GAMBIA: Can peanut farming bounce back?
Peanut farmers in southern Gambia
BANJUL, 3 April 2009 (IRIN) - Government officials say this year’s groundnut harvest will prove the once-devastated industry is about to bounce back, but farmers say many obstacles remain.
Groundnuts are Gambia’s biggest cash crop, bringing in 43 percent of agricultural revenues and 13 percent of overall income, according to Bakary Trawally, permanent secretary of the Department of State for Agriculture.
But the industry has been crippled since the early 1990s when the main company marketing the crop was forced to shut down by presidential decree due to corruption charges.
“For the first time in 10 years, this very important cash crop is suddenly finding a new lease on life,” Trawally told IRIN.
Since 2000 farmers have been hit by seed shortages, erratic rainfall and a marketing system whereby crops were bought on credit leaving producers to wait for months to be paid, Trawally told IRIN.
Further, farmers could not get bank loans to raise money to buy seeds, fertilizers or tools or to transport their crops to market along dilapidated roads.
These obstacles drove hundreds of farmers away from groundnut production in 2007.
Banks lost confidence in buyers when they could not repay their loans, and the groundnut industry plummeted, farmers said.
Meanwhile farmers became increasingly indebted and impoverished, said Lamin Sanno, a farmer from Bantungding village in Upper River Region. “Many of the farmers in the region have to pull their children from school while they wait to be paid,” he told IRIN.
Cash not credit
Following a poor 2007-08 harvest the government intervened, building up the Gambia Groundnut Corporation – the country’s biggest groundnut buyer – and distributing fertilizers and seeds to farmers.
At the start of the groundnut season in December 2008 the GGC stopped buying on credit.
“We have strongly warned against credit-buying and all the buyers are now complying,” GGC’s General Manager Lai Mboge told IRIN. “As I speak to you there is no one whose groundnuts have been bought on credit this season. No one will receive groundnuts if they do not have cash.”
But some buyers, known as middlemen, say they do not always have enough cash up-front to buy peanuts from the farmers. So without the option of credit some farmers are unable to find a buyer at all.
Buyer Babu Sarr works at Ngainsanjally in the Central River Region, 200km from the capital Banjul. The season started off well for him, he said, as he received US$37,800 from the GGC, but he spent it all halfway through the season.
“In the last two weeks I have not yet received any money from my operator [the GGC] with which to buy groundnuts,” he said.
Farmers across the country confirmed that the new purchasing scheme is not yet working smoothly. Alhagie Kanteh at Kundam village in Upper River region, 400km from Banjul, told IRIN this year has been no improvement on last.
“We have our groundnuts but we cannot get money for them as buyers don’t have enough money to buy. The only difference this year is that our groundnuts are not bought on credit.”
As the season comes to an end farmers are trying to secure bank loans for the 2009-10 harvest.
Some micro-credit initiatives are working well in Central River Region, says Trawally, where village banks have given $11 million in micro-credit loans since their inception. The scheme is about to be extended to other regions in the country.
But many farmers’ cooperatives have not been able to secure loans. To give low-interest loans on a scale that will help transform the industry, an agricultural bank needs to be set up, the agriculture department’s Trawally acknowledged.
Crossing the border
Farmer Hassan Keita who works at Baja Kunda, 340km from Banjul, said even nearing the end of the season he had surplus nuts. Most of the farmers in the region have grown impatient with the lack of buyers so they are selling their nuts across the border in Senegal, he said.
“I have monetary obligations and I have no other means of getting money other that from my farm produce. My only option is to sell part of it across the border.”
The alternative, he said, is to let his crop rot by the wayside.
Profits from the 2008-09 season have yet to be announced.