“We were never sure we’d have food to eat. Some days we had nothing. We’d soak the crumbs from yesterday’s meal and eat that.”
Safia’s* words echo many I heard in north-east Nigeria, where violence and insurgency are driving an urgent, deadly and largely unseen hunger crisis.
She and her family are among close to 1 million people who have been forced to flee to the state capital Maiduguri – doubling the city’s population in the process.
A family torn apart
Today, 18 month-old Hadisa* fidgets in her arms. Safia was pregnant with her when the attack happened.
“They came at 4am,” she says. “All we could hear were gunshots. When we tried to escape, we discovered they had surrounded the place. They killed my father and husband.
“I have another child. He was two years old. He was lost when they attacked. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive.” Safia trails off and looks past me.
One million need food
For those that have been through these horrors, all too often the desperate search for safety from the blades and bullets leads to hunger and disease in overcrowded camps or overstretched communities.
Many families like Safia’s have fled with nothing and have no way of providing food for themselves and their children.
The number of people who need urgent food assistance to survive has shot up by four times since March to over one million.
E-cards for essentials
Far too many parents wake up each morning without knowing if they’ll be able to feed their children that day.
Thankfully, Safia is no longer one of them. Save the Children has given her an ‘e-card’ which we credit with money each month. She can spend it at selected shops on a pre-defined range of nutritious and staple foods.
Safia and I are speaking at the entrance to the small local warehouse where she has just picked up her family’s food for the next few weeks. Inside, sacks of rice, beans and salt jostle neatly with bottles of groundnut and palm oil.
Putting parents back in control
Nearby, 20 or so mothers, most holding babies, sit waiting in the shade before being called up one by one to choose what they need.
Safia selects what she’d like and how much using a mobile app loaded onto the shopkeeper’s phone, which acts like a till.
Her e-card has her photo, a QR code (a kind of barcode that can be read by a phone) and an associated pin number which are used to verify and record the purchase, and then the shopkeeper’s account is credited straight away.
This means Safia can choose the right quantity of the foods she needs for her family. Crucially, parents who have lost everything are back in control, able to make the best decisions for their children.
The power of technology
The sight of a shopkeeper swiping through options on a smartphone app might seem out of step with a humanitarian emergency in one of the poorest parts of Nigeria.
But it shouldn’t – the world is changing rapidly, and aid is changing with it. Mobile phone technology is helping us do what we do better and by spending less.
These apps and e-cards are far more cost effective than giving people baskets of food, which have to be transported, stored and distributed.
Instead, once Safia has her e-card it is simply credited automatically each month.
Boosting the local economy
One study found that the extra costs outside of the price of the food itself were three and a half times higher when distributing food than when using vouchers.
And we’re boosting the local economy. We’re helping not only those who’ve fled the brutal violence but the communities that are hosting thousands of families as well.
Amaar is one of the local shop-owners to feel the benefit.Tragically, the violence ensured he inherited his business long before he should have.
“I grew up coming here to watch my father run this place and I learned from him,” he said. “My father was killed right here in this shop… I reopened and continue because I believe life must go on.
“Because my father took this business seriously, I promised myself I will live up to his expectations.”
‘Our days of suffering are over’
Amaar now sends a truck to take people to and from his shop. “I know how difficult it is for them to get transportation to come for their food so I made it part of my package; buy from me and get transportation free.
“It’s part of our customer service package to make sure they keep coming to buy from us.”
Halima*, a mother who uses Amaar’s shop, remembered the first day she went to buy food with her e-card.
“I gathered my children and told them our days of suffering are over. We all danced in our little hut.
“I asked my children what they wanted to eat. They told me they wanted rice and beans and I cooked plenty of it.”
‘It feels good not to worry’
By using cash transfer programming in Nigeria we’re effectively and efficiently getting vital food to children who have been through things no child should ever see.
They had escaped only to go to sleep hungry each night. Not any more, said Halima.
“They are now happy, they sleep less during the day, and they go out to play… It feels good not to worry about food again. Now I don’t feel like the world has deserted me.”
Cash transfers are a vital part of our round-the-clock efforts to scale up and reach more children who need us in north-east Nigeria.
Give now to help children in Nigeria and other emergencies.
Save the Children is urgently calling on donors to use the Oslo Humanitarian Conference this week as an opportunity to demonstrate the political will needed to reach children caught up in this crisis.
Save the Children’s cash transfer programing in north-east Nigeria is possible thanks to the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development, and European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).
*Names have been changed to protect identities.