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May 04, 2008

Experts doubt workability of Senegal rice self-sufficiency plan

Discontent in Senegal’s capital Dakar, where millions depend on imported rice and foodstuffs, has increased in lockstep with rising global food and utility prices. The government has touted a “self-sufficiency” rice growing campaign as its answer to people’s problems, but experts say the scheme is flawed.

“The government has not set out a credible vision for agricultural and rural development. Their vision is not one that will really help develop the rural economy,” said Jacques Faye, ex-director of the agronomy research institute of Senegal.

In the latest show of public concern about rising food and fuel prices, around 1,000 protestors marched in Dakar on 26 April, some carrying signs reading “we are hungry.”The march was peaceful, unlike previous demonstrations in November 2007 and March 2008, when marchers were dispersed by riot police.

Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade announced on 18 April that the country will become self-sufficient in staple foods by 2015 through a “massive” crop expansion programme, dubbed “the grand agricultural offensive for food security.”

Under the new plan the government says it will increase rice production to 600,000 metric tonnes (mt) annually - up from the current 100,000 mt. This marks a shift in government strategy, which since the 1970s has shown an unwillingness to invest in agricultural development, according to Matar Gaye, regional livelihoods manager for non-governmental organisation (NGO) Oxfam.

What high-quality rice Senegal currently does produce is exported, leaving the country heavily import-dependent. “It is almost impossible to find local rice in Senegal,” Gaye said.

The country has the right environmental conditions for high yields, said Amath Sall, the agricultural minister, and enough land to surpass the 600,000 mt target. “The soil and climate in Senegal is as good as in Thailand from where we import much of our rice, and our yields in the north at 6 mt per hectare are higher than Thailand’s 4 mt,” Sall announced to the press in mid-April, estimating that there are 250,000 hectares of irrigable land in the north of Senegal and in Casamance in the south.

“We have enough land, good soil, all we lack is the money” said Saliou Sarr, a rice cultivator in northern Senegal. “We can fill the gap, but the state has to create the right conditions.”

Few experts have come out to say the targets are unachievable, but many are hesitant to endorse them. One agricultural expert said: “Theoretically it is possible to meet these targets… but jumping from 20 percent to 100 percent, given the trend of the past 20 years, where yields have been stagnant or even decreased, will certainly be a challenge.”

Amadou Tidiane Wane, an agricultural engineer, estimates that boosting rice production to 534,000 mt per year will require US$335 million, which is equivalent to the government’s total agricultural budget for the past five years.

So far, the government has announced US$23.7 million to tide over vulnerable people in rural areas but has not outlined how much it will spend on boosting long-term agricultural development overall.

While there is plenty of land available, levelling it to make it cultivatable costs up to $7,181 per hectare, according to Gaye, not even taking into account the costs of maintaining it in the future.

Currently, rice producers in Senegal rely on credit from investors to underwrite their seeds, fertiliser and pesticide inputs. Without credit, rice producers cannot afford to buy fertilisers and pesticides, the prices of which are also steadily rising. Likewise, rice processors who buy paddy rice from producers to turn it into edible white rice cannot afford to buy without credit, leading to bottlenecks, according to Gaye.

Rice production is however seen as a risky investment because of environmental hazards. In 2006 half of the rice seed in the Senegal river basin in the north was eaten by birds before the harvest, according to producers associations.

Loans from the national bank dried up after large numbers of rice producers defaulted on their repayments in the 1990s.

"If the goal is self-sufficiency in rice, the credit issue must be solved. The state must regulate this, and grant loans to farmers. Without credit they can’t do anything,” said Abdou Fall, executive director of the Agricultural Development Corporation.

To solve the credit crunch Woré Gana Seck, president of the Council of Non-Governmental Organisations Development Support (CNODC), proposes that investors and donors help establish cooperative banks with low interest rates to avoid producers becoming indebted to international financial institutions. “Farmers must be stakeholders in the credit system so if there are threats to the crop and they risk defaulting everyone can cushion the blow rather than credit being further restricted,” said Gaye.

The slate should be wiped clean for rice producers who are now being denied credit because of loan defaults in the past, according to NGO Self-sufficiency, Development and Integration in a press release on 25 April.

This will require support from donors and international financial institutions, according to the Agricultural Development Corporation’s Fall, and they appear to be ready to increase the current pot in view of the potential crisis in import-dependent countries.

The World Bank announced in early April it would nearly double loans from US$450 to 800 million dollars to the agricultural sector in sub-Saharan Africa, while Louis Michel, the European commissioner for development, said the European Development Fund would double its funds to US$1.8 billion for its 2009 funding round.

But Senegal-based agronomist Ibrahima Sene wants to see this money spent on a holistic redevelopment of the agricultural sector, not just on rice production.

"The government project… does not yet address all agricultural products, including peanut seeds and millet, and does not address how farmers will surmount fertiliser and fuel prices to enable them to reach these targets.”

Elsewhere in West Africa, to try to boost self-sufficiency, rice-breeders are creating new locally-adapted breeds of rice which are early maturing, disease resistant and have the same taste that local communities prefer, as well as “spikes” that protect the rice from birds.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa is spearheading a project in 10 West African countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, to do this, and Senegal is likely to be included in future trials - funding permitted - according to Stella Kihara, project spokesperson.

For the World Bank’s director of operations, Madani Tall, the jury is still out on whether or not the target can be reached, but he concluded: “There is no magic wand for Senegal to go from being a rice importer to becoming self-sufficient in grains. There is only sweat, and gradual, rational reform of the agricultural system.”

IRIN

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