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February 08, 2009

Food crisis benefits Senegalese rice farmers

For Senegalese rice farmers like Pape Alioune Seck the food crisis is a blessing in disguise in a country that until recently imported three-quarters of this staple from Asia.

"Two years ago, the Senegalese rediscovered rice from the river valley," said the 32-year-old farmer.

The change is answering the dreams of the domestic farm lobby that long clamored for reduced imports -- and is boosting fortunes by reviving a marginal crop.

"When the rice does well, everything does well," says an old saying along the Senegal River delta.

Between the towns of Ross Bethio and Mboundom in the northwest of Senegal, cattle graze in the backwaters as carts and lorries brimming with straw and bags of rice roll by on a dirt road.

Over the past year, this large west African country has struggled to feed its own people. Ever since the French colonised Senegal and trade routes opened up, broken rice from Asia -- cheaper than whole grain -- become a staple in the daily diet. But rocketing prices have forced Senegal to make greater efforts to boost local production.

Now more farmers like Seck have turned to cultivating rice. His entire family has joined in and they now work land that covers 35 hectares (86 acres).

"Up to now, the government has made some effort, notably by subsidising half the price of a bag of fertiliser," said Seck. "And our revenues are growing little by little."

Seck's labourers continue their work while he speaks, separating the rice grain from the stalks. They earn around two euros (2.5 dollars) a day, he said. Behind the workers, women gleaners sift out discarded grains of rice from the stalks the reapers left behind, hoping to sell the raw rice in local markets.

Rice farming is still more or less done by hand in Senegal. The roads to the rice paddies cannot be used during the rainy season and some fertilisers are difficult to come by. Farmers also complain that there are many birds who eat the grain before it can be harvested. Yet Seck is confident that things will get better. "There is a good future here for rice. There is a vast stretch of land in the river delta that remains untouched," he said.

In Ross Bethio, the Oxfam international charity is funding a programme promoting locally grown rice as part of its wider initiative to improve food security worldwide.

"Before the global food crisis, Senegalese rice growers lobbied unsuccessfully to reduce Asian rice imports," said Djibril Diao, the director of Pinord, a Senegalese rice farmers association. "But the level of Senegalese consumption, which reaches close to 700,000 tonnes (annually) and the global problem of access to Asian rice has finally brought about a focus on local production."

Ibrahima Ly, also a Pinord director, argues it is just not government assistance which has helped the rice industry flourish once more, "it is the rice growers themselves. The state increased the thousands of hectares of cultivatable land, subsidising the cost of fertiliser, and we received motor-pumps and tractors," said Ly. "But these small tractors are not suitable for hard ground and break quickly," he said. He also charged that "the equipment has largely been distributed to those linked to the governing party."

A few kilometres down the road, thousands of bags of white rice leave the GIE Delta Linguere warehouse, after being cleaned and hulled. The company's assistant director, Arona Diakhate, is certain that the business handles twice as much rice as in 2006, despite his factory's ageing equipment that dates from 1968.

"The state has put in place the means to increase production," he said "But we also need to improve the production process."


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