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How Agriculture Could Prevent a Post-COVID Hunger Crisis in Gambia

The Gambia relies heavily on the importation of basic food commodities such as rice, onion, potatoes and oil to feed its more than two million citizens.

With the coronavirus pandemic ravaging almost every nation on earth, the global market for food is currently going through price hikes as a direct consequence.

Tourism as one of three biggest contributors to the Gambian economy alongside agriculture and remittances, has been ravaged by the global pandemic.

Remittances, the third biggest contributor to the economy, is likely to be severely affected by the pandemic as diaspora Gambians struggle to send money home.

Now, experts fear that the aftermath of the pandemic could cause a hunger crisis in the country and have called for the production of basic food commodities such as rice, millet, maize, onion and potato to be prioritised in order to avoid a food crisis.

The government could use a two-pronged approach through policy instruments to promote import substitution and also by prioritising support to sectors like agriculture which provides the most employment for the population, to avoid a post-COVID-19 hunger crisis, Agriculture economist, Mamour Alieu Jagne, said.

Mamour Alieu Jagne – agricultural economist

“Import substitution becomes particularly important in this situation because of the significant revenue losses accruing from the collapsed tourism industry, the airline industry (refuelling and landing fees), decimated domestic and international trade (tax revenues),” Jagne, former Gambian ambassador and permanent representative to the European Union, told The Chronicle.

He’s worried that the diaspora that props up many households is also adversely affected, thus impacting on remittances. He said these could weaken the government’s ability to import basic needs of the population, especially foodstuffs.

Jagne said the government should promote the production of local food crops.  National import and consumption statistics should be the basis for prioritising what should be produced locally, supported by robust cost-benefit analyses, he said

If this is done, local food production would tackle the issue of availability. Jagne said all relevant stakeholders should be consulted in the process.

In terms of food affordability, he said the two obvious options are either to reduce prices, or increase the population’s purchasing power, adding that the latter is the more likely option as the government may not have the wherewithal to sustain price subsidies for an extended period.

As a result of the COVID pandemic, the FAO is forecasting significant increases in international food prices, which would make them even more difficult to import.  This challenge on the international front is compounded on The Gambia’s domestic front by the sizable contraction in the economy, particularly for sectors like tourism and trade, leading to significant revenue losses for the Government.

Jagne said these factors point to the need for The Gambia to produce its own food during this critical period.

“The 2021 budget should therefore allocate enough resources to ensure that basic staple foods are produced domestically, such as rice and other cereals (early millet, maize, sorghum), roots and tubers, vegetables (especially onions and potatoes), but also both animal (small ruminants and poultry), and non-animal protein sources (beans, cowpea),” he said.

For each staple commodity, he said resource allocation should be made to continue all the way up the value chain through processing and packaging, to marketing and sales (a marketing campaign to promote local consumption), beyond production.

The agriculture economist said adequate resources should be provided to ensure enough storage and transport facilities, particularly for perishable goods.

Tourism provides for up to 40, 000 jobs directly and another 40, 000 indirectly, according to a UNDP brief on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic published in April. Hotels and allied sectors are to lose up to 6.7 billion dalasi as a direct result of the impact of the pandemic, according to a rapid assessment of the sector by the Gambia Bureau of Statistics, GBoS. The government is also expected to lose a significant amount of revenue from tourism.

GBoS survey on the total estimated loss of revenue for the period April to June and share by type of establishment caused by the pandemic

Jagne said domestic tourism should be intensively promoted, accompanied by all the precautions against the pandemic – citing Greece and Cyprus as examples. “For the very poor, the government should provide subsidised food commodities; even better if free of charge,” he said.

Dr. Mama Sawaneh, an agricultural expert and a lecturer at the University of The Gambia, said the government must be proactive in many ways to save the country from a hunger crisis in the post-COVID-19 era.

“…increase in public spending as a stimulus package for the economy and enhance employment opportunities, lowering interest rate to a single digit to promote investment in the economy and proactive trade financing and ensure trade finance available through this difficult period,” he said.

He said with the hope that 2021 will be the post Covid-19 era, the Gambia government should focus and prioritize agriculture in their 2021 budget.

“In a country where the majority of people live from hand to mouth, then the national budget should project agriculture as the backbone of the economy,” Dr. Sawaneh said.

“Government should provide adequate funding to departments and institutions such as Department of Agriculture, NARI, Department of Livestock, National Seeds Secretariat and revitalize cooperatives for them to fully discharge their obligations.

He also suggested that financial institutions including microfinance institutions be well resourced for smallholder farmers to access credit.

Dr. Mama Sawaneh – lecturer in agriculture at the University of The Gambia

“It is the marketing side that is failing farmers. Government should rejuvenate cooperatives to boost production. Food production suffers when there are no clear marketing systems. Production of food crops declined due to the collapse of the cooperatives or marketing board,” he said.

With the pandemic comes massive job cuts across sectors and limited spending power for citizens who have been laid off or forced into accepting half salaries as institutions and businesses downsize or shutdown.

The bulk of those affected by the impact of the pandemic on businesses are those employed in the tourism industry. They are the people working in hotels, motels, bars and restaurants, as tour guides, tourist taxi drivers and fruit juice sellers.

Most of them are already having problems meeting basic family needs like food, water and electricity, medical and school bills. A food crisis will further compound their problems and push them into further frustration, experts said.

“Right now, all tourists taxi drivers in the country are out of job because of the COVID-19, because of the closures of hotels, motels, guesthouses and other tourism enterprises,” Baba Ceesay, the president of Tourists Taxi Drivers Association, said.

“I can tell you out of desperation, some of our members are currently back to the normal traffic where they are earning very little compared to the industry.”

Ebrima Ceesay, the acting general manager of the Association of Small-Scale Enterprises in Responsible Tourism (ASSERT), said the situation is devastating and called for a swift government bailout for workers registered under his association. There are 180 thousand small scale operators in the industry who were responsible for their families.

“The situation in the tourism industry is really devastating at the moment because all the operators are in limbo. We want to know when the government will support us. Unfortunately, the government is not,” he said.

Apart from tourism, entrepreneurs and skilled workers have been seriously affected. Sulayman Sambou, a mobile technician, is no longer getting customers as he used to.

“It’s terrible. It’s really terrible especially recently when we started seeing a rapid increase in coronavirus cases and the government issued the restrictions which forces us to only operate between 2pm and 7pm. This is not helpful to us because we are no longer having many customers. Remember I’m still paying the shop coupled with home responsibilities,” he said.

Aside from imperilling the livelihoods of individuals, the current situation has put the country’s economy in danger. Hotels are the biggest taxpayers in the country whose financial muscles have been destroyed by the pandemic.

The government already disclosed that Gambia Revenue Authority could be short in its targeted collection by more than two billion dalasi in tax revenue. This may consequently affect the importation of foodstuffs considering that the pandemic strikes all nations. Hence, the rise in global market prices.

Owing to the devastating impact the pandemic has on lives and livelihoods, Nyang Njie, an economist with Knowledge Bank Consortium Gambia Ltd, said the government should be giving direct livelihood support to the vulnerable people in the country.

“Agriculture is something that the government needs in good times and in bad times. So, right now if we focus a little bit more on agriculture, it will help boost our sluggish export,” he said. “Also, it can be used as an import substitution strategy to make sure most of the things we rely on from the outside can be produced locally thereby reducing our import bill.”

He said this is the time to restructure the national economy by prioritizing the productive sector over the service sector of the economy.

The Gambia’s budget director, Bai Madi Ceesay, agreed. He said putting more resources in agriculture is key in next year’s budget.

“The COVID-19 will likely hamper the availability of food resources globally and which is why we also want to invest more on the productive sector in particular agriculture, and this will be reflected on the budget next year whereby we going for value addition, irrigation systems, storage facilities and the likes,” Ceesay told The Chronicle.

“However, I have to say that the bulk of the agriculture budget comes from donor partners mainly in the forms of loans and grants. That is why you see them having a lot of projects. Most of these projects, yes the government is contributing, but its contribution is not substantial.

As part of the economic recovery plans, Ceesay said the government will focus a lot on infrastructure next year because it is one of the ways to stimulate the economy.

“By that you will be creating jobs and also with good road infrastructures, you can facilitate the timely movements of goods and services. Next year, you are going to see a lot of emphasis on infrastructure, health and also a productive sector like agriculture.”

Gambia heavily relies on importation especially basic food commodities like rice from Southeast Asian nations, and relies on rice aid from Japan and China. Ceesay promised that the government will be investing more on agriculture especially in the value addition, processing, distribution, storage, and access to market to tackle a potentially devastating food crisis.

The last food crisis in 2012, which emanated from erratic rains and a massive crop failure, left more than half a million Gambians hungry and in dire need of food aid.

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