23 July 2014

Gambia: How Agriculture Has Evolved From 1994 to Date

There can be no sustainable development without the attainment of food self-sufficiency, which undoubtedly makes agriculture a crucial component in the development endeavors of every nation. The recognition of this reality in combination with other factors explains President Yahya Jammeh's approach towards farming, putting agriculture as the basis of The Gambia's development.

Twenty years on today Sheriff Janko assess some of the gains made in this crucial sector. What is unique about the July 22nd Revolution is that the president did not just stop at making mere policy statements of the initiative, but he personally takes the lead as the Number One farmer in the country. He went further than that, proving to the entire nation and beyond, that he is an action-oriented leader, who stands by his words. Regardless of his status as a president, he toils on the farm to produce food for the nation and beyond. There is no reason to speak further in justifying this statement, as his position in the clarion call for back-to-the-land is a well-known fact across the world.

This is solid proof to all skeptics that the president and the people, are collectively registering success in the drive to make The Gambia food self-sufficient, a reality which has enabled us earn the respect of the world. However, we should not lessen our efforts. We should continue to spur our ambitions in agricultural development. By so doing, the dream of transforming the country into a Silicon Valley will be a dream come true. His ambition for a redirection in this sector dates back to the transition period, when he championed the "back-to-the-land" call initiative, aimed at ensuring that the nation achieves food self-sufficiency.

Meanwhile, since agriculture is the mainstay of the country's economy and a life-saver for the citizens, providing over 70 percent of employment, President Jammeh continues to encourage and inspire more Gambians into farming, through his pragmatic and exemplary farming activities, as seen in Kanilai where he often spends his annual leave, toiling hard on his farms. His government has since 1994 been making giant efforts towards agricultural mechanisation in view of the fact that the nation cannot be food self-sufficient and export surplus without the former [mechanisation]. This was manifested over the past years, as he has distributed new tractors to all the regions and districts of the country in anticipation for a major assault on food insecurity. Despite the fact that, a miserable crop failure was registered during the previous cropping season, due to erratic and poorly distributed rainfall, these tractors together with the massive investments in millions of dollars by the government and its development partners are expected to reinforce the anti-hunger crusade of the country in the coming years.

Efforts have also been made by the government to diversify this sector as much as possible and introduce well recommended new seed varieties from other countries.

"Agriculture continues to play a prominent role in the livelihoods of the people of this country, as it continues to contribute over 30% of GDP, providing employment for over 70% of the population. And since 1994, there has been a significant development in the field of agriculture and food security, in particular. Technically, most people will say the progress and the developments have been very slow, but this development can be regarded as a silent transformation of agriculture from what it used to be before 1994. A very good example is with regards to food availability, taking into account when you talk of food security; there are two important components; i.e. availability and access. Availability is what you produce and access is having the resources to purchase food, if you cannot produce. And we've seen significant improvements in access to food since 1994; and a good example is that before 1994, there used to be food shortfalls, food deficits and then the excuses were that the ships bringing in food from Asia were delayed; and there was a lot of hoarding of what food was available. For example, shopkeepers and traders will tell you that you have to buy tomato paste from him or her to sell you rice and there used to be long queues all over the country, whenever there is a shortage of rice", the Minister of Agriculture Solomon Owens told Daily Observer, during an exclusive interview as part of activities marking the 20 anniversary of the July 22nd Revolution.

In addition to that, he said, traditionally The Gambia and some of its neighbors used to experience what they used to call the 'hungry season,' a period between July and September; and this is usually when the food produced during the season is exhausted, and there is no food and people would start rationing the amount of food they consume during the period, thus the name 'Hungry Season'.

Now this is a thing of the past and even if it exists, it has become very short to the extent that people don't even experience or feel it. Nowadays, you can tell the difference in terms of food availability between the months of January and August, because even where availability is restricted, access is there and food is still available in the stores and in the warehouses. So, that is a significant improvement when it comes to food security, thanks to the July 22nd Revolution, food is available throughout the year.

Minister Owens added; "Food that is bigger produced realising the availability component goals, set the food security, or people have enough income to buy food, thus addressing the food access path. So, I think is a big success in the area of agriculture between 1994 and now. Secondly, I think farmers have become richer between 1994 and now, taking into account the producer price of their various commodities has been increasing every year. Government has been paying higher prices, especially from the exports crop (the groundnut) and this has encouraged farmers to really produce more".

"Presently, The Gambia produced over 100,000 hectares of groundnut that is cultivated and the same hectares for early millet. Now, to show another development in the food security aspect, millet used to be the staple food in most parts of the rural Gambia. Today most of our millets are exported to countries as far as Niger; you can find Gambian millets in Niger. And what farmers are doing is selling the millet they produced and buying rice. Again, this is even one of the reasons, why we thought of coming up with Vision 2016; whereby the country won't imports rice, but produce all the rice we consume. The consumption of rice is an indication of improved standards of living.

"Most of the countries in West African did not have rice as their staple food, until 1994 there were only four countries, notably The Gambia, Senegal, Liberia and Sierra Leone that used to consume rice. But today, every single country in Africa is consuming rice and so we are spending billions of dollars, just to import rice every year. But again is an indication of high standards of living," he stated.

President's back-to-the land clarion call

Since he took over the country in 1994, the Gambian leader has called on Gambians,especially the youth folks to revisit the land and grow what we eat and eat what we grow. This clarion call has paid dividends as some have embraced the move, but still there is a need for attitudinal change, especially among the youth folks. This call is extremely important, taking into account the amount of money spent in importing food into the country, including rice.

According to Minister Owens, the country still imports wheat flour, vegetable oil and tomato paste and tonnes of onions and Irish potatoes and when put together it amounts to billions of dalasis spent on food imports. These, he said, are all commodities that can be produced in the country. "Just take an example of MA Kharafi, one of the private sectors engaged in large-scale production of onions and other food stuff. And government has given them this incentive that they informed us two-three months before their harvest, so that we ban the importation of those produced until they're all sold. Equally, the president's clarion call for people to go back-to-the-land, so as to eat what we grow and grow what we eat I think is in the best interest of Gambians. Interestingly, people were thinking that the price of goods will eventually go down, not the demand for food worldwide is on the increase every day; and one thing that will never go down in price is food that is imported into any country. That's the importance of this clarion call".

It's an arguably fact that when foods are produced locally, costs are reduced and availability is there. And there will be no delays in shipping from Asia to Africa, and most importantly, its freshness is undisputed. "Therefore, it a moral responsibility for people to start producing their own food locally, because in the long run food can be used as a weapon against countries, meaning you may have all the money to buy food and not be able to get that food into the country. So, one of the greatest policies that has come out of 1994 to date has been the president's clarion call for people to go back-to-the-land and grow what they eat and eat what they grow. By doing so, they will get freshness, quality and quantity.

Mechanization in Agriculture

Mechanisation in agriculture is an important component in the development of any nation. Today, as can be attested to, there are a lot of tractors countrywide and the government has insisted on mechanisation as one of the strategies to increase agricultural production and productivity. In this day and age, powered machinery has replaced many jobs formerly carried out by men or animals, such as oxen, horses and mules. This is indeed another great transformation in ensuring that farmers in the country realised high yields. "Another development that has happened in the agriculture sector is the means and ways of production. It used to be done with the traditional hand hoes and a little bit of oxidization or animal traction. Since 1994, the government of The Gambia has distributed over 500 tractors to farmers and is being used in land preparation; and just recently the government also brought in seeders, fertilizers applicators and sprayers. These are all implements that go with the tractors so as to mechanise the old agricultural production process. That is indeed a significant contribution to the agricultural development. Again, we've seen irrigation and rises in the production of rice has gone on the increase," added agric minister Owens. Before 1994, there were only few pump irrigation schemes in the country, mostly in URR and parts of CRR, but today the country has moved from pump irrigation to tidal irrigation; and with tidal irrigation the government has brought some much land into production, especially during the dry season. In addition to tidal irrigation, the government is also exploring the possibilities of using the ground water to produce upland crops, such as rice, groundnut and maize.

"There is also the proliferation of vegetable gardens all over the country. Formerly, vegetable garden production was only restricted to West Coast Region, but now there are countless vegetable production schemes all over the country; as projects have come in, such as the LHDP and GALDEP to name a few; and each of these projects have established more than 5-hectare gardens facilities for farmers, especially women farmers all over the country. And this has increased the availability of fresh vegetables throughout the year. That's another significant development from 1994 to date. Some of the vegetable gardens are equipped with boreholes and some even with vegetable processing equipment.

Availability of seeds & fertilizer

Taking into account they are inter-twined naturally, President Jammeh continues to give this sector prominence so as to ensure high productivity. It's an arguable fact that seeds and soil are the two components in ensuring sustainable development, especially in agriculture. Due to continuous cropping of our soils, has resulted in decline in productivity in most cases, but government is aware of that and is putting a lot of emphasis and strategies to address the issue.

"Government is going to help breeders to come up with new varieties of crops, but where we cannot breed the seeds here, we can get seeds from other countries and improve their quality here for adaptability. We do get seeds from other countries for adaptability test and where these are successful they are multiplied, because if we have varieties of crops that are only producing one to two tonnes; and then there are other crops that has the potential to produce five tonnes I think that's where we come and try to multiply them here. We talk about rice and that is a big component of Vision 2016. For example, in Asia, using hybrids people are aiming at 15/16 tons of rice per hectare. In The Gambia, we are still below 2 tonnes. So with regards to Vision 2016, if we can get to 5/6 tonnes per hectare, we are safer; and the country is working towards that. Seeds are very important and currently we are doing seeds improvement and multiplication, not only for rice, but even groundnuts, sesame and maize. The president even gave directives to see the possibilities of breeding and developing vegetable seeds in the country, because the country still imports a lot of vegetable seeds in the country."

According to him, government is spending millions every year to bring in organic fertilizer, mostly compound fertiliser, NPK and Urea, as the country's soils are low in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium being the three main elements in food productions. He maintained that farmers are also encouraged to go into organic fertilization, as the country boosts of over 400,000 heads of cattle heads, noting that all the manure produced from these animals can help improved our soil fertility. "But what we are seeing is that in most of these communities the locals will gather this manure that can help the soil and burn it before planting. So, extension and education of farmers is also ongoing to sensitise them to plough these manures into their soils". Livestock sector

Shifting to the livestock sector, it has been recently discovered that the country's cattle population is again on the increase. Around 1994, there was something about 200,000 heads of cattle in the country, now because of sound management and the availability of veterinary drugs and improved feeds for the livestock, the last census revealed that there are 400,000 heads of cattle in the country. As we all know cattle are wealth and contribute about 37% to the agricultural GDP of the country. That is indeed a significant increase from what it used to be in 1994 to what it is now. Herders or cattle owners are now more confident in increasing their herd sizes, because of the availability of veterinary drugs and quality of feeds. So, the development registered is tremendous as it cut across wide sectors, including horticulture, crop production and animal production and the list goes one.

However, over the past years there is an upsurge in the private sector in poultry production on a large-scale. For example, EMPAS and a couple of others that produce poultry products, such as eggs and poultry in the country. "We have diary plants that also produce milk and yoghurt. These are all development initiatives that go to show how the agriculture sector has evolved from 1994 to date".

Presidents' calls for shift to commercial agriculture

During one of his "Dialogue with the people's tour", the president did not only call for Gambians to focus on subsistence agriculture, but also challenged farmers to shift and engage more in large-scale agricultural production, so that the nation can move from predominantly subsistence farming to commercial farming, in line with the objectives of his government for the attainment of food security and export of the surplus in the shortest possible time.

Meanwhile, agriculture all over the world has passed the subsistence level; and it should be seen as a business and that's what the president has realised. People can make money in agriculture, but the country's farming population is ageing; and if you go to the farms you will only find old men. That's why every day the leadership implores on the youth to revisit the land, because whatever you produce in the field can generate money. Middlemen, who serve as intermediary, are making so much money from the farmers. "When these farmers produce their crops, middlemen buy them at cheaper prizes and take it to big markets where they make more than ten times profit, compared to the farmer. So, why can't farmers manage how they market their own crops because whatever is grown in this country can be on sale? Imagine what a bag of millet now cost and supposedly you have a hectare of millet; and you were able to produced 2 tones, you are talking about 40 bags and a bag of millet is going for thousands dalasis. Now multiply 40 by 1500, you are better than anybody working in an office in terms of income for the whole year. Therefore, it is important for people to see agriculture as a business as there is money in it and people should go into it. I hope personal intervention in agriculture has changed the mindset of Gambians towards agriculture as he is always calling on them to go back to the land as seen in businesses. President Jammeh is leading by example as he is the Number One farmer in the country. The president grows so much rice, groundnut and maize and every single crop produced in The Gambia. And every livestock available in this country the president produces it. I'm sure people are usually impressed with what his level of production is, coupled with the quality of his produce and the prices he sells it to people. But again he (President) uses this produce to support the population in various areas. You go to his farms you even get overwhelmed, personally whenever I go there, I get overwhelmed. A very good example was that, recently during the last tour he talked about going into large-scale rice production."

Minister Owens maintained that these are some of the qualities that people can copy from the Gambian leader in his quest to ensure food self-sufficiency drive of the nation.

Vision 2016 food self-sufficiency drive

During his 2014 "Dialogue with the People Tour" the Gambian leader has launched a new initiative, which will cater for a very important part of the whole crusade with regards to food security. As government continues to provide Gambians with quite a good number of alternatives, which if adhered to will lead to our total liberation from poverty to more development, the Gambian leader conceived the idea that The Gambia can grow all the food to feed its population and hope that this could be a reality through Vision 2016.

Minster Owens continued; "I hear people talking about that there is no strategy document or plan. This is a vision and a vision doesn't need a strategy plan and it was His Excellency who came up with this idea, we can grow all the food we eat and I think we can do that by 2016. And the vision is not that by 2016, we will have all the food that we need in this country, but by 2016 we are going to ban the importation of rice as an important staple food into the country. Now, if no more rice is coming from Thailand, Vietnam or Burma, it will motivate people to go and farm their own food-rice and that's the whole idea. The country has to ban importation of food commodities, so that people can know that they have to produce their own food. You don't need a strategy document for that; it's a vision and people should understand that the vision is tied towards realising that through various activities. The activities are there and the government will support any private sector that wants to go into producing and processing. It will also support a farmer who wants to grow rice or any other crops with inputs and mechanisation". According to him, the government has distributed tractors during the dry season; for farmers to plough their land so that when it rains they are ready to go.

"Well, these are some of the activities that will help us realise this vision, but you don't need a strategy document for that. What we need is to realise this vision."

In realising these dreams, Minister Owens added, a key component of this apart from the farmers that are producing the food will be the private sector, that is importing rice. "And rather than importing rice they can contribute towards its production, processing, branding and marketing and that's the key. Because I don't see the reason why somebody importing rice from Thailand cannot go to Pacharr or Jahally tomorrow and say ok whatever you produce government is going to buy it and even label it as Jahally rice, so that you would start having it right there so that in 2016 whatever rice you buy you would know it's real Gambian and it would be fresh."

Call for attitudinal change

Youths as future leaders of tomorrow should therefore take ownership of the president's back-to-the-land call and make agriculture an enterprising business. Since he took over the country in 1994, President Jammeh has instituted and continues to establish numerous projects for youth empowerment. In the same vein, Minister Owens called for attitudinal change, a call being spearheaded by the president himself, in ensuring that Gambians take ownership of the development process. He added; "What the Gambian leader keeps saying is the need for young people to embrace agriculture so as to attain the country's food self-sufficiency drive. Our farming population is ageing, as the average age of a farmer is over 50 years; there is a need for youths to change their mindset to participate more in agriculture. In the next 10 years, there will be no people on the farms except women as the chunk of the farming population are ageing. So, this is where the youth folks comes in and government will give them all the necessary support."

As a matter of fact, if the abled-bodied youths who can farm, continue to neglect farming, then the country's dreams of making headway will be jeopardised. Minister Owens therefore asserted that for the realisation of food or economic development of Vision 2016 and 2020, respectively, entirely lies in the hands of the youths, adding that their participation is greatly crucial in making sure the country marches towards the attainment of these lofty goals, considering the amount of money one can make out of farming.

"So our appeal and my final appeal is for the youths to get this as we will give them all the necessary support.Government has projects with the resources to support youths to go even into agro-processing, but it is based on a sound business plan. Even for production, one needs a sound business plan; and once that is done and able to get 40% from somewhere else supported by a bank or finance institution, government gives you 60% as a grant."

This tangible call is the best path to meaningful socio-economic transformation as for development, like the president has always emphasised, it cannot be durable if the people for whom it is meant for are not part of the initiators and implementers of the concerned projects. Ecowas Commissioner's takes on Jammeh's Agricultural interventions

Since he took over the country, President Jammeh's personal intervention in the agriculture sector has been tremendous and this has continued to earn him greater admiration from a broad spectrum of society, both at home and at the international front. 19 years on, he did not look back in making sure the country attains its lofty dreams set for in the realisation of the food self-sufficiency in the shortest possible time.

Among the high-profile dignitaries, who acknowledged President Jammeh's agriculture interventions during one of his earlier visits to The Gambia, was the commissioner for Agriculture, Environment and Water Resources of the Ecowas Commission, Osseini Salifu. Speaking to reporters, the Ecowas official strongly praised the Gambian leader, Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh, for his personal involvement in agricultural activities.

"We were highly impressed when we learned of President Jammeh's involvement in agriculture, as well as his various projects in that sector," he said. Further expressing his admiration of the level of political support in the drive to promote agricultural activities in The Gambia, he explained that President Jammeh's actions are in line with the concerns of the commission and various regional heads of state. In fact, he added, "The Gambia seems to be well ahead in this regard and we are sure that if we keep collaborating in this way, we will definitely achieve positive results." He further explained that a forum on private sector intervention in agri-business, which took place in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in February 2009 was meant to reveal the rich potential of the agricultural sector in West Africa and to encourage investment in this vital sector.

"It would be very profitable for economic operators to be involved, for example, in not only importing rice, but in developing and growing rice,' he said. The involvement of the private sector and indeed all parties, he added, is vital to the growth and development of the sector.

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