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Monday, December 4, 2023

The unfulfilled rice production potential of a naturally endowed country

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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 unique difference.

Let me start with the very controversial and unplanned tax waive on rice importation, which by all indications is a very serious misguided policy. The bleak picture for the country as a result of the policy, is amply exemplified by the revenue loss of three hundred and thirty two million dalasis (GMD332,000,000.00) quarterly, that is every three (3) months (about GMD110.6 million monthly), The Voice, Monday 09 April, 2018.

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If this estimated revenue loss is correct (depending on the quantity imported and the type of analysis resorted to), maintained and continues for the remaining four (4) year mandate of the Coalition Government, the outcome for the country will not only be unsatisfactory but alarming. Even with the most optimistic scenario on technology, agricultural investment, intensification of input utilization, production intensification and productivity growth, the waiver means a revenue loss of five billion three hundred twelve million dalasis (GMD5,312,000,000.00) at the end of the Coalition Government’s mandate. Questions?

1. Would self-sufficiency in rice be achieved after this colossal revenue loss? No, No, No!!! Not even five (5) years after the next single party government.

2. What plans and/or institutional reform framework are in place to ensure that, the resource-poor subsistence rice farmers will be adequately transformed (through proper incentive system, supervised production and protection measures) to produce, at least 60% of our national rice requirements 2-3 years during the course of the next single party government?
The Situation
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. What is certain is that rice importation may be with us for, at least, the next ten years.

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Currently, there is no evidence-based rice development strategy and/or implementation structure to hope that, production output will increase significantly at the end of the Coalition government’s mandate. As a matter of fact we do not expect the Coalition Government, during this transition period, to attempt implementing and transforming the Agro-Rural sector. We would expect the government to come up with a designed framework for the generation of a stable and sustained socio-economic environment.

Let us not go into the stock arguments, since these are well known, e.g. that of low production and zero productivity. Actually, these are the two most critical perennial problems, within the context of the YIELD factor that, has escaped us for too long in our donor and lending institution funded rice development projects. Long before the involvement of these institutions, many of our resource-poor women farmers, with a little bit of extra effort and relying on the services of the Riceland Tractor Ploughing Unit, have been growing and producing rice at levels higher than two (2) tons per hectare. For quite a few decades now we have known what to do to improve production and productivity on a sustainable basis, but this has not been adequately captured by our front-line change agents and the resource-poor farmers at the on-farm level.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the more than half a century of technical cooperation with the Chinese (Taiwan/Peking) at different times, plus the investment of so many Billion Dalasis (grants, loans from donors and lending institutions) and the new scientific and practical knowledge available, “we will never understand the national rice crisis until we define it in its proper terms.” In our terms, simply put, 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 groundnuts to provide us our traditional groundnut cooking oil, nor bread making wheat which we do not produce at all and, no one considers them a crisis. The rice crisis, therefore, 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 for ourselves. This decision was of course arrived at without indigenous professional consultation/advice, noting the available capacity (professional) as well as the environmental limitations and, without proper reference to the small-scale resource-poor farmers’ production constraints and 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 foreign expertise, from Taiwan, just after independence in 1965. Taiwan did an excellent work on rice development by moving few decisive steps beyond the Colonial Development Corporation’s (CDC) Sapu Rice Farm model, by introducing small-scale lift-pump irrigation schemes at the community/cluster level, where useless and uncared for land were immediately made productive, useful and difficult to get. There was the continuous presence of the Chinese (Taiwan/Peking) alternately, up to this point in time. In spite of their presence for over 50 years, domestic production of rice has not improved in the way we wanted it. As a matter of fact, most of the pump perimeters were abandoned because of the beneficiaries’ inability to understand and adapt water-controlled agriculture adequately, to be geared to sustaining production on a stabilized yield basis.

In 1983, the Jahaly/Pachar Smallholder Project Coordinating Committee was adviced to change the project design from “lift-pump irrigation” to “tidal irrigation” for the following reasons, that:

1. the resource-poor farmer beneficiaries will not be able to sustain the production system when the donor and lending institution funds dry-out;


2. for the project/production system to reach an admirable economic rate of return (ERR) of 12%, more than 10 tons/per ha./per annum would have to be produced before the project can be considered economic – and that is only considering the investment costs, the operation and maintenance costs have yet to be included.

To achieve this yield level (the determining factor in agricultural production) participating farmers must use early to medium maturing, fertilizer responsive varieties and religiously adhere to the on-farm agronomic requirements (e.g. religiously adhering to the time bound activities, applying fertilizer at the rate of 400-450 kg/ha. in the dry season and 200-250 kg/ha. in the wet season). This practice will ensure the attainment of the miracle yield levels of 6-8 tons/ha. in the dry season and 3-4 tons/ha. in the wet season.

How many of our resource-poor, subsistence rice farmers can afford this level of on-farm investment? How many of our failed rice development projects have prepared our resource-poor farmers for this level of input-use scenario to attain the target yield levels?

3. failing the above, an ERR of 7%, requiring a total production of (two crops) of 8.4 tons/ha. would be required. Since neither such a yield nor 200% cropping intensity is generally achievable in the pump irrigated perimeters, the need for low-cost tidal irrigation is obvious, unless the government accepts scheme subsidies.


4. It was 20 wasted years later, when the Jahaly/Pachar smallholder project proved difficult to sustain and most beneficiary farmers abandoned their operations because of high operating costs that, the whole project area was converted to “tidal irrigation” production system. This was after many million Dollars were wasted in acquiring high-tech irrigation pumping machines, that have now formed part of the “graveyard of failed development projects.”

Notwithstanding this unfortunate state of affairs, the period gave birth to Master Farmers like, LATE: Seyfo Saja Mboge, Kangburama Dabo, Sulayman Hydara, Alieu Marong, Kejaw Bayo, Alhaji Bully, Alhajie Saibo and Abdoulie Fatty. These people were the true embodiment of the private sector and their participation in the rice sub-sector paid well for them and for the country. May their Souls Rest in Perfect Peace.
The logic behind the non-improvement of rice production 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 we will save on foreign exchange and, additionally, 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 really mean what we say about giving incentives and protection to the rice producers and, so we import more rice than we need just to keep the price down, mostly for the urban and peri-urban consumers and the surplus for the export trade. This is another aspect of our misguided national policies! This country has a naturally endowed comparative advantage in rice production. With a professionally designed and supervised rice development strategy, The Gambia can produce and sell rice 20 – 25% cheaper than the imported ones.

During the time that the Youth Development Enterprise (YDE) was selling imported 50 kg/bag rice at GMD550.00/bag, the National Youth Service Scheme (NYSS) was selling 50 kg/bag locally produced rice at GMD350.00/bag. Further analysis showed that, the same NYSS rice could be profitably sold at GMD300.00/50 kg/bag. Now, where is the problem? The problem is due to our lack of commitment, focus and confused policies.

The former President tried to do just that with a vengeance, in what was known as vision 2016, proclaimed to make the country self-sufficient in rice in a period of two years. These are the sort of misguided policies, supported by know-nothings as well as professionals, that have placed the rice sub-sector in its present unmanageable context. We need clear-cut professional advice to move the rice industry forward.
End result: we do not give our rice farmers the incentives and protection we piously promised to give them. We remain in the rice crisis.

What therefore is the real rice problem? It is structural. It is the structure of our policies and our production system. The problem is simply this: the mass of our resource-poor rice farmers do not have enough funds to enable them procure the needed production inputs/facilities which would make the planting of rice sufficiently attractive to achieve the targets-based yield. Targets-based yield is the yield level that will ensure household food security and a sufficient surplus for the market. Yield is the farmers income; it is his currency: Dalasy, Franc CFA, U.S. Dollar, Pound sterling, etc. and, furthermore, it is the stabilized yield level that will alleviate poverty, generate wealth and promote asset ownership. At the moment a strong subsidy and supervised production system are necessary to enable the resource-poor farmers produce sufficient rice for their household food security, improved welfare and a commercial surplus for the market.

This incidentally is the reason why the other solution of eating less rice, which after all is not so nutritious, is wishful thinking. Our poor people do not eat rice because it is a delicacy. It just so happens that in the boiled condition there is nothing that can fill a stomach as cheaply. Let us not talk about cassava either. Because, if all our rice eaters decided to shift to cassava, the cassava crisis would be even more serious than the rice crisis.

Issues for Consideration
If the Coalition Government can afford to lose One Billion three hundred twenty eight million dalasis (GMD1,328,000,000) in one calendar year (clearly unsustainable) just to satisfy the urban and peri-urban rice consumers (most of whom are already living extremely well), why can’t the same government spend half of this amount on the resource-poor, subsistence rice farmer to support him sustain his on-farm production as the sole basis for import substitution and increased national welfare?
Strangely enough the solution to our rice crisis is not on tax waive on rice importation, it is on increased production and productivity growth at the on-farm level. The strategy, therefore, is to attract and support more and more smallholder rice farmers to intensify production through double and/or triple cropping. The Coalition Government will, therefore, be required to:

1. comprehensively restructure the Ministry of Agriculture

2. outline a rice development strategy that will require a massive infrastructure development programme, designed to modernize a) irrigation systems, b) lowland production systems including i) saline mangrove, ii) fresh water areas and c) upland production systems within the context of accessibility and workability.
The Coalition government has the duty to keep national welfare objectives paramount in devising public policies. In considering rice policies, especially tax waive on rice importation, there are four broad policy objectives that affect various groups differently, so that a balance must be maintained:

1. providing adequate production incentives so that increases in rice production, through a targets-based production programme, keeps pace with increases in demand for rice;
2. ensuring adequate farm income by keeping an appropriate balance between rice prices and production technology;
3. preserving a fair consumer price so that real incomes in the non-agricultural sector are not reduced by unduly rising rice prices;
4. achieving the above three goals at a reasonable financial cost to government.

Proclaiming a tax waive on rice importation without a corollary framework for accelerated domestic production is a national tragedy. We are a revenue-based economy of suppressed potentials: a naturally endowed production environment, skills, resources, even capital lying idle, inactive and relatively unproductive. The capacity is available, bursting, BUT the results are dismal.

From this review one can conclude that the government spent large amounts of money (through grants and loans) in expanding the area of arable land under irrigation for rice development. Investments in irrigation claimed the major share of development expenditure in agriculture. However, because of inadequate project design and poor management, the social returns on these projects require improvement. The deficiencies in management resulted in large gaps and divergence between actual yields versus anticipated yields.

What is behind all this failure and weakness? Any social or economic problem is the complex of many causes, intertwined and interesting. There is no single cause you can point to. Out of the maze of causes I would select three as pivotal: 1) lack of proper professional consultation leading to the lack of a targets-based rice production policy; 2) our failure to adequately support the resource-poor subsistence producers to generate and stabilize increased production and productivity growth; and 3) the very care-free attitude we have developed for the rice sub-sector.

Notwithstanding our unpardonable failure in the subsector, it is also possible, through appropriate consultations, to look at the current rice crisis as a tremendous opportunity. The existence of such large production shortfall provides a potential employment and a ready market for resource-poor women farmers and youth groups, amongst whom poverty and hunger are concentrated, to get involved: expand their output, improve their livelihoods and, in turn, enable the country to reduce its import dependence. For this to happen in our comparatively advantaged country, rice farming must be made much more supportive, competitive and measures must be put in place to ensure production intensification through regular double/triple cropping to enable most rural farmers meet their household rice requirement and, a marketable surplus, through own production.

More and more people, youth and women, could be involved in rice farming: production/processing/value addition/marketing. This strategy would not only create more unemployment BUT would mean for our people the capacity to produce and sell more “home grown” rice at prices which would make its production truly lucrative.

Strangely enough, as incomes improve through this process, the shift away from rice to other forms of richer nutrition would take place, and that a significant per cent drop in rice consumption may take place. On the farms and, at the processing/value addition centers and markets, the need to sustain participants would mean greater per capita income and therefore greater capacity to save and greater capacity to improve farm facilities and productivity.
Look up in your history books and you will find that improvement of agricultural productivity, rice sub-sector in particular, coincides in any country with the growth of value addition and/or agro-industrial development.

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