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From Africa Recovery, Vol.17 #1 (May 2003), page 14

Senegal: to fight hunger, modernize farming

An uncertain path amidst conflicting interests and pressures

By Ernest Harsch

For the first time ever in Senegal's history, tens of thousands of farmers from across the country marched on the capital on 26 January to voice their grievances and anger. They converged on the largest stadium in Dakar to demand policies to improve their harvests, boost their incomes, reduce rural poverty and lift them from the status of "second-class citizens." By their action, they shattered the common urban perception of Senegalese villagers as silent and passive. "Farmers, more than ever before, are mobilizing to better their conditions of life," declared Mr. Mamadou Sall, president of the largest national farmers' group, the Conseil national de concertation et de coopération des ruraux (CNCR).

The organization presented government officials with a "Farmers' Manifesto." It noted that agricultural productivity remains very low and that most rural people live below the national poverty line. "Agriculture has been in crisis since the end of the 1970s, and this has led poverty and food insecurity to become generalized throughout the rural areas," the manifesto said. Affirming the CNCR's own determination to change such conditions, it also appealed for solidarity from all social groups in Senegal and asked the government to open talks with farmers to develop long-term solutions.


The challenge of transforming Senegal's low-yielding agriculture into a vibrant productive sector that can raise rural living standards and improve food security faces complex constraints.

Addressing the rally, Minister of Agriculture Habib Sy promised to take the farmers' concerns directly to President Abdoulaye Wade. He expressed the government's openness to dialogue with farmers, and explained the measures it already has initiated. Many farmers welcomed Mr. Sy's pledges, but also wondered about the extent of the government's commitment.

Only a few months earlier had President Wade vowed to begin systematic, long-term efforts to "modernize" agriculture, more than two years after his government was elected into office. It took successive poor harvests and reports of widespread rural hunger to finally bring the plight of villagers to the centre of the policy debate.

That debate is just beginning, and easy solutions are not apparent. The challenge of transforming Senegal's low-yielding agriculture into a vibrant productive sector that can raise rural living standards and improve food security faces complex constraints. These include the grinding poverty of the farmers themselves, insufficient government resources for rural investment, limited access to water, environmental degradation, pressures from external financial institutions for rapid liberalization and unfavourable world market conditions for Senegalese farm exports.

A difficult legacy

The problems facing Senegalese farmers are not recent, and affect both food growers and producers of cash crops, above all groundnuts. Production methods on the country's 440,000 farms have long been very simple, as most farmers cultivate small plots with just hand tools and almost no fertilizer or other inputs besides rain.


Measuring grain in a village in northern Senegal.

Photo : ©AfricaPhotos.com


Although agriculture provides livelihoods for around 60 per cent of the population and accounts for 18 per cent of gross domestic product, it receives only 10 per cent of all public investments. For many decades -- including the French colonial era -- the groundnut sector absorbed the lion's share of public financing for agriculture. Since independence in 1960, almost all the government's training, subsidies and agricultural extension services have been oriented to groundnut production.

Such support has not led to much improvement in rural living standards, even in Senegal's main groundnut zones. Most villages lack running water or electricity. In many areas the soil has eroded or become acidic. A succession of droughts hit hard in the late 1970s and early 1980s, bringing more environmental degradation and rural impoverishment.

By the mid-1980s the government began to adopt new economic policies at the urging of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. These eliminated some agricultural extension services and gradually ended fertilizer subsidies. Too poor to buy fertilizer outright, many farmers took out loans at the start of the planting season, but then were left deep in debt when the rains failed or crop prices dropped unexpectedly.

Over the past five years, fertilizer use for groundnut cultivation has declined further, from 45,500 tonnes in the 1997/98 season to just 25,000 tonnes in 2001/02. Yields have plummeted accordingly, and with them farmer incomes. "For us, the sale of groundnuts is the only source of monetary income," says Mr. Ali Mballo, a farmer.

According to the UN Development Programme's 2001 national "Human Development Report" for Senegal, about 85 per cent of the rural population lives below the poverty line. This is considerably higher than the rate of 60 per cent for the country as a whole.

Drought depletes grain stocks

Discontent over such conditions led many rural voters during the March 2000 presidential election to shift their support from the old ruling party to the opposition coalition of Abdoulaye Wade, which promised sweeping Sopi ("change" in the Wolof language). In the new government's brief period in office, it has in fact introduced numerous reforms, including efforts to combat corruption, improve the delivery of essential social services and strengthen Senegal's democratic system. President Wade has emerged as one of the main developers and promoters of the continent's development strategy, the New Partnership for Africa's Development.

Many of these changes have not been felt in Senegal's countryside, however. Making matters worse, the first years of this decade have been marked by inadequate rainfall. This contributed to a steady decline in total national cereal production, from more than 1.2 mn tonnes of millet, sorghum, rice and maize in the 1999/2000 agricultural season to just 835,000 tonnes in 2002/03, according to Ministry of Agriculture projections released in December (see graph).

For two years, many farming households were able to manage by using their domestic grain stocks or selling off some livestock or other goods to buy more food. But by 2002 the situation had worsened dramatically. Grain sheds in many villages were virtually empty. Unexpectedly heavy rains in northern Senegal in January caused serious flooding, which destroyed crops and killed several dozen people and more than 100,000 head of livestock. The early rains for the 2002/03 growing season, expected in June, did not actually begin to arrive until August in most of the main groundnut and grain regions. With many farmers already producing at very low levels, these calamities pushed major parts of the Senegalese countryside toward near-famine conditions.

'Sweeping liberalization'

Parallel to these difficulties, groundnut farmers suddenly found themselves caught in a breakdown of established marketing arrangements, precipitated by a policy shift. The government of President Wade had inherited economic agreements signed by its predecessor. These included a commitment in 1995 to privatize the state-owned groundnut enterprise, the Société nationale de commercialisation des oléagineux du Sénégal (Sonacos), although at the time no buyers could be found and it remained in state hands.

Following the political change in Senegal, the IMF stepped up pressure to move ahead with the liberalization process. But the new government initially emphasized state action to boost farmers' incomes and stimulate rural economic activity, in part by using Sonacos to aggressively promote groundnut cultivation. During the 2000/01 season, Sonacos borrowed massively in order to buy from farmers a record level of 600,000 tonnes of groundnuts at a relatively favourable price. (Production that year reached a record total of more than 1 mn tonnes, with the remainder of the crop bought by informal groundnut merchants, called bana-bana.)

This injected significant financing into the countryside. But for Sonacos it proved unsustainable. Because the price paid to groundnut farmers was well above world market levels and a significant minority of farmers had trouble repaying the loans they received from the enterprise to buy fertilizer and other inputs, Sonacos was saddled with a sizeable debt.

A number of Senegal's donors reacted sharply. In April 2001, a European Union official warned that failure by Sonacos to liberalize the distribution of groundnut seeds could jeopardize EU aid to the country. Then in July, IMF officials visiting Senegal demanded that the government stop subsidizing groundnut marketing and bring prices closer to world market levels. The following month, Sonacos agreed to cut the price it paid to farmers from CFA145 to CFA120 per kilogramme and to sharply reduce its direct purchases, moves that shocked many groundnut farmers.

In November of the same year, a cabinet meeting further agreed that the government would privatize Sonacos during 2003. As a step in that direction, it also simply dissolved the Société nationale de graines (Sonagraines), a wholly owned subsidiary of Sonacos which had played a major role in the collection and transport of groundnuts from the farmers' fields to Sonacos's processing plants (which transform the nuts into cooking oil). The authorities expected that licenced private marketing agents, known as opérateurs privés stockeurs (OPS), would step into the void.

The result was a disaster for groundnut farmers. Even with significant financial advances from Sonacos, some of the nearly 500 licenced OPS could not arrange transport to collect the groundnuts from farmers' fields. Many did collect the nuts, but paid the farmers only in vouchers, not cash. Months later, many farmers still had not been paid. This meant that they could not buy seeds or fertilizer for the next planting season, clear their debts -- or pay for food or other household essentials.

As farmers in some parts of the country began to set up roadblocks across national highways in protest, the CNCR and other farmers' groups became increasingly militant. Many blamed their plight on the government's policy shift. "One of the big problems facing agriculture is the sweeping liberalization of our national economy," said Mr. Samba Guèye, secretary-general of the CNCR.

Some also noted the problem of low world market prices for groundnuts, cotton and other Senegalese agricultural exports. Senegal holds second place in the world groundnut market, behind the US. But, notes Mr. Serigne Amadou Camara, in charge of managing the government's state enterprises, "Our main competitor, the United States, subsidizes its price. We don't have the means to fight that."

Turning 'peasants' into 'farmers'

In August 2002, the government finally began to respond. Taken together, its initiatives point towards a continued pursuit of market liberalization and promotion of the private sector, but with more emphasis than before on state investment in rural infrastructure and public programmes to safeguard farmers from the vagaries of the market and the weather. In various statements, President Wade emphasized the need to "modernize" Senegal's underdeveloped, low-input agriculture. The aim, he said, is to transform Senegal's subsistence "peasants" into market-oriented "farmers" capable of producing more for both domestic and external markets.


A Senegalese plant nursery: Careful use of limited water resources and protection of fragile topsoil will be central to agricultural sustainability.

Photo : ©AfricaPhotos.com


President Wade and other officials acknowledged that Sonagraines was liquidated too hastily, in response to external pressures. The decision, however, could not now be reversed, they said, and the challenge is to ensure that the new marketing system functions better. The president ordered the judicial authorities to take legal action against "thieves and swindlers" who took farmers' crops but failed to pay them, as Sonacos tightened up its licensing criteria.

Among the other steps that President Wade announced, some were designed to tackle immediate food shortages, while others have longer-term development implications. These included:

-- Significant short-term relief assistance, financed directly by the government, to help victims of flooding and drought, with distribution supervised by a high-level oversight committee composed of farmers' leaders, media figures and political party representatives.

-- The establishment of local grain stocks, to speed emergency responses to food shortages in Senegal's 11 regions.

-- Greater emphasis on promoting agricultural diversification, to end the "tyranny of mono-cropping," as President Wade termed it. At the national level, there already have been important steps to stimulate more production of cotton, sesame, soya, sunflowers, rice and other food and export crops, so as to reduce the economy's dependence on groundnuts. In the fields, production of more than one type of crop can give farmers greater flexibility and better protect them from market and weather fluctuations.

-- The digging of 50 water retention basins to better preserve and utilize rain, along with more irrigation schemes. Senegal has the potential to irrigate 240,000 hectares in the Senegal River Basin, thanks to the Diama and Manantali dam projects. So far, however, only 70,000 hectares are irrigated (up from 36,000 three years ago). Smaller-scale projects are also under way elsewhere in the country, especially involving rice.

-- The initiation of a cloud-seeding project designed to induce additional rainfall. This would utilize Moroccan expertise, already demonstrated by successful programmes in Morocco and Burkina Faso.

-- Acceleration of plans to connect all of Senegal's villages to the national electricity grid.

-- The construction of new agricultural training schools and colleges around the country.

At the end of August, President Wade toured most of Senegal's regions, to explain his government's initiatives and hear directly from farmers and livestock herders about their problems. Many complained about the new groundnut marketing arrangement, the high cost of inputs, the poor quality of health services and the absence of an effective food security system. At one rally in Saloum, Mr. Wade pledged that "we will never abandon the countryside" and insisted that for his government, agriculture and stockraising will be "two priority areas of development."

Elements for success

Many farmers reacted to the government's pledges with hope, but also a measure of caution. They have heard high-level promises before. Many are waiting to see what is included in the new agricultural law that the government is drafting for discussion and approval by the legislature. Nevertheless, the crisis in Senegal's villages and the authorities' initial responses have already stimulated greater public debate about how best to transform the countryside.

In the policy realm, President Wade has been arguing for a pragmatic mix of market mechanisms and state support and regulation, an approach that enjoys wide backing in Senegal, even if there are differences on the precise nature of that combination. Mr. Wade frequently talks about the benefits of markets and private initiative, but he also insists that in an inequitable world market in which rich Northern countries subsidize their farmers to the detriment of producers in the South, countries like Senegal should also be permitted to subsidize agriculture.

At a minimum, many Senegalese argue, governments should be able to invest in rural electrification, roads and other infrastructure essential to improving agricultural productivity and rural living conditions. "Everywhere in the world," says Mr. Mamadou Cissoko, a CNCR leader, "it is public investments that create favourable conditions for agricultural production and soil regeneration." In particular, the CNCR maintains, such investments should be targeted towards small-scale family farmers, the vast majority of the rural population.

There also is broad agreement on the need for more active involvement by farmers, livestock herders, village artisans, women and rural people. The CNCR, which has been especially energetic in voicing rural concerns, is only one of the better-known national organizations. There are literally hundreds of agricultural cooperatives, village associations and producers' groups around the country. The national cotton farmers' association has acquired a 20 per cent ownership stake in the government's cotton marketing enterprise, and the CNCR is hoping to acquire a share of Sonacos. "In the new vision of agriculture," President Wade has said, "I intend to involve everyone."

With Senegal's limited water sources and fragile topsoil, talk about intensifying agricultural production through greater use of fertilizer and other inputs naturally raises concerns about environmental sustainability. Learning from past mistakes, especially in the irrigation projects in the northern river valleys, there now is greater emphasis on careful environmental assessments, use of organic fertilizers and technologies that safeguard rather than harm Senegal's natural resources. President Wade is promoting the notion of "ecological security," which combines environmental management with poverty reduction and local empowerment, including participatory mechanisms and the strengthening of land rights, especially for rural women.

Such social considerations must be at the heart of any agricultural policy, argues Prof. Moustapha Kassé, a prominent Senegalese development expert. In narrow economic terms, it might make sense to liquidate unprofitable state enterprises and allow the groundnut sector to decline. "But what will the farmers do?" he asks. How would the country prevent an increase in rural poverty and even greater migration to the cities?

"It is impossible to transform agriculture without a fuller social vision," Prof. Kassé concludes. "Today, it is vital to elaborate an agricultural strategy that is global, coherent and focused."

***See also:***

New strategies needed to combat hunger, disease and rural poverty

Famine and AIDS: a lethal mixture

Eradicating tsetse flies from Africa

Mounting opposition to Northern farm subsidies
US subsidies: who benefits?


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