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October 27, 2009

Guinea Bissau farmers urged to diversify beyond rice, cashew

Aid agencies are encouraging communities to diversify their agricultural production in Guinea-Bissau, where 90 percent of farmers grow rice or cashews to survive, making them vulnerable to erratic rainfall and price fluctuations.

“The rains sometimes come very early, sometimes stop very early, so there’s a problem with rice,” said the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) programme manager in Guinea-Bissau Rui Fonseca. “And price fluctuations make cashews uncertain…We are telling producers you can continue with rice and cashews but you can plant other things too.”

Farmers can attract more consistent prices with other crops, said Fonseca. Tomatoes and carrots currently sell at US$2.30 per kilogram in the capital Bissau.

FAO and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) run programmes aimed to help farmers cope with shocks and boost their cash-crop income while promoting nutritional diversity.

Average income in Guinea-Bissau is $1.30 per day, according to the UN.

FAO, prompted by the food price crisis, has been encouraging farmers in Oio and Bafata regions to grow millet, taro, peanuts and green beans since mid-2008.

Raw cashews which currently sell for 28 US cents per kilogram, down from 60 cents earlier in the season, do not yield enough income for farmers to live on, said Safietou Sanya, president of an ICRC-supported market gardeners association in Three Kilometres village, 3km from the northern city of San Domingos in Cacheu region.

ICRC works with village associations in the region, planting gardens, building wells, training people in gardening techniques and distributing seeds, said ICRC’s Guinea-Bissau programme manager Alfa Diallo. In Three Kilometres rows of lemon, avocado and mango saplings are lined up for sale at $3.40 a plant.

“This year I was able to save enough money through [the garden] to send my children to school,” said association president Sanya. She and fellow members planted and sold onions, peppers, cabbage, okra and tomatoes this year, she told IRIN.

Die-hard habits

But despite the potential benefits of moving beyond cashews, aid groups encounter reluctance among some farmers to change the crops they grow – or eat, ICRC’s economic security adviser Ilda Pina told IRIN. “All they have known is rice and cashews….To change people’s habits is very difficult; we have to move very slowly.”

Some ethnic groups in Guinea-Bissau do not eat tomatoes or green beans, she said. “It is not in their tradition.”

The government estimates that 20 to 30 percent of inhabitants in the north are moderately malnourished, though many northern communities supplement their staples with nutrient-rich wild foods such as palm oil, baobab fruit, cashew fruit and tamarind, according to Pina.

Aid agencies encourage farmers to eat the vegetables they cannot sell.

Even with diversification a number of challenges remain for farmers in the region. Three Kilometres is near San Domingos, but approximately half of the vegetables produced by farmers in villages further north go to waste because members cannot reach nearby markets, said Sanya. The route connecting villages north of San Domingos is a dirt track that is impassable for much of the six-month rainy season.


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