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Saturday, April 17, 2021

With our remarkable history in food self-sufficiency, we ought to do better

The Gambia Produce Marketing Board (GPMB), the agricultural bank and Jahally/Pacharr irrigation programme, were some of the post-independence Gambian experiments towards the full attainment of nationhood.

Realising that political freedom is intricately linked to economic independence, ingenious approaches and strategic thinking were embraced to add meaning to our political independence.

For instance, in their hey-days in the ’70s and ’80s, GPMB put food on thousands of tables in households in the country either directly or indirectly by adding value to our hitherto mainstay – groundnut – while the agric bank was supposed to support farmers financially in the quest for food self-sufficiency.

At the same time, Kaur in the north of the central region of the country was bustling as a trading hub and an agricultural centre. Commerce was booming, food was in abundance and river transport in its glory days. Lady Wright comes to mind, at least, for those who could remember those good, old days of our river transport.

Meanwhile, at the other side of the same region in Jahally-Pacharr, the Chinese were preparing Gambians in rice cultivation to subsequently fill the country’s breadbasket.

Yet, many years later, the former Gambian farmer-president Yahya Jammeh was pipe-dreaming that in 2016, Gambia would be food secure as we would be wholly eating what we grow – a dream encapsulated in the high-sounding words of “grow what you eat; eat what you grow”.

Yet, four years after Jammeh’s ouster, trade minister Seedi Keita on Tuesday was talking about external shocks as variables responsible for the current soaring prices of food commodities.

The Gambia is pathetic in several senses. This country is endowed with hectares and hectares of arable land, yet our people are becoming hungrier by the day.

But for fear of veering off from the crux of the issue at hand, it is important to note here that government should have some powers to bring about stability in the market. As a palliative measure to deal with the turmoil, government should ensure taxes and charges on imported goods reflect the interest of the masses at all times. The import trade playing field should be level to ensure the sector is regulated in such a way that it does not cause harm to the economic health of citizens and residents of the country. Sit with importers and discuss because the masses are staggering under the yoke of this price instability.

And, as the man in the street remains at the mercy of these uncertainties in the market, Minister Keita was busy in the media trying to make us believe the current predicament should be blamed on the pandemic and external forces. The minister also spoke about stock problem in one of our source markets in Asia.

That maybe true but what we expect our economist trade minister to admit is this government’s lack of clear and steady direction in consigning food poverty to the past.

Since this administration had apparently reneged on its reform agenda, it does not have to condescend to donkey/horse-approach to farming. The minister of agriculture should at least be covering her face with an index finger as she touted the “successful” distribution of fertilizer and seeds to farmers during the recently-concluded Meet the People Tour by President Barrow.

As a trained economist, we expect the trade minister to instead focus on imparting lessons of the viability of our agriculture sector to his cabinet colleague agric portfolio holder and the government.

Subsistence farming cannot be a benchmark for a country’s food success. Rather, far-sighted approaches, strategic thinking, programmes custom-built to suit both our present and future food needs, focus, seriousness are among some of the things missing in the link to make us food stable.

Resources need to be used for the best interest of the masses.

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