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May 08, 2008

More doubts cast on Senegalese plans for dramatic agricultural gains

If the new agricultural programme announced by the Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade succeeds, it will be one of the greatest agricultural and economic revolutions in post colonial Africa.

President Wade, who now wants his country to become a self-sufficient and major food producer, has named the initiative the "Great Offensive for Food and Abundance" or Goana.

The objective is to re-launch a decaying agricultural sector to ensure food security for all mostly through a boost in local production, while at the same time finding a solution to soaring food prices in world markets, which have caused hunger riots in this West African nation and other parts of the world.

Criticising the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and some NGOs, which according to the Senegalese ruler only use Africa's plight and food insecurity situation for their own benefit, Wade has called on his fellow country people to rely first on their own efforts and potential.

For a country which has been importing most of its staple food (rice) since independence and where the agricultural sector is totally down with the country relying on erratic rainfall patterns, implementing the Goana may sound too ambitious.

"Senegal, to the light of our experience, has decided to meet the challenge and not only dismiss any risk of hunger or famine, but also go further and produce in abundance," says the president whose target is to produce as early as this year, 500,000 tons of rice or 2.5 times more than the current local production.

Senegal's annual rice consumption has risen to 800,000 tons per year, of which 80 percent (600,000 tonnes) is imported, mainly from Asia. Some call this phenomenon the "rice dictatorship" because of the huge negative impact of this commodity on Senegalese consumption habits as well as on their economy.

President Wade has also pledged to liberate his country from this dependence on rice with his new initiative, by increasing to two million tonnes the local production of other cereals such as millet which is grown in the eastern part of the country. He has also targeted an increase in meat and dairy products.

If the ideas all sound generous and great, the big problem is that the current trends are not very encouraging.

For rice, for instance, figures obtained from the Senegalese Ministry of Agriculture, reveal that the objective of 215,000 tonnes set for the 2007/2008 campaign was not reached. The total production was a little more than 193, 000 tonnes leaving a 16 percent gap between the expectations and the final outcome.

For the same period, equally significant deficits were noted for all other cereals combined with the official figures showing an average deficit of 13 percent on all cereals. Against this background, it will be a Herculean task for the country's farmers to produce more within such short notice.

The call by the president was directed not only to the known farmers but to everyone in the country -- including his ministers, senate members and MPs to be the first on the list of new peasants and to farm, each, at least a 20-hectare plot.

"It is possible to meet those targets," Ababacar Diouf, an agronomist at the ministry of agriculture says, indicating that the country has "the human resources, the water resources and the necessary land," to launch and succeed in this green revolution.

However, Diouf maintains the targets require commitment and serious work which he doubts all his countrymen are capable of. One other obstacle he foresees is that the Senegalese generally look down upon farmers and farming activities, which he says has to change. "Here being a farmer means being poor and miserable, now that the political will is here, these things may also change," an enthusiastic Diouf adds.

Not everybody shares his enthusiasm. "Increasing the agricultural production has been a topic discussed several times since the change of government (in 2000). There has been lots of talk, but few results," says Aziz Badji the leader of a farmer's association in Ziguinchor, in the south of the country.

Mr Badji, who is a rice producer, agrees that the human resources are available, but highlights many other hurdles that need to be cleared in order to have an efficient agricultural system and to reach the ambitious goals contained in the Goana programme, such as making sufficient seeds and fertilisers available, having control on water resources and access to equipment for farmers.

But the president has ready-made solutions: Water will be realised through "provoked" rains while seeds, fertilisers and equipment will be provided through support from local businesses and foreign partners, from whom he has requested a "sincere" form of aid and partnership.

However, critics are taking a dim view.

"All this sounds amateurish, it will be another failure because the decision has been taken unilaterally without talking to the actors and experts", says opposition leader Ousmane Tanor Dieng.

But for the president, who said he has ordered his government to purchase two airplanes to "provoke the rains" there's no doubt his speech will mark the beginning of a new era.

Surprisingly, President Wade doesn't indicate the connection between the Goana plan and another major initiative he initiated and launched years ago, which was also aimed at boosting the nation's agriculture and alleviate the conditions that are pushing young Senegalese into making illegal and deadly trips to Europe by sea in small rickety boats.

This other plan called REVA ("retour vers l'agriculture", or return to agriculture) was meant to persuade the young people to become farmers to improve the country's agriculture and help fight poverty.

That the president did not say what the connection was between REVA and the new initiative, leave alone making any reference to the previous programme, had many thinking that REVA was dead and buried, or at least forgotten as many other grand projects have been before.

The Daily Monitor

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