2014, the African Union’s “Year of Agriculture and Food Security” may have passed to little or no pomp and its effectiveness is yet to be known. But it is not so for The Gambia. Our correspondent Muzondwasi Banda reports on how the West African country is taking the AU’s food sufficiency call to action head-on, by “growing what it eats and eating what it grows”.
A trip to The Gambia always evokes envious reactions from those who are yet to visit. Picturesque beaches, guaranteed sun and the warmth of its people make up the broad image many have of the “smiling coast” of Africa. And that is true.
But the country’s President Yahya Jammeh also wants the world to see The Gambia differently. That is, as one of the few African countries that will break the record by becoming fully food self-sufficient in less than two years time! And an eventual food- basket for the region, despite its geographical size as the smallest country in West Africa.
How so? Because The Gambia is gearing up to stop the importation of any food that can be grown in the country, particularly the country’s staple food – rice – which at the moment is 90% imported from outside the Gambia at a cost of no less than $50 million per year. And it is Vision 2016, President Jammeh’s food self-sufficiency blueprint, which sets out how that will be a thing of the past, come 2016.
The vision is built on the premise that by encouraging and incentivising Gambians, especially the youth, to love and get into farming, particularly the highly labour-intensive rice farming, its production will become an all-year-round affair that will provide not just sufficient food, but even surplus food, and an income-generating industry.
His critics have slammed this new and hitherto untested anti-hunger agenda as too ambitious or unachievable, some even laughing it off as tomfoolery.
In a stinging editorial during the president’s tour to the rice fields in the Central River Region in early December, one of the country’s independent online newspapers was scathing: “We are not convinced. Since 1994, President Jammeh continues to make such pronouncements to the Gambian people and 20 years after, progress in attaining rice self-sufficiency is only measured in centimetres. There is a fundamental problem. So long [as] the development doctrine dominant at State House continues to give primacy to big building projects – rather than agriculture – harshness and poverty in the towns and villages across the country will continue to be felt.”
But the programme, launched in 2013 has also attracted strong support in equal measure, including from international agencies, notably recently from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
In an interview with a local newspaper, the FAO’s resident representative in The Gambia, Perpetua Katepa-Kalala, was full of praise for the Gambian leader’s vision:
“The political commitment and determination that this government shows to agriculture is absolutely commendable. When we are studying countries that have succeeded in making significant progress and a significant impact on food security, the number one ingredient is not technical, but political commitment.”
She adds: “Political will and commitment have translated into action here and this is the beginning. So I will commend the incredible commitment that this government expresses to food security and agriculture.”
President Jammeh himself takes both the criticism and praise with some self-assured zeal and determination. For the leader who describes himself as a “born farmer”, Vision 2016 is no less than the holy grail Gambian people have been seeking for nearly 50 years since political independence. “The vision will lead us to full food security and we will reach our agrarian nirvana,” says one of his close aides.
President Jammeh’s confidence in fulfilling his plan was buoyed further when on 30 November, The Gambia became one of only six African countries named by the FAO to have reached the MDG-1 target to end hunger. Together with Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gabon, Mauritania and Mauritius, The Gambia was recognised by the FAO for its “outstanding progress in fighting hunger, an achievement which includes reaching international targets ahead of the end-of-2015 MDG deadline,” the UN agency announced.
President Jammeh’s excitement at such news is demonstrable as he has made it clear on numerous occasions that any country in the world can only consider itself truly independent from any foreign domination if it is able to feed itself.
He told New African: “Every African, every Gambian should realise that food is a very dangerous weapon. A human being can resist poverty for months, years, even abject poverty, but nobody can resist hunger for 72 hours. Agriculture is directly linked to the health of the nation and if you want to develop your country, your people must be healthy and for them to be healthy they must eat wholesome food. Now you cannot ensure your people have a healthy diet if all they depend on for food consumption is imported. We do not even know what they have put in these foods. We cannot therefore be independent if our food comes from foreigners. The Gambian solution is to grow what we eat and eat what we grow – and that is what Vision 2016 is all about, and I am glad many people are seeing that this is becoming a reality.”
Inviting journalists to see how this project is unfolding is something that he clearly relishes. After all, he has something to show for it. It takes no less than 3 hours to travel by car from the capital Banjul, to the rice fields in Central River Region, where the locals have come out in numbers to greet and show their leader (and the international press) the result of their arduous work. Like a mirage, massive acres of green rice rows are unveiled before us. We had been pre-warned to wear comfortable gumboots – and are glad we did, as they immediately become a much-needed “tool” as we join the Gambian leader treading the muddy fields – which is not an easy walk, as the boots jam into the mud, but the President is in high spirits and so are the eager farmers. The heat is searing and the walk rough but President Jammeh casually banters with the crowd, laughing and even high-fiving. His humour must clearly be infectious as they laugh out loud at whatever he is sharing with them in the local language.
The inspection of the “forest” of rice is punctuated with bursts of sing-songs and chants of “Jammeh, Jammeh, Jammeh!” from the farmers, but also by unscripted addresses from their leader, who by now has his trademark pristine white robes almost all covered in mud. He seems comfortably at ease and welcoming of his look: “I am a natural born farmer,” he says at one time. “I believe in leading by example, this is why I am here today to support you. We also need to change the notion in this country that if you are a farmer, you are a social failure. What you all need to know is that in most parts of the world, the richest people are farmers. A prosperous and healthier Gambia will depend on its ability to produce its own food,” he says to thunderous applause.
Indeed, according to official figures, over 3,000 hectares of rice has now been cultivated since the launch of Vision 2016. When New African asks him if he could have done anything differently, earlier in his 20 years in power, he points out that one of his regrets is that in the past a lot of money was pumped into agriculture, but the country still had nothing much to show for it. “But I am now more convinced that we have no business importing rice into this country. We can grow more than what we need, with just minimal expenditure.”
He explains: “But we need to change attitudes towards agriculture and farming. Agriculture is not sustainable at the subsistence level because not all of us are farmers or can be farmers. So we need to move away from subsistence agriculture, which in my view, encourages importation. If I grow what I need to eat, then what about the one who is not a farmer who lives in the urban area where there is no farmland? We have to move away from subsistence agriculture and I want to mechanise it, to make it more commercial as well as make it attractive, so that young people get into farming and agro-processing.”
After what seems like forever, our mud-filled boots too heavy to walk in, some of us limp back to our cars for the journey back. It is clear the journalists on this field trip are not cut out for the labour-intensive work that comes with rice farming and as one colleague quips loudly: “How do they work in these conditions all day? I can only hope all this rice will not go to waste due to lack of proper harvesting methods.”
But President Jammeh, who has overheard the journalist, interrupts: “Don’t worry, we are on it. The plan is to mechanise this bumper harvest.”
Phew! Back in the car, I hastily kick off the mucky boots to rest my feet and mumble to the driver: “I will never waste a grain of rice in life again, that’s hard work!”
It was a relief, to hear the president say the farmers would be mechanically assisted to harvest the massive yield. Investing in agriculture across the continent has been one of the most overlooked areas in the current narrative of Africa’s positive economic trajectory. Many African governments still fall very far behind the AU mandate to allocate 10% of national budgets to agriculture.
But as we leave the fields, one thing is certainly guaranteed in The Gambia this year – if the rice cultivation is properly harvested and processed, Gambians will never be hungry for sure; they have grown what they will eat.