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Family’s Request for Rice Money Leads an Engineer to Quit $85,000 US Job for Rice Farming in The Gambia

A son of a successful rice farmer in Bansang in the Central River Region of The Gambia, Musa Darboe’s childhood was pretty much filled with long and tedious days in the rice field. Growing up, he didn’t like farming. But Musa would later realise that he actually learned farming when he didn’t know he was learning it, being born on a rice farm.

“From school we’d go to the rice field where we had our lunch. Then we’d work until probably dusk and we’d come home. We never had the chance to go around and play like other kids,” he recalls.

Listen to Musa Darboe’s interview with Sheriff Bojang Jr.

Musa’s father, Alhaji Kang Burama Darboe owned some of the largest rice farms in the provincial parts of The Gambia. He was the wealthy anchor who owned the farming tools used by the community to farm. Rice was the source of income for the family.

“Economically, everything came from the rice we harvested. We ate it and we sold it too. We never had to buy rice,” says Musa.

Musa pose with a group of young women he empowers in his community

Musa and his siblings and other extended relatives paid their school fees from the rice farming money. In April 2000, Musa left for the U.S. for greener pastures. The family continued with the rice farming, generating more income and saving enough rice for consumption. In 2009, his father died and for the next couple of years the family struggled to keep his legacy alive. First, the farming machines including tractors broke down and then other problems followed. However, there was still enough rice for consumption.

In 2012, Musa received a bizarre phone from his brother back home asking for some money to buy rice for the family to eat. The phone call left him perplexed.

“I was shocked and I was like ‘we never had to buy rice so why do we have to buy rice now?’ He said because they didn’t farm for two seasons. From the previous season they farmed, they were able to live on that for almost a year.”

A typical Gambian rice field

Before that phone call, Musa would send money back home for everything except to buy rice or any other feeding needs because those were always available in abundance. He sent money to his brother to buy rice as short term solution, but told his brother that he was going to buy an irrigation machine and a tractor so the family could return to the rice farm.

Musa then traveled to The Gambia for vacation and to look out for his family. During a visit to his village, a group of women in the community had a discussion with him and they told him how they were not able to farm since the death of his father. They asked him for tools to farm. “I was shocked and it was so personal,” he recalls.

Musa’s return to the U.S. shortly afterwards would mark the beginning of a major decision in his life. “I started going to rice farmers in the US to see how they farm. I learned a lot from American farmers.”

Fast-forward the story; Musa decided to quit his $85,000 per annum job in the U.S. as an engineer at Verizon Wireless to return to The Gambia and go into rice farming to revive his father’s legacy by helping his family and the community, as well as creating jobs in the country.

Musa Darboe working on a rice field

“I lived the American Dream because I had everything I needed in America. I had a good job, a wife, kids and my mother. They all lived with me in the U.S.,” he tells The Chronicle.

But for Musa, the call for help from family and community back home was more important than anything else. “I had to answer to this call and this is why I decided to come home to introduce a rice farming that’s going to be easier, less labour-intensive and more profitable.”

When Musa informed his friends in the U.S. about his plan, most of them told him he was crazy.

“They didn’t believe me. They thought because of the opportunities I had in the U.S., it was not ideal for me to come back to The Gambia to be a farmer. Some say I’m mentally insane.”

Musa is on the path to prove his friends wrong. He already set up Maruo Farms Ltd and he’s pursuing his dream to revolutionize rice production in The Gambia. “How do we make farming easier, more profitable? How do we encourage and entice the youthful population to join the ageing farming sector? The average age of a farmer in The Gambia is about 53 years. That’s not good.”

Musa’s farms are in the Upper River and Central River regions of the country. Among his long term plans is to extend farming to the West Coast Region.

Musa Darboe on the field

The Gambia relies on rice imports from the international market to cover its consumption needs, and according to FAO, soaring international food prices and low national production are leading to high inflationary pressure on the domestic food market, eroding the purchasing power of urban and rural consumers.

For Musa, improving the lives of local farmers and their methods of farming will help in getting The Gambia from rice importer to a rice exporter.

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