My grandmother used to say you should never waste a grain of rice – that every little grain counts. She used to save any leftover rice to add to our porridge the following morning.
If there is any leftover food, she will put it aside to have later, even if it is just a mouthful.
Her words are always with me and I think of them a lot in the industry I work in, where I see food wasted so often.
I’ve been working as a photographer on the London food scene for the last 20 years, taking pictures of some of the most beautiful scenes of food in abundance.
Kitchens have fascinated me from an early age. It’s not just about the food, it’s about how humans interact with food and the joy it brings to people’s lives.
So when I was asked by the British Red Cross to visit Niger, in the Sahel region of Africa, to take pictures of a country where food is scarce, it felt unfamiliar. But I was intrigued to learn more and challenge myself as a photographer.
I am surrounded by food every day but it is often wasted and I thought this stark experience could help shine a light on Niger's silent hunger crisis.
Before my trip I didn’t know much about Niger or what to expect. I was completely out of my comfort zone.
But what struck me most as we drove through the streets of the capital, Niamey, was the dry landscape. The Sahel region already has one of the driest climates on earth, and climate scientists predict that temperatures could rise by several degrees by the end of the century.
Across the region, more than seven million people are facing extreme hunger, but few are talking about it. Extreme weather, poverty, conflict and growing populations mean that millions of people in the Sahel are facing a desperate struggle.
I met farmers who rely on the rain to grow food for their families – but extreme drought followed by heavy rain washed crops away and meant that families still go hungry. This has forced the cost of food to go up and the men to migrate to find work, tearing families apart.
The people and communities I met on my trip will stay with me forever. Mothers coping alone, and forced to miss meals so their children’s tummies are full. Children who are malnourished because they were only eating ‘tuwo’, a thick white paste made of ground drought-resistant millet which has little nutritional value.
Where I live in south London there’s row after row of restaurants – so much choice of different types of food from all around the world.
It's a situation so strikingly different from Niger where people are struggling to find even the very basics to eat. Some 1.5 million children living in the Sahel are acutely malnourished.
Despite the challenges that people are facing every day, I was amazed by people’s resilience and how every morsel of food was savoured.
Some of the families I met left their cooking pots on the roofs of their huts – the remnants of the morning’s porridge drying out in the sun. They told me they were going to use the dried porridge as part of the evening meal.
Like my grandmother, they made sure that absolutely nothing is wasted.
But despite this I’m afraid about how communities here are going to survive in the future, being forced to deal with the increasingly harsh environment.
It’s unjust that despite being some of the poorest people in the world, producing the least waste and lowest carbon emissions, they will suffer the greatest effects of climate change.
I was also struck by just how consuming hunger is – one woman told me: "When your conscience is free from problems and you get to eat, then you can think about the future."
But I also saw how with the support from players of the People’s Postcode lottery, the British Red Cross are helping to break the cycle of hunger in the Sahel.
The small cash grants provided by Niger Red Cross volunteers mean that families are able support themselves – by deciding to spend their money where it’s needed most – on seeds, water or food.
Coming home feels surreal, but I am back to my work with a new determination.
I’m in the privileged position of being able to help by talking about how climate change is exacerbating hunger and the effect that it’s having on some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
My grandmother’s words are always with me, and they ring stronger than ever.
- Yuki Sugiura is is a London based food and lifestyle photographer, mainly shooting food, interior, travel, people and craft.
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