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Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets explanations from a student on a school project as he visits a vocational school Thursday, October 11, 2012 in Dakar.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has committed $20 million in Canadian aid money to help famine-stricken residents in Africa's Sahel belt.

Mr. Harper's announcement came as he visited a United Nations centre in the Senegalese capital of Dakar on Thursday.

The $20 million covers a period of three years and is aimed at improving food distribution and farmland rehabilitation.

"Across the Sahel region of Africa, there are many problems, including millions of men, women and children who are suffering because they do not have enough to eat," he said on the first full day of his trip to Africa.

"I know I speak for all Canadians when I tell you we will not abandon you. The challenges we're talking about today go well beyond the food shortage, but obviously for many people this is the most critical challenge."

Mr. Harper was in Senegal before heading to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Friday for the summit of la Francophonie on the weekend.

Earlier on Thursday, the prime minister visited a vocational training centre and announced Canada will contribute $5 million between 2012 and 2017 to improve employment opportunities for young people in Senegal.

He is expected to take part in a roundtable with business officials later on Thursday before meeting Senegalese President Macky Sall.

Mr. Harper will be joined at la Francophonie in Kinshasa by Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and New Brunswick Premier David Alward.

The prime minister and the newly elected Ms. Marois are scheduled to have a private meeting on Saturday morning before the summit officially kicks off.

The summit ends Sunday and Mr. Harper will return to Ottawa on Monday.

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