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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Gambia’s agricultural prospects and challenges: the way forward?

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By Omar Bah

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Our Own Homemade Stuff, Grow What You Eat and Eat What You Grow, Tesito and Operation Feed Yourself were some of the refrains that dominated the country’s agriculture contour for nearly sixty years now.

The Gambia relies heavily on agriculture for food, employment and hard currency. Despite its central role in propelling the country’s economy, the agricultural sector remains underdeveloped posing threats to household food security and incomes as well as the country’s ability to generate foreign exchange.

Billions of dalasis have been pumped into the sector since independence but the country is still wallowing in stymied agricultural productivity. Low yields and dwindling incomes have become synonymous with farming in the country.

Funding

In an effort to halt and reverse the decline of the agricultural sector in the continent, the African ministers for agriculture unanimously adopted, at the 22nd  FAO Regional Conference for Africa (ARC), held on 8th February 2002 in Cairo, a resolution laying down key steps to be taken in relation to agriculture in the framework of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

As a follow-up to this resolution, they endorsed on 9th June 2002, the NEPAD Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP).

The recent Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa ratified by the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government during its Second Ordinary Session, held in Maputo in July 2003, provided strong political support to the CAADP.

During this session, the heads of state and government agreed to adopt sound policies for agricultural and rural development, and committed themselves to allocating at least 10 percent of national budgetary resources for their implementation within five years.          

This means The Gambia’s agricultural sector funding target 10% of the overall budget in line with the Maputo Declaration, but only 1.8% of government resources has been allocated to the sector in the 2021 budget.

This represented major reductions in the agricultural sector budget for 2021, compared to 2020, even though the overall budget has increased. Government allocation for 2021 is D402,753,336, compared to D488,263,515 for 2020, meaning a 17.5% reduction.

Donor funding for 2021 has also decreased from D1.205 billion for 2021, compared to D2.037 billion in 2020 which represents a 41 % reduction.

According to a source at the Ministry of Agriculture, out of the D402,753,336 million government allocation to agriculture for 2021, over D200 million will be spent on salaries and allowances. The remaining balance of the budget, which is less D200 million will be spent on sectoral development,” the source said. 

But one does not actually need to look far to identify some of the factors hampering agricultural productivity in The Gambia. With an arable land to feed everyone, it boggles the mind to realise that Gambians are now more food insecure than ever before.

When you talk about agriculture, you’re obviously talking about inputs, knowledge, capital, good rains among other factors that enhance productivity.

Now, why The Gambia, with the potential of being the breadbasket for others, still unable to wriggle itself from subsistent status to mechanised agriculture.

Well, critics of governments’ agricultural policies will give you a plethora of reasons ranging from lack of political will to corruption and capital to apathy and lack of monitoring and evaluation of agricultural projects.

Concerns raised by farmers

According to sources gleaned mostly from farmers and residents in rural Gambia, the government ought to be more serious with the agriculture sector especially when it comes to groundnuts and modernising the sectors.

Sulayman Bah, a farmer and native of Upper Niumi, said government has only been paying lip service to agriculture as poor farmers continue to be robbed on a daily basis.

“Even the groundnut we grow cannot be accorded a good prize. The government cannot even give us enough fertiliser – last year many farmers were forced to buy fertiliser from Senegal for D1,200 per bag. This is really unacceptable especially for a country that sees agriculture as its economic backbone,” Bah said. 

He said tons of groundnuts have been rolling over the border on a daily basis since the season started with some operators in Senegal raiding Gambian farmers with cash and ‘fabulous price’ better than those offered by the Gambian agency.

Private companies from Senegal are buying a tonne for D27,000 while The Gambia is buying a tonne for D23,000.

Ousman Njie, a farmer, said government should start engaging farmers to have information about the challenges they face.

“If they are definitely serious with agriculture, they should start putting us in the areas of the discussion and planning agenda. You cannot sit in Banjul and know the problems farmers are facing,” Njie said.

He said when the Barrow administration took over, people like him where benefitting from a tractor donated to his community by former president Yahya Jammeh, but “they took it from us which made it very difficult for us this year.”

But what exactly are the experts saying about the country’s lacklustre performance in bringing about sustainable growth in the agricultural sector.

Well, Mamour Alieu Jagne, is an agric economist who started by emphasising the significance of agriculture to the country’s economy and citizens’ wellbeing.

Jagne said the agricultural sector contributes 25 to 30 % of GDP, serves as primary foreign exchange export earner and major job creator for at least two-thirds of the working population

These opportunities have been hard to realise due to the high cost of domestic borrowing, coupled with the ingrained risks in agriculture (dependence on the vagaries of weather, pest and diseases, perishability), Jagne added.

This, he added, makes financing of agricultural investments unattractive. He said the high discount rates in government bonds further reduces the attractiveness of investing in agriculture – as evidenced by the 5% of commercial bank loans going to agriculture – by offering a virtually risk-free and high yielding investment alternative.

The agric economist said: “Yields and productivity levels in agriculture have remained relatively stagnant over the years. The factors behind this include relatively poor soils, low productivity of indigenous breeds, inadequate input application, inadequate water management, weak research and extension systems, and inadequate adoption of improved technologies.”

Dependence on rain-fed agriculture

Jagne said while the rainy season lasts for roughly five months in the year, only 6 percent of the arable land is reportedly irrigated each year. 

“With the possible exceptions of rice and vegetables, there is little production during the rest of the year, while farmlands are exposed to denudation and loss of fertility during the dry season.  Animal husbandry is also adversely affected, as grazing areas dry up and animals become less productive as a consequence.  Erratic rainfall patterns, probably due to climate change, also contribute to declines in crop productivity,” he added.

Inconsistency in the implementation of policies

He said while there is consistency in the identification of the priority objectives for agriculture, “this consistency does not always extend to their implementation”.

Furthermore, he added, “policy objectives and strategies of other sectors do not always complement that of agriculture and are sometimes not conducive to their attainment.  Hard choices sometimes have to be made, such as between providing affordable food for the population, and supporting local entrepreneurship and production”.

Weak inter-sectoral linkages

He said many of the solutions for the challenges facing the agricultural sector actually lie outside the sector, such as markets, roads infrastructure, energy, and financing; hence the need for stronger linkages with related sectors in the planning and implementation of agricultural programs.

“In addition to the weak linkages between agriculture and other related sectors, coordination among the various stakeholders in agriculture – smallholder farmers, commercial producers, NGOs operating in the sector, public sector institutions – is also very weak, thus minimising possibilities for harmonisation, complementarity and synergy,” he said

Limited private sector participation

He said most of the financing of agricultural interventions are delivered through development projects with support from development partners. 

“Often these projects are targeted towards tackling the supply-side constraints of smallholder farmers, and (perhaps until recently) inadequate attention is paid to creating a conducive environment and supporting private sector participation,” he said.

The private sector, Jagne argued, has the distinct potential in playing a decisive role in the timely supply of agricultural inputs, boosting productivity, increasing value addition, and linking smallholder farmers to market outlets.

Inadequate statistics and market information systems

He said the irregular publication of market information on prices and quantities of agriculture commodities and inputs, which is often incomprehensive, leads to uninformed choices being made by smallholder farmers regarding the investment of their meagre resources, and does little to apprise stakeholders about the potential opportunities available in the sector.

Insufficient storage and processing facilities 

Inadequate infrastructure, particularly storage and processing facilities, he emphasised, have resulted in high post-harvest losses, which could serve as a disincentive to scale up production.

“Inadequate infrastructure also goes a long way to explain the relatively low level of value addition in the agricultural sector,” he said.

Low quality standards

This, he argued, has proven a challenge in the groundnut sector, where exportation of the groundnut produce is often constrained by high aflatoxin content. 

“Marketing of domestic produce to the tourism industry is also hampered by issues of quality standards, particularly for fruits and vegetables, as well as meat and meat products.  This challenge has to be tackled head-on in the drive towards commercialisation and market orientation,” he added.

Weak Government institutions

He said institutions responsible for policy advice, data and information collection and dissemination, research and extension are weak in quality and limited in resources to be able to effectively perform their functions.

The urban population constitutes at least 40 percent of The Gambia’s total population, and relies mainly on imports for its food needs. 

As a result, Jagne explained, it has acquired a preference for imported food products, at the expense of local products, as is the case with rice (due to acquired taste) and poultry (due to price).

A liberal importation policy

He said The Gambia’s commitment to a free market trade policy exposes local producers to international competition, sometimes from countries that subsidise agricultural production and exports, thus putting local producers at a disadvantage.

Almost all farmlands in rural Gambia are held under a customary land system, which tends to discourage long-term investment.

Also speaking to The Standard a senior agric expert said the country needs to focus on a few niche products, using the value chain approach, adopt an inclusive approach and ensure synergy among stakeholders, improve productivity and reduce the cost of production, expand the space for private sector participation, strengthen the organisational and delivery capacity of public, private and smallholder farmer institutions, ensure coherence and consistency in the planning and implementation of government policies and programs and improve the sector’s resilience capacity.

According to the director general of the WHO, the Covid pandemic is likely to be contained “in less than two years”.  During this period, he argued, the Government of The Gambia can use a two-pronged approach to ensure a hunger-free Gambia, namely through policy instruments to promote the sector.

He said prioritising support to sectors that provide the most employment (and therefore income) for the population, particularly agriculture will help.

“Import substitution becomes particularly important in this situation because of the significant revenue losses accruing from the collapsed tourism industry, the airline industry (refuelling and landing fees), decimated domestic and international trade (tax revenues),” he said. 

He said the diaspora that props up many households is also adversely affected, thus impacting on remittances. 

“All of these contrive to weaken the Government’s ability to import basic needs of the population, especially foodstuffs.  Government should therefore pursue a policy of import substitution, wherever possible producing locally the essential commodities consumed in The Gambia, especially food commodities,” he said.

National import and consumption statistics, he stressed, should be the basis for prioritising what should be produced locally, supported by robust cost-benefit analyses. 

“Local production would therefore tackle the issue of availability, and all relevant stakeholders should be consulted in the process,” he added.

In terms of affordability, Jagne added, the two obvious options are either to reduce prices, or increase the population’s purchasing power.

“The latter is the more likely option as government may not have the wherewithal to sustain price subsidies for an extended period,” he said.

He added that the government should “therefore prioritise support for sectors that provide the most employment (and therefore income), such as agriculture which is labour intensive and which generates employment for at least two thirds of the population.”

“Elsewhere, domestic tourism should be intensively promoted (accompanied by all the precautions against the pandemic – Greece, Cyprus, etc are examples),” he noted.

For the very poor, he added, the government should provide subsidised food commodities; even better if free of charge.

He said the Covid-19 situation can be construed as an opportunity to transform the structure of the Gambian economy through import substitution and strengthening of local production, thereby reducing the dependency on imports and saving precious foreign exchange.

Omar Bah is the Chief Reporter at The Standard newspaper.

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