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April 10, 2008

Benin struggles to diversify its agriculture

One of Africa's strongest democracies, Benin, a country of undulating plains and low mountain ranges, borders Nigeria, Niger, Togo and Burkina Faso. But despite its strong democratic example, Benin's economic situation is less than healthy. Over half of the population rely on subsistence farming for their livelihood and the poor have not benefited from the country's legacies as the once-powerful kingdom of Dahomey and more recently one of Africa's largest cotton producers.

Benin is heavily dependent upon trade with its neighbour Nigeria, leaving it vulnerable to that country's economic volatility. And, although Benin has privatised some of its national industry and encouraged foreign direct investment, it has recently been ranked among the poorest countries in the world in the United Nations Human Development Index.

Cotton is the only cash crop available to smallscale farmers, making up 40 per cent of the country's GDP and over 80 per cent of export revenues. A consequence is that the country's fertile land has suffered environmental degradation as a result of the emphasis on production of cotton for the export market, and because 90 per cent of all pesticides are used on cotton. Heavy use of agrochemicals has prompted widespread concern about the sustainability of the industry; this was particularly so between 1999 and 2000 following reintroduction of the pesticide endosulfan, related to the banned DDT, which led to many farmer deaths.

The damage to both human health and the environment has prompted the widespread introduction of organic farming methods. Organic farming has almost doubled since 2003. Organisations such as the Pesticide Action Network, based in the UK, together with local partner OBEPAB, (Organisation Beninoise pour la Promotion de l'Agriculture Biologique), have trained local farmers - particularly women - in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and organic cotton farming through Farmer Field Schools. IPM measures aimed at reducing chemical pesticide use to a minimum include improving soil fertility, recognising disease and encouraging natural enemies.

Benin's export market has expanded to include other agricultural products. The production of shea nut butter, though more popular in Ghana, is an activity now strongly associated with women and reported to be, at times, a more important source of income than cotton. Shea nuts are a staple in the local diet and their increasing use in the lucrative cosmetics industry is promoting interest in its export value. However, the process of making shea butter is laborious and in some seasons may be unprofitable.

Since the mid-1980s Benin has increased production of yams, cassava, maize, peanuts and pulses to achieve food security. Rice production, in particular upland varieties grown on dry land, has been boosted by the introduction of NERICA varieties by the Africa Rice Center (WARDA). The new varieties combine the hardiness of indigenous rice with the high yielding characteristics of Asian varieties, and they are said to produce 50 per cent more yield than local varieties without fertiliser use, and up to 200 per cent more with fertiliser application.

Although palm oil was a major cash crop in Benin during the 1980s, its cultivation was marginalised by the popularity of cotton. But now, following the booming interest in biofuels, palm oil production is increasing - which caused some controversy. The World Rainforest Movement has reported the allocation of 300,000-400,000 ha of land for palm oil production in humid southern Benin which, despite constituting only ten per cent of national territory, is home to 50 per cent of the country's population. It says that such a policy will promote the cultivation of palm oil for biofuel production on prime agricultural land and lead to competition with food crops.

Over half of Benin's forest areas have been cleared or lost to bush fires. Of the forests that remain, mahogany, iroko, teak, samba and other tropical hardwoods are used to make furniture and gifts for the tourist trade. Off-shore oil reserves discovered in the 1960s have been largely exploited and imports now far exceed exports. Other natural resources include marble and limestone, together with small deposits of gold, but the mineral industry makes up a small component of the country's GDP, mostly due to undeveloped infrastructure.

This lack of infrastructure and investment means that despite large reserves of natural resources and a historic and thriving cotton industry, Benin has been unable to realise its economic potential. Only slowly are food processing, shrimp and deep-sea fishing developing as the private sector takes advantage of a new policy introduced by the government in 2001 to encourage investment. Only time will tell whether this kind of investment can lift one of the world's poorest, yet resource-rich countries in the world, out of poverty.

New Agriculturalist

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