By Suruwa B Wawa Jaiteh
A great deal has been written and said about the national rice crisis. Anyone who intends to say a little bit more about the subject is liable to be trite or merely add to the confusion. But let me venture on it with a difference.
What is interesting about the rice crisis is that it is perennial. It has been with us for decades and the problem gets increasingly worse.
Let us not go into the stock arguments, since these are well known, for example, that of low production and low productivity. Actually these are two components that determine efficiency. Long before the involvement of donor and lending institutions funded rice development projects, many of our resource-poor women farmers, with a little bit of extra effort, using the services of the Riceland tractor ploughing scheme have been growing rice at levels higher than two tons per hectare. During this period, we were as a country 25% self-sufficient in rice and 80% in coarse grains. In spite of this achievement and the institutional commitment that made it possible, a continuous decline in agricultural gross domestic product (AGDP) took centre stage after the 1994 military take over. For quite a few years now we have known what to do to improve productivity on a sustainable basis, but this has not been adopted at the resource-poor farmers’ on-farm level.
Notwithstanding the new scientific and practical knowledge, we will never understand the national rice crisis until we define it in its proper terms. In our terms the rice crisis is the unchanging situation whereby we do not produce enough rice for our people, year after year. But neither do we produce enough groundnut oil, and no one considers it a crisis. The rice crisis is in fact principally a psychological state we have developed for ourselves.
First of all we decided that we should be able to produce enough rice to feed ourselves. This decision was of course arrived at without noting the environmental limitations and, without proper reference to historical statistics. But we decided that. Of course we next foresaw that we might not really be able to do it, so we invited Taiwan. Taiwan did an excellent work on irrigated rice development by introducing lift-pump irrigation at the community/cluster level, where useless and uncared for lands were immediate made productive, useful and difficult to get. Just after independence in 1965, there was continuous presence of the Chinese (Taiwan/Peking), up to this point in time. In spite of the presence of the Chinese for the past 50 years, domestic production of rice has declined instead.
The logic behind the non-improvement is one of poor policies, specifically relating to incentives and protection. If we do not import, then it should become more profitable to produce rice, and if so, more rice will be produced. If more rice is produced then everyone will be better off.
But as we know, a small shortage of rice can send prices skyrocketing completely out of proportion to the shortage. As the economist say, its demand is inelastic, the people need just so much rice and they will buy it at practically any price. So when the chips are down, we do not mean what we really say about giving incentives to the rice producers, and we keep importing rice to keep the prices down for the domestic consumer and some for the export-trade as well.
Yahya Jammeh and his APRC administration did this with a vengeance. It not only played on our sensibilities by announcing Vision 2016 (fast track rice self-sufficiency in three years) that will ban imports by generating rice self-sufficiency. The administration not only grabbed choice rice lands from the poor farmers for Yahya’s own cultivation, but wasted many millions of Gambian dalasis as well as sizeable amount of foreign currency in the process.
End result: we do not give to our rice farmers the incentives we piously promised to give them, thus subsidising foreign rice producers and stabilising their employment.
What therefore is the real rice problem? It is structural. It is in the structure of our policy frames. Inadequate programme/project documents that are not suited to increase rice production. The problem is simply this: the mass of our resource-poor producers have not been earning enough income (due to low yield) to enable them access production inputs which would make the planting of rice sufficiently attractive to produce enough. At the moment a strong subsidy and supervised production are necessary, to enable the producer produce enough rice for the house as well as for export.
This incidentally is the reason why thatother solution of eating less rice, which after all is not so nutritious, is simple wishful thinking. Our poor people do not eat rice because it is a delicacy. It just so happened that in the boiled condition there is nothing that can fill a stomach so cheaply. Let us not talk about cassava or bread either. If all our rice eaters decided to shift to cassava or bread, the cassava/bread crisis would be even more serious than the rice crisis.
But if we do not want a subsidy to be shouldered by the government, then what on earth is the solution?
It is a source of enormous concern that after billions of dalasis have been spent on rice production, the output has not increased much. The country is just producing 15 percent of our rice requirement. It is possible, however to look at this food gap as a tremendous opportunity. The existence of such large shortfalls provides a potential market for small rice farmers and the youth among whom poverty and hunger are concentrated, to expand their output and improve their livelihood, in turn enabling the country to reduce its import dependence.
For this to happen in a situation of increasingly liberalised international market, rice farming in the country must become more competitive at the small-farmer level and measures must be put in place to broaden the target-yield level for sustained import substitution.
Raising the productivity and output of the rice sub-sector depends on the thousands of resource-poor producer households throughout the country, and in such a situation the role of government should be to provide an economic policy and framework as well as legal and institutional dispensation conducive to production growth, including a well functioning factor and product markets. With such a framework in place, the farmers themselves can make considerable contributions through their Visacas, to the investment required to raise their production. Most of these producers are resource-poor small-holders living in the rural areas and, the potential exists to improve rice output and improve rural livelihoods.
Look at your history books, and you will find that improvement of agricultural productivity, especially a staple food crop like rice, coincides in any country with the growth of the value chain.