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April 21, 2008

Senegal to institute ambitious crop expansion plan

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade on April 18 announced an ambitious crop expansion plan that aims rapidly to make his country self-sufficient in food staples as soaring prices squeeze poor populations across the world.

Riots linked to high food prices have shaken several West African countries from Mauritania to Cameroon in recent months as ordinary people feel the pinch in their pockets of poor harvests, record fuel prices and tight international supplies.

Rice is the most important food staple in Senegal and the small West African country only produces around 100,000 tonnes a year, but has to import an extra 600,000 tonnes a year.

While his aides announced the government had spent more than 150 billion CFA francs ($362 million) in subsidies and other costs since last year to cushion consumers from rising fuel and food prices, Wade unveiled a crop expansion plan he said would bring self-sufficiency in food staples by next season.

Grandly called the "Great Agricultural Offensive for Food and Abundance", the plan -- the cost of which has not yet been estimated -- aims vastly to increase Senegal's annual rice production to 500,000 tonnes.

It also foresees big increases in output of maize, manioc, cereals, milk and meat.

"What I'm hoping for, is that the next time I travel down a road, I won't see any more non-cultivated land," Wade told an audience of ministers, governors and local prefects from around the Sahelian country.

At the same time, the Commerce Ministry fixed a ceiling on the price of rice of 280 CFA francs ($0.67) a kg.

Asked whether the crop expansion plan might be unrealistic, Prime Minister Cheikh Hadjibou Soumare told Reuters: "It's ambitious. But you have to be ambitious in Africa."

Lying near the southern edge of the Sahara desert, Senegal struggles against drought and desertification in many zones. Farm output remains poor and thousands of young Senegalese risk their lives each year, taking rickety open boats in dangerous voyages trying to reach Europe to seek a better life.

Wade said the cost of the agricultural programme still had to be established, and while Senegal would not seek money from its international partners, it would require assistance.

"Don't give us money, but quality seeds, equipment and efficient agricultural materials, fertiliser ... and adequate technical assistance," he said.

Wade criticised international food aid operations, calling them "the scandal of the century" and saying they should be investigated by the United Nations and the European Union.

"So-called food aid has become a business for certain NGOs, in other words a huge swindle at the expense of the people of donor countries," said Wade, whose country has received massive amounts of foreign aid since independence from France in 1960.

He described as "alarmist" a recent warning by the head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, who said food riots in developing states would spread unless the world took steps to reduce food prices for the poor. Diouf, who is Senegalese, called on heads of state and government to attend a food crisis summit in Rome on June 3-5.

"I don't want the FAO to become for ever an outstretched hand for Africa so it can receive a pittance," Wade said.


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