How to avoid a food crisis again this year

According to the government’s current estimates, donors will need to provide 20,000 tonnes of food aid to compensate for expected production shortfalls in 2008.

Aid experts in Bissau, however, said that if the government had better policies, and if the rains came at the right time, the country should be able to feed itself with current levels of international assistance.

“The government has to act quickly before it’s too late,” UN World Food Programme (WFP) head of programmes Jean-Martin Bauer told IRIN. “With smart policies the problems of previous years can be avoided,” he said.

During the so-called "lean season" in 2007, from June to August, 43 percent of people in rural areas did not have adequate food, according to WFP, and some 20 percent of the population of 1.6 million received food aid. Bauer said it was possible the situation could become worse this year but currently WFP stocks were based on roughly the same level of need as 2007.

Guinea-Bissau has good soils and high rainfall but poor infrastructure to bring goods to market. It also has ineffective agricultural practices that make food security highly dependent on external factors such as world commodity prices and the weather.

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
WFP head of programmes in Guinea Bissau Jean Martin Bauer speaks to IRIN reporter, Feburary 2008.

Rice, the country’s staple, is mostly farmed without irrigation systems so a good harvest is largely a matter of luck, agricultural experts say. The government also faces financial constraints, with an agriculture budget of just 400 million CFA francs (US$917,000). “That’s hardly enough for the Ministry of Agriculture to pay its employees and keep functioning,” UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) programme officer Rui Fonseca told IRIN.

But he and others say the government could take action to minimise food shortfalls.

Officials from FAO and other UN agencies got together in 2007 to write a letter to the government, with specific recommendations and calling for discussions. “The government is yet to respond,” Fonseca said. “We have almost no information on what it is planning.”

“Rice-to-cashew ratio”

The core of Guinea Bissau’s food security problem is what Bauer calls “the rice-to-cashew ratio”. Farmers cannot grow enough rice to feed their families all year round so traditionally they have grown cashews which they sell or exchange for imported rice.

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Cashew fruits

At one time farmers could sell a kilo of raw cashews for 200 CFA francs (40 US cents) which was the same price they could buy a kilo of imported rice. However, with more countries in the world growing cashews for export, world prices have dropped while rice prices have risen, largely because of transport costs and an increase in world demand in cereals.

During last year’s March-May cashew harvest, Guinea Bissau’s farmers sold their cashews for an average of 20 US cents a kilo, according to a survey conducted by WFP and the Ministry of Agriculture, while imported rice cost 50 US cents and has since gone up to 65 US cents and higher.

In the long run, Guinea Bissau farmers need to diversify what they grow so they do not only depend on cashews for cash - and consumers need to eat more sweet potatoes and other roots which are readily available. On 20 February FAO signed a $1.5 million project with the government to help diversify production, but it is unlikely to do much to reduce potential food shortages which are expected as early as June 2008.

Recommended cashew policy

In the meantime experts have a list of measures the government could take. One is to improve exports by lowering taxes. (Governments in many other cashew-producing countries do not impose such taxes on exporters).

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Carlos Schwarz Silva who heads the NGO Acção para Desenvolvimento speaks to Irin reporter in Bissau Feburary 2008.

Another is to allow transporters to export overland to Senegal rather than require them to pass through the port of Bissau, which is slow and expensive. “The port here doesn’t really function,” Carlos Schwarz Silva, who heads the food security non-governmental organisation Acção para Desenvolvimento, told IRIN. “And I am not aware of anything being done to fix it.”

Other measures he and other experts call for include an end to the many illegal taxes at road blocks which local authorities demand of trucks transporting cashews and rice, as well as a reorganisation of the export market. “Currently there are too many middlemen each taking a profit and that reduces farmers’ earnings,” Silva said.
He also said the government should be monitoring world cashew prices and broadcasting the information every day on local radio. “This would help traders and farmers make more informed decisions about when to buy and sell,” he said.

Do not fix cashew prices

One thing the government must not do, according to Silva and the other experts, is repeat its 2006 policy of fixing the price at which farmers can sell their cashews. Exporters balked at the 350 CFA francs (65 US cents) a kilo price they were told they had to pay and went to other countries to buy.

In the end, many of Guinea Bissau’s farmers where so desperate to sell before the rains destroyed their stocks, they sold them for next to nothing; others simply lost everything.

The government will not make that mistake again, Bacar Djassi, secretary of state for food security, told IRIN. “We will keep the market free. We can’t afford to make the previous error of fixing prices.”

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
General view of the main port of Bissau, capital city of Guinea-Bissau Feburary 2008. Machinery at port has broken down and costs of imports and exports are rising.

Export problems

On some of the other policy proposals he was less obliging. “We think all cashews should pass through the port,” he said. “Certainly there were blockages there last year but they can be overcome this year, we think”.

When asked how exactly he would overcome the blockage, he simply said that exporting by land was not an option. “In fact we are doing everything we can to stop the export of cashews through Senegal because we don’t have the ability to impose taxes there,” he said.

Cashew export taxes, along with donor funding, are among the main sources of revenue for the government. Under pressure last year, the government did reduce some port handling taxes, but then confiscated large quantities of exporters’ stocks.

At that point many exporters who had been in the country for years left in a huff, including Olam, the world’s largest supplier of raw cashews. “We have tried to convince Olam and other big wholesalers to come back but so far we have not been successful,” Djassi said.

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
The government's secretary of state for food security Bacar Djassi speaks to Irin reporter in Bissau, Feburary 2008.

Recommended rice policy

Asked how he would ensure that rice is available in Guinea Bissau all year round, Djassi’s answer was that there is little his government can do. “We are victims of climate change,” he said. “Last year we had lots of rain but over a very short period and the seeds all dried up.”

“We cannot stop that happening again this year,” he said, “so we estimate that we need 20,000 metric tonnes of food aid.”

But experts say there is plenty the government can do. “It can prepare now ahead of the rainy season by providing seeds to those farmers who were so hungry last year they had to eat their seeds,” Silva said. “And it can find better varieties of rice with shorter growing seasons of three rather than four months. That way we will be less dependent on the rains,” he said.

Another measure some experts call for is lower taxes on imported rice. Others argue that that would undermine efforts to increase local production and diversify into other staple crops, but for Bauer the demand is a reality and supply is clearly inadequate. “You cannot get around the fact that more than 36 percent of Guinea Bissau’s cereal needs cannot be met by local production,” he said.

Officially the government has lowered import duties on rice from 16 percent to 12.5 percent in 2008, WFP said, although it was unable to confirm that the lower tax scale was actually being applied.

The government should have a strong interest in ensuring that its people have enough rice, Silva said. “Guinea Bissau people are a peaceful people until they face rice shortages,” he said. “The overthrow of the government in 1980 was known as the ‘rice coup d’état’,” he added.

Rice harvests at the end of 2007 were 9 percent below that of 2006, according to a joint assessment by the Ministry of Agriculture, FAO and CILSS (Comité Permanent Inter Etats de lutte contre la Sécheresse dans le Sahel).

Experts have already found signs of impending food shortages in the north this year. A joint food security mission in February reported that rains came at the wrong time and many rice fields in the mangrove swamps there have been decimated.