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Agricultural Spectrum: Long-lasting solutions to food crises in The Gambia

Apr 24, 2012, 1:41 PM | Article By: Sainey M.K. Marenah

Welcome to yet another edition of your weekly agricultural Spectrum column.

In our today edition, we bring you our guest writer, Alphu Jain Marong, a veteran Gambian Agriculturalists cum agronomist who wrote a piece about the Gambia agricultural sector vis-à-vis the crop failure.

Mr. Marong in this edition wrote extensively about the long lasting solution to the food crises in the Gambia and way forward.

Sit back, relax and enjoy reading the piece!


Food is central to nutrition and health, economic growth and income distribution, therefore everyone has a stake in sustainable increased food production.

In The Gambia, food production is predominantly subsistence – oriented, rainfed agriculture. However, the inherent short rainy season limits crop production to only one crop a year. Furthermore, the prevailing extreme and erratic weather patterns of climate change (year-to-year and within year rainfall variability) causes alterations of floods and drought, thereby posing a very serious threat to crop production and productivity.

Hence, it has long been recognized that the predominant, rainfed, subsistence-oriented agriculture cannot feed the ever growing population, and results in widespread poverty, food shortages, unemployment, and instability. Furthermore, it is not capable of promoting the much needed growth and socio-economic development that is essential to bring about food self-sufficiency.

Agriculture, The Gambia’s economic engine, must now be focused upon as never before with a new systematic approach, designed to transform agriculture through intensive production commercialization and develop it to its highest potential, thereby dramatically increasing food production, increasing employment levels, and reducing poverty.

For this to be achieved, it is axiomatic that creative ways must be sought to map out the way forward for sustainable increased crop production and productivity, leading to the attainment of food self-sufficiency.

In this regard, The Gambia is very fortunate indeed to have the pre-requisite dynamic leadership in His Excellency, Sheikh Prof. Dr. Alh. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, who with his visionary qualities and gifted foresight, is reported during the Kanilia Retreat of 9th-11th June, 2011, long before the start of the rains for the 2011 cropping season, to have implored Gambians to make use of the River Gambia.

The River Gambia has within its fresh water zone, abundant surface water for year round irrigation. There also exist vast very fertile, largely unexploited lowland swamps along the river for diversified crop production. Furthermore, the climate of The Gambia being semi-arid tropical is characterized by an amount of solar radiation, higher than is typical for tropical areas, thereby providing a favourable growing season for potentially 365 days under irrigation.

The short-coming of the predominant, rainfed, subsistence-oriented crop production system has been clearly manifested by the poor rains and the subsequent crop failure of the 2011 cropping season; leaving no doubt whatsoever that to achieve food self-sufficiency; The Gambia has no alternative but to embrace irrigation agriculture.

The development of irrigation, one of the most certain adaptive strategies to climate change, also provides a basis to develop an intensive, diversified and therefore a more productive, and sustainable agriculture to achieve increased food security and poverty reduction.


In light of the frequent recurrence of food crises in The Gambia, exacerbated by skyrocketing prices of imported food commodities, especially the staple food rice, there is urgent need to pursue a policy of food self-sufficiency.

The Agricultural Transformation Programme of The Gambia (1999-2020) as enshrined in VISION 2020 THE GAMBIA INCORPORATED, the country’s development blueprint, calls for intensive production commercialization to achieve increased food production and poverty reduction.

Agriculture provides food and cash income to an estimated 75% to 80% of the population. Agriculture is therefore the mainstay of the economy. Food expenditure has been estimated to be 66% of household income, way back some 14 years ago (Nation Household Poverty Survey-NHPS, 1998). The same survey reported that cereals and cereal products, account for an estimated 30.9% of the food bill, with rice the staple food accounting for an estimated 83.2% of all cereals.

The aforementioned adverse climatic conditions, combined with declining upland soil fertility, have led to a severe decline in upland cereal production (coarse grains and upland rice).

This inevitably has led to the increasing importation of cereals, which is exclusively rice, since the total domestic rice production is estimated to represent only about 13% of the estimated national requirement of 175,000 metric tons milled rice.

A policy of food self-sufficiency with emphasis on rice in accordance with VISION 2020 is therefore absolutely axiomatic in light of the increasing frequency of crop failures, compounded by skyrocketing world market food commodity prices, which erodes the purchasing power of the average Gambian, especially the rural and urban poor, leading to untold hardships.

Agriculture is a commercial activity at all levels, that is income (output) must exceed expenditure (inputs). Farmers in general will respond to all normal commercial instincts. With commercialization rather than subsistence farming, farmers will much more readily accept innovations, and will be more willing to spend money to purchase inputs and services for a commercial crop that brings in money and profits.As farms become more commercial with increased productivity (higher yields) leading to increases in marketable surpluses, this would generate abundant opportunities; a greater purchase of agricultural inputs, equipment and services, and as well as employment creation, a catalyst for increased economic activity.

However, for commercialization to flourish there has to be ready access to production inputs for resource poor subsistence farmers to produce. But being resources poor, these farmers generally are unable to finance essential production inputs. The only means available to them, is production input credit, one of the major elements of agricultural development.

Hence with this write-up, I aim to map out the way forward with practical innovative measures that appeal to man’s basic capitalistic instincts to provide ready access to production input credit to resource poor subsistence farmers, to enhance the desired commercialization of agriculture in The Gambia.

Agriculture we must recognize is and must be both private and public. To buttress this statement, the FAO in observance of World Food Day 2010, points out in a recent publication, “United against Hunger”, that the task of increasing food production to meet the huge demand of a growing population, is not the job of a single actor alone. As a matter of fact, it points out that none of the stakeholders, the public sector (government), the farmers, and the private sector can do it by working alone. What is championed is a multi-stakeholder approach, in the context of a public/private partnership, with the government, the farmers, and the private sector working together.

With government and the private sector working together to stimulate agriculture, the much needed momentum for growth and development can be readily achieved.

The call for intensive production commercialization would only be possible through increased private sector participation in agricultural development.

Therefore this write-up is also how to bring about increasing private sector participation in agricultural development.


Rice as the staple food commands a prominent economic role, in view of the increasingly costly, huge imports.

Fortunately, the country being well endowed with the prerequisite natural resources has considerable potential for increased total rice production, with improved productivity and intensification, under irrigation.

In the same vein, it has long been recognized that most of the technologies which can help achieve improved productivity of irrigated rice production to even more than 10 tons per hectare, have long been available but not adopted by farmers. Furthermore, irrigated rice production has by far the highest yield potential of all the crop production systems in the country, thereby readily rending itself to intensive production commercialization.

Therefore as a seasoned rice agronomist with the prerequisite agronomic knowledge, extensive professional training and extensive practical professional field experience, which includes experience as a bona-fide commercial irrigated rice farmer with a proven track record; I have formulated some radical proposals to bring about increased private sector participation to effect intensive commercial irrigated rice production in The Gambia. These radical proposals would provide prospective private sector investors with effective channels of investments that would enhance the provision of ready access to production input credit to resource poor subsistence farmers.

However, to be effectively utilized, production input credit must be supervised, so that the borrower (resource poor farmers) use it in accordance with the lender’s (private sector) extension service recommended production package. Since the private sector has no extension service, hence the need for government, within the context of a public/private partnership, to institute the key radical proposal, a commercial extension service, (a parastatal). The proposed parastatal would be required to have the prerequisite capacity to provide professional improved management of capital intensive irrigated rice-based systems, thereby providing the much needed sensitive extension supervision of the production inputs.

In the same vein, the proposed parastatal, to be mandated to institute the following other radical proposals:-

1)The development of a systematic, commercially-managed, agricultural production management system

2)The development of the practice of commercialized contract farming,

3)The development of a land rental scheme, and

4)The development of The Gambian traditional practice of absentee farming.

These radical proposals will bring about a radical departure from past irrigated rice development projects. Besides poor infrastructure, the failure of these projects was attributed for the most part to poor management, lack of proper, effective supervision.

Hence, this new approach of commercialization calls for the provision of sensitive extension supervision with on-the-spot, hands on, disciplined daily supervision, leading to the development of a highly efficient production system that would not only contain investment risks, but would aim to achieve the highest possible reward/risk ratio for private sector investments, thereby achieving the desired profitability and therefore sustainability.

In this regard, the experiences and lessons of the commercial rice farm I operated as Manager/Production Manager in Wally Kunda, Lower Fulladu West District, CRR, and from the Integrated Rice Development Programme (IRDP) under my leadership as Programme Manager, provide recent historical precedence for the development of a highly efficient production system.

Another very significant departure from past irrigated rice development projects, is that with commercialization, it would no longer be limited to just farmers alone!Participation would be country-wide, throughout the length and breadth of The Gambia. It would provide abundant opportunities to Gambians of all works of life to achieve improved food security, poverty reduction, as well as potential wealth creation. Gambians and Non-Gambians alike:

•Individuals (especially urban-elite, even house wives, and market women),

•Groups of individuals,

•Institutions (Central Government Departments/Parastatals, in support of food and food service budgets and for their employees),

•NGO’s (in support of beneficiaries), and

•Small, Medium or large scale businesses (retailers, restaurants, supermarkets, hotels and the rice consortium etc, etc.) can all meet their requirements for milled rice, through the aforementioned channels of investments, at prices almost 50% lower than the current average retail price for imported milled rice.

This would have a profound impact on accelerating the drive towards The Gambia’s food import-substitution goals, and therefore achieving self-sufficiency.

In this regard, with these radical proposals, I have no doubt stumbled onto an exciting new phenomenon with the potential to totally and completely revolutionize agriculture in The Gambia.

With commercialization, with regards to the present national requirement for milled rice, it would require less than 25,000 hectares, certainly not hundreds of thousands of hectares for The Gambia to achieve rice self-sufficiency from just irrigation alone!

Therefore, in years of good effective rainfall, with improvements in the rainfed rice production systems, particularly with NERICA, The Gambia would eventually have the potential to become a rice exporter!

To be continued.