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February 19, 2007

Tough times for Guinea-Bissau cashew farmers

Cashews account for an estimated 80 percent of the foreign exchange earnings of the small West African nation of Guinea-Bissau . Eighty-five percent of the population depends on the trade of the country's single cash crop.

The Voice of America's Senegal bureau reports that changes in government policy are having unforeseen negative effects on cashew farmers, compounded by shifts in world markets that have seen prices drop.

Cashew farmer Jerry Ndiaye says government officials have been trying to regulate and curb activity by Senegalese and Indian buyers, but that this has actually hurt local farmers. He explains that a high fixed government price meant to aid the viability of cashew farming is not being met by private buyers and the government has no credit, only promissory notes.

Most of these cashews will be processed in India - the major center for cashew production - before being used in local cuisine there or exported to the West as an appetizer. A very small amount is processed in Guinea-Bissau because of recurrent electricity outages and instability.

A kilo of processed organic cashews can sell for $30 or more in Western countries. In Guinea-Bissau, a farmer is now lucky to get $0.25 for a kilo. More border controls to regulate the movement of cashews have also lowered prices in the field. To make matters worse, the allure of cashews has been reduced in India, Europe and the United States following health scares and reports the crunchy food caused allergies. This all makes the price farmers get in
Guinea-Bissau lower. Some of the buyers have moved their business to Senegal's nearby Casamance region, encouraging farmers there to produce more cashews.

Some cashew farmers are going back to growing rice again, alongside millet, potatoes and mangoes or trying fishing. They say cashews can be used for the fruit, to roast as a treat, or to make the local alcohol, soumsoum, but that it is just not lucrative enough to sell to foreigners anymore.

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Although export of niche crops have provided African farmers with export and good income opportunities, the problems with cashew in Guinea-Bissau illustrate how farmers can become dangerously vulnerable to over-reliance on the export market with all its vagaries. With less than one percent of the final retail price ending up in the farmer's pocket, the story also shows how the producer is often one of the weakest links in the earnings chain, particularly where s/he does no value addition to the raw product.

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