Agadez, Niger – A group of women are squeezed into a modest room, ready to take their class in a popular district of Agadez, the largest city in central Niger.
A blackboard hangs on the wall and Mahaman Alkassoum, chalk in hand, is ready to begin.
A former people smuggler, he is an unusual professor.
His round face and shy expression clash with the image of the ruthless trafficker.
“We’re here to help you organise your savings, so that your activities will become profitable,” Alkassoum tells the women, before drawing a timeline to illustrate the different stages of starting a business.
Until mid-2016, both he and the women in the room were employed in Agadez’s huge migration market, which offered economic opportunities for thousands of people in an immense desert region, bordering with Algeria, Libya and Chad.
Alkassoum used to pack his pick-up truck with up to 25 migrants at once, driving them across the Sahara from Agadez to the southern Libyan city of Sebha, earning up to 1,500 euros ($1,706) a month – five times the salary of a local policeman.
All of us suffered with the end of migration in Agadez. We're toasting peanuts every day and thinking of new ways to earn something.
The women, his current students, were employed as cooks in the ghettos and yards where migrants were hosted during their stay in town.
At times, they fed 100 people a day and earned about 200 euros ($227) a month.
For decades, the passage of western African migrants heading to Libya, and eventually to Italian shores, happened in daylight, in full view – and in most cases with the complicity of Niger security forces.
According to a 2016 study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), migrants in transit had injected about 100 million euros ($113.8m) into the local economy,
But the “golden age” of migration through Agadez ended abruptly in the summer of 2016 when the government of Niger launched a crackdown on people smuggling.
More than 300 drivers, middlemen and managers of ghettos, have been arrested since then, convincing other colleagues – like Alkassoum and his students – to abandon their activity.
The driver’s new career as a community organiser began right after, when most locals involved in the smuggling business realised they had to somehow reinvent their lives.
At first, a few hundred men, former drivers or managers of ghettos, decided to set up an informal association, with the idea of raising funds between members to launch small commercial activities.
But the project didn’t really work, Alkassoum recounts. In early 2018, the leader of the group, a renowned smuggler, disappeared with some of the funds.
Alkassoum, at the time the association’s secretary, got discouraged.
That was the moment when their female colleagues showed up.
Most of them were wives or sisters of smugglers, who were cooking for the migrants inside ghettos and, all of a sudden, had also seen their source of income disappear.
Resorting to an old experience as a youth leader, Alkassoum decided to help them launch new businesses, through lessons on community participation and bookkeeping.
As of mid-2018, more than 70 women had joined.
“At first we met to share our common suffering after losing our jobs, but soon we realised we needed to do more,” says Fatoumata Adiguini at the end of the class.
They decided to launch small businesses, dividing themselves into subgroups, each one developing a specific idea.
Habi Amaloze, a thin Tuareg woman, heads one of the groups: 17 women that called themselves “banda badantchi” – meaning “no difference” in Hausa – to share their common situation.
The banda badantchi started with the cheapest possible activity, shelling and toasting peanuts to sell on the streets.
Other groups collected small sums to buy a sheep, chicks or a sewing machine.
“We started with what we had, which was almost nothing, but we dream to be able one day to open up a restaurant or a small farming activity,” explains Amaloze.
While most men left Agadez to find opportunities elsewhere, the women never stopped meeting and built relations of trust.
Besides raising their children, they have another motivation: working with migrants has freed them from marital control, something they are not willing or ready to lose.
According to Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Agadez, the crackdown on northbound migration responded to European requests more than to local needs.
Since 2015, the European Union earmarked 230 million euros ($261.7m) from its Emergency Trust Fund of Africa for projects in Niger, making it the main beneficiary of a fund created to “address the root causes of migration”.
Among the projects, the creation of a police investigative unit, where French and Spanish policemen helped their Nigerien counterparts to track and arrest smugglers.
Another project, known under its acronym Paiera, aimed at relieving the effect of the migration crackdown in Agadez, included a compensation scheme for smugglers who left their old job. The eight million-euro ($9.2m) fund was managed by the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace, a state office tasked with reducing conflicts in border areas.
After endless negotiations between local authorities, EU representatives and a committee representing smugglers, a list of 6,550 smuggling actors operating in the region of Agadez, was finalised in 2017.
But two years after the project’s launch, only 371 of them received small sums, about 2,300 euros ($2,616) per person, to start new activities.
The High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace told Al Jazeera that an additional eight million-euro fund is available for a second phase of the project, to be launched in March 2019, allowing at least 600 more ex-smugglers to be funded.
But Feltou, the city’s mayor, isn’t optimistic.
“We waited too much and it’s still unclear when and how these new provisions will be delivered,” he explains.
Finding viable job opportunities for thousands of drivers, managers of ghettos, middlemen, cooks or water can sellers, who lost their main source of income in a country the United Nations dubbed as the last in its human development index in 2018, is not an easy task.
For the European Union, nonetheless, this cooperation has been a success. Northbound movements registered by the IOM along the main desert trail from Agadez to the Libyan border, dropped from 298,000 people a year in 2016 to about 50,000 in 2018.
In a January 2019 report, the EU commission described such a cooperation with Niger as “constructive and fruitful”.
Just like other women in her group, Habi Amaloze was disregarded by Brussels-funded programmes like Paiera.
But the crackdown changed her life dramatically.
Her brother, who helped her after her husband died years ago, was arrested in 2017, forcing the family to leave their rented house.
With seven children, ranging from five to 13 years old, and a sick mother, they settled in a makeshift space used to store building material. Among piles of bricks, they built two shacks out of sticks, paperboard and plastic bags, to keep them safe from sand storms.
“This is all we have now,” Amaloze says, pointing to a few burned pots and a mat.
In seven years of work as a cook in her brother’s ghetto, she fed tens of thousands of migrants. Now she can hardly feed her family.
“At that time I earned at least 35,000 [West African franc] a week [about $60], now it can be as low as 2,000 [$3.4], enough to cook macaroni once a day for the kids, but no sauce,” she says, her voice breaking.
Only one of her children still attends school.
Her experience is familiar among the women she meets weekly. “All of us suffered with the end of migration in Agadez,” she says.
Through their groups, they found hope and solidarity. But their future is still uncertain.
“We’re toasting peanuts every day and thinking of new ways to earn something,” Hamaloze says with a mix of bitterness and determination. “But, like all our former colleagues, we need real opportunities otherwise migration through Agadez and the Sahara will resume, in a more violent and painful way than before.”