President Jammeh’s recent nation wide tour of The Gambia is officially dubbed “agricultural tour” though most people in the country know it is nothing other than his usual political tour meant to control the possible damage inflicted by the United Democratic Party’s (UDP) recently concluded and widely applauded nation-wide tour.
The choice of going “agricultural” surprises no one. Mr. Jammeh loves pretending to be interested in and committed to agriculture but his policies and deeds show little of this. In fact perhaps it is even wrong to call them policies. The government of The Gambia has been without any defined plan of action, with defined goals with a set of logically interconnected activities for their achievement since the Medium Term plan of 2004. That plan was neither fully implemented nor anywhere near being successful. The fact is that there is no sector in which Jammeh and his government performed worse than the agricultural sector. Under Jammeh’s rule farming as a way of life for most Gambian has been ruined, villages have been empty of youth, those who still go to work at the farms are without reliable access to farming inputs, subsistence loans, seeds and any extension services and when despite all these the farmers are able to reap their harvests, when groundnuts are concerned, the Jammeh regime, through reckless interference, deprive them of marketing opportunities.
Though he has been in custody of the portfolio of the ministry of Agriculture most of the time during the past eight years, Jammeh has been more concerned with his hundreds of private farms, all grabbed from communities and individuals, than meeting the challenges of the country’s agriculture. When he makes his high-sounding, lip serviced proclamations on matters agricultural, they are usually so ignorant and thoughtless that it can be easily be concluded that the man is not serious about the matter.
Currently Jammeh’s goal, according to him, is to make Gambia self-sufficient in rice, its staple food, by the end 2016. Over ten years of expert help from the Taiwanese Technical Mission has failed to bring it anywhere nearer even making even one region of the country self-reliant in rice. The goals a man sets for himself at times tells you how serious he is in meeting those goals
A government genuinely committed to fighting hunger, poverty and focused on improving all disadvantaged cannot be setting such unreasonable goals just for the thrills of it. Some unreasonable expectations acts are manifestations of irresponsibility and so looks Jammeh’s so-called Vision 2016. The challenges facing Gambian agriculture today are too cumbersome to be successfully tackled even for the next fifteen years, even if all were well and in place.
Meeting Vision 2016’s goal has to be placed in the context of a rapidly changing world of urbanization, growing inequities, human migration, globalization, changing dietary preferences, climate change, environmental degradation, a trend toward biofuels and rapidly increasing populations. These conditions are affecting local and global food security and putting pressure on productive capacities and ecosystems everywhere. Hence, there are unprecedented challenges ahead in providing food within a global trading system where there are other competing uses of agricultural and other natural resources.
Today agricultural questions are complex; their solutions often require multi-disciplinary approaches. Agricultural interventions, even if on a small local household farm level require the ideas and opinions even of participating children. This is more so if the project is on the national plane, affecting the livelihoods of hundreds of thousand households.
No one planning any major set of major agricultural without first assessing the situation with a base-line study. The study informs 0n issues critical to formulating policy and provides information for decision makers confronting conflicting views on contentious issues.
Increasing agricultural productivity remains a priority for The Gambia as in all other neighboring countries given the very low yields in the region and widespread hunger, poverty, and malnutrition. However, the development and sustainability goals of reducing hunger, achieving food security, improving health and nutrition, and increasing environmental and social sustainability can only be achieved through reality-based comprehensive assessments not dream-like visions
Current low level of agricultural productivity in The Gambia and the whole Senegambia region prevents much of the population from escaping desperate poverty, hunger and malnutrition. In fact both, livestock and crop yields in the whole African continent are lower than all other regions in the world. Low yields have been difficult to overcome because they are the result of a wide range of agronomic, environmental, institutional, social and economic factors.
Low input use, including total fertilizer input of less than 10 kg ha-1 on average, contributes to the Senegambia sub-region’s low crop yields. Although there is considerable variation across farming systems and countries, in the mid-1990s every country in Africa, south of the Sahara, was estimated to have a negative soil nutrient balance for nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Increased fertilizer use is seen by most practitioners as essential, reflected in the resolution by African Union members to reduce costs through national and regional level procurement, harmonization of taxes and regulations, the elimination of taxes and tariffs, and improving access to fertilizer, output market incentives, and credit from input suppliers. The cost of fertilization can also be reduced directly through fertilizer subsidies that were phased out as result of Western donor pressure since in the 1980s.
Agrochemicals, especially some synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, have caused negative effects on human and animal health and the environment in some parts of Africa; this has been exacerbated by unsafe application processes and inadequate access to information concerning handling and disposal practices. Pollution, particularly with respect to water bodies, may also result from inappropriate use. The economic, environmental and health costs associated with greater use of agrochemicals suggest that options involve reorienting research away from high-input blanket doses towards technologies that enable technically efficient applications specific to local soil conditions and towards integrated nutrient management approaches, experts have advised.
Increased use of both surface and ground water is required for The Gambia to be to make the level of productivity needed to be self-sufficient in any of its staple foods. Agricultural production there is predominantly rain-fed. Only 3.6% of agricultural land is irrigated below the regional average of 4%.compared to 37% in Asia and 15% in Latin America. This situation is made worse by the now highly erratic rainfall. On top of this, rising temperatures, perhaps due to climate change, decreased precipitation is turning more and more agricultural and potential ones into barren semi-arid ones.
Experts have tried to persuade Gambian government that smaller-scale irrigation, green water technologies such as water conservation, rainwater harvesting and community level water management need to be explored as alternatives to large-scale irrigation projects being eyed by Jammeh’s megalomaniac way of looking at things. Irrigation can come from both surface and ground water, drawing lessons from within and outside the region on viable small to medium scale irrigation techniques that require limited infrastructural development and can reach many farmers. Methods such as pumping from the rivers on an individual and small group basis, and locally manufactured drip systems are still to be fully exploited. Increasing the performance of agriculture requires an improvement in productivity on over 75% of the country’s farmlands few of which are bigger than two hectares.
The small size of most farms in The Gambia tends to make them unsuitable for heavy machineries for weeding, tilling or watering. This brings in the necessity of some of cooperative arrangements for both their procuring and the use of them. But cooperatives, to be member-focused and effective, must be independent from both state and political authorities. They need an independence that The Gambia’s current dispensation does not allow.
An example of this was the water-management committees set up for rice farmers in the CRR under the Taiwanese rice production project several years ago. After the Taiwanese mission left on the conclusion of the project, the farmers were organized into these committees responsible for managing the small petrol-driven pumps with fuel bought with the fees collected from members. Almost all the committees at the time of the 2006 presidential election were headed by APRC stalwarts and it did not take long before they all died out after fees for fuel were all squandered, pumps, ran without lubricants and soon got damaged or destroyed.
President Jammeh, under his rule brought in over thrice the number of tractors procured into the country under Sir Dawda’s thirty-year rule. But in terms of impact and life-span, Jammeh’s have not managed to perform even more than 10%, one retire agric official has claimed. First, came scores of tractors, some even brought in by air, Quadaffi’s Libya, which were distributed through the notorious July 22nd Movement and naturally squandered, none lasting for more than five years. Then came hundreds from India/s Mahindra Corporation, meant for a private-sector player in partnership with the supplier but diverted by the grabby president, loaning some to local government authorities on credit for garbage collection, selling some privately without any payment to the supplier in India and leaving nearly half of the number to lie idly rusting.
Let us hope that President Jammeh will open eyes and ears sufficiently to know some of the many challenges confronting Gambian agriculture.