Price of rice out of reach

Whether living in towns or rural farming communities, residents of Guinea-Bissau can’t afford to buy their national staple, rice, despite government price fixing.

Government measures to set the price of rice at 230 CFA (US $0.40) a kilo have backfired as traders refuse to adhere to the new rate except for bulk purchases.

Economic hardship has worsened in Guinea-Bissau in recent years. A brief civil war took its toll and continuing political instability has complicated efforts at economic reform.

Commerce Minister Pascoal Domingos Batica announced the arrival of 10,000 tonnes of rice in Bissau on Thursday, but it was not immediately clear whether merchants would lower prices. Last week, the government said 126-tonnes of rice had arrived from WFP. But that food is solely for distribution through WFP’s school feeding programme.

In Bairro Militar, one of the poorest districts of the capital, Bissau, resident Aissato Djalo told IRIN that she couldn’t find 11,500 CFA (US $23) for a 50 kg sack of rice, even if she clubbed together with her neighbours.

Rural radio stations are reporting similar hardship, with some farmers trading a litre of palm oil, which usually sells for 500 CFA (US $1), for a kilo of rice worth less than half that.

The United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) in late June conducted an evaluation of food security in the southern rice-producing region of Quinara and Tombali. They found that the majority of residents were not food secure.

WFP attributes this to a number of factors, including destruction of rice paddies by floods in August 2005 followed by low rainfall in September 2005, insect invasions and structural problems in Guinea-Bissau's economy.

Cashew nuts make up about 90 percent of Guinea-Bissau’s sum exports, according to the International Monetary Fund. The West African nation is the second largest producer of cashews on the continent, behind Mozambique, and the fifth largest in the world.

Farmers have stopped growing rice in favour of cashew nuts and now the country doesn’t grow enough rice to meet demand; imports make up the slack.

Guinea-Bissau is a tiny country nestled between Senegal and Guinea. A former Portuguese colony, it is still struggling to recover from a civil war in the late 1990s and a succession of coups, the latest of which took place in 2003.

Hundreds of teachers have demonstrated in Bissau twice in the past week, demanding to be paid their salaries, which are 14 months late.