annual two or three months of rain. In Darfur there is a great diversity in livelihoods. There are more than 90 ethnic groups in a province of over one million people who basically follow farming or herding modes of life. But in order to survive the frequent drought that affects the area, communities have variously exploited several niches to diversify their sources of income and access to food so that they aren't simply dependent on one kind of agriculture or livestock herd.

"Livestock prices are affected by livestock numbers and conditions"

This diversity has set a challenge for the various agencies promoting food security within the area. One of these is Save the Children (UK), who after the 1991/92 famine in Darfur set up a food information and early warning system with the aim of providing information which could predict an approaching food crisis and assist agencies in planning appropriate interventions. The food information system (FIS) conducted bi-annual village and households assessments, based around a crop assessment, nutritional survey of children and monthly market monitoring. During these assessments, the Darfur team visited pastoral, agropastoral and sedentary farming people with the same questionnaire. However, the team, who were extremely knowledgeable about Darfur rural life, felt that the information was not assisting them properly to describe and differentiate communities. It had limited value in picking out the geographic areas facing the greatest food stress.

What was required was baseline information in order to interpret the indicators of food stress. Therefore in 1998/99 the Darfur Food Information System used the household food economy approach to compile such a baseline for the region. Through this process it has identified a dozen different food economy areas within which households have similar livelihoods and are affected by comparable risks and problems. In each area the differing importance of various food and income sources has been quantified, and wealth differences have been analysed between poorer, medium and better-off types of household.

"Wild grains are the other major source of food. The availability of these should also be monitored"

The baseline has highlighted how farmers cope with poor production years. For instance, there are three food economy areas in Kutum Province. One of them, the northern pastoral area, is populated by the Zaghawa people. The Zaghawa are known for their large mixed livestock holdings, whilst the production of millet is relatively unimportant and most households typically harvest less than 200kg/annum. But the Zaghawa have always harvested a large quantity of wild grains. They are also a mobile people: in the dry season the men typically migrate with the livestock and women go to Kebkabiya or South Darfur to work on the grain harvest during November to January. The women's cash and grain payments are brought home to be consumed by the family during the agricultural season later in the year. The Zaghawa are also known for their strong kinship solidarity and in poor years, for example when livestock prices are low and some families are struggling, support will be given by better-off households to the poor.

In Um Keddada, by contrast, the levels of rainfall are higher so that the area planted with millet is larger and the production levels are greater - up to 2000kg/annum in a good year. The major ethnic group living in this area is the Berti, who are traditionally sedentary farmers practising mixed cultivation and animal husbandry. In a year of good crop production 'medium' households can produce enough grain to meet their annual food needs. A major strategy employed by households to cope with bad production years is the storage of grain from good years. In addition, households increase the amount of grain they purchase from the market, and they earn the cash to do this through a combination of the sale of livestock and local agricultural labour. In most cases, both the male and female household members work locally within Um Keddada province. This is in contrast to the Zaghawa who have to migrate further for work and where the men are predominantly involved in animal husbandry and trade rather than agricultural labour.

The differences in the way households live in normal years, and the labour, grain and livestock markets they use, mean that different factors have to be taken into account when monitoring their food security. From this baseline understanding it has been possible to identify what type of information should be gathered to monitor households access to food, in the different food economies, and when and where it should be gathered.

From this baseline understanding it has been possible to identify what risks or shocks are most likely to adversely affect the food security of the area. This is not just drought. As markets are very important to the food security in Darfur, a loss of access to a market can seriously affect household food security. For instance in 1997 the pastoralist people of Malha could not reach Humra in Kordofan due to tribal clashes, and the price of livestock in their local markets declined. This had an immediate affect on their short term food security. The price of livestock in Darfur is largely determined by the export trade. Most of Darfur's livestock is driven the great distance to Khartoum, from where it is sold on to Saudi Arabia. In 1997 lack of cash amongst traders within Sudan and restrictive government export policies limited the number of livestock that were bought for sale overseas and the price in Darfurs markets declined.

Once we get a proper understanding of the major sources of food and income, the principal factors affecting food security become apparent and an appropriate monitoring system can be designed.

For the pastoral economies in northern Darfur the following are the major factors identified as affecting household food security, and the suggested indicators which should be monitored to predict or perceive a change from normal:

  1. A major source of food is market purchase, and the major source of income for this is the sale of livestock, particularly sheep. Hence, livestock numbers, their condition and sale price needs to be monitored. To predict and understand significant changes in price the following needs to be monitored:
    • Access of the pastoralists to their major markets. This is affected by insecurity.
    • The overseas demand for sheep. This is affected by competition in these markets and the Government of Sudan's export policies.
    • Livestock to grain terms of trade. This is affected by the price of livestock and grain, millet in particular, which is in turn affected by the source of supply of the millet. In a good harvest year when the supply is local the price is low.
  2. Livestock prices are also affected by livestock numbers and condition. To monitor this and predict any severe crises, the patterns of movement of livestock should be monitored to see if they change from normal. Insecurity, rainfall , pasture and water availability should also be monitored. Monitoring incidence of disease outbreak is also vital.
  3. Another major source of income is wage labour on the farms of neighbouring areas. The availability and terms of trade for this are affected by the harvest in that area and by the competition for work, which depends on the harvest throughout Darfur: in poor years more people look for work.
  4. Wild grains are the other major source of food. The availability of these should also be monitored.


The Darfur case shows that the more thorough our understanding of the local economy and the way it fits into the large dynamics of the political and social economy, the greater is our ability to monitor food insecurity accurately. This monitoring can then provide information on both the risks faced by households and effectiveness of their coping strategies.

For further info contact: Philippa Coutts,19 Pitts Road, Headington, Oxford OX3 8BA, England. e-mail:

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Reference this page

Philippa Coutts (). Grounding Food Security Monitoring in an Understanding of the Local Economy: Understanding differences – and making a difference. Field Exchange 8, November 1999. p9.



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