Senegal farmers see long road to rice revolution

RICHARD TOLL, Senegal (Reuters) - Senegal wants to transform this baking hot valley into a rice bowl for Africa but farmers scrabbling in the dirt with hand-made hoes say the grand plan will take more than fine words.

A youth called Alioun uses a sickle to cut weeds in a rice field on the outskirts of Richard Toll town June 3, 2008. Senegal wants to transform this baking hot valley into a rice bowl for Africa but farmers scrabbling in the dirt with hand-made hoes say the grand plan will take more than fine words from the president. REUTERS/Normand Blouin

Faced with surging world prices for imported rice, the staple for millions of poor people in the West African country, President Abdoulaye Wade unveiled plans in April to raise rice output fivefold in a year.

This week Wade joined world leaders at a U.N. summit on the global food crisis in Rome, where they pledged to tear down trade barriers and invest in farming in poor countries under an emergency plan to eliminate hunger and ensure food for everyone.

“The land here is very good, but we lack resources,” said Abdoulaye Ba. He caressed the earth with one hand as he knelt to dig out onions with the other using a hoe fashioned from a short length of steel rod of the type used to reinforce concrete.

Ba has little time for the president’s “Great Agricultural Offensive for Food and Abundance,” known by its French acronym GOANA, which also aims to ramp up maize, manioc and other crops.

“I hear about GOANA on the radio and the television, but we’ve been doing GOANA since long ago,” said Ba, who will start harvesting his green field of rice in the next fortnight.

“This government doesn’t encourage farmers -- it needs to help them. As for me, I’m dispirited.”

Here in the broad Senegal River valley, irrigation channels dug since the 1970s have created a lush band of fertile land that sweeps around Senegal’s northern and eastern border with Mauritania, slicing through the scorched savanna of the Sahel.

Some farmers here harvest 9 tonnes or more of rice per hectare -- among the world’s highest yields -- thanks to sunshine, irrigation, good husbandry and state support services that some agronomists say are the most efficient in West Africa.


Yet most irrigable land lies fallow or underutilized, while those families tending crops by hand say they struggle to raise credit to buy enough seed, pesticides, weed killer and fertilizer for the land they already farm, never mind to expand operations.

That is a major obstacle to increasing farm output, said Canadian-trained agronomist Boubie Vincent Bado.

Farmers take seed and chemicals on credit from suppliers on condition they sell their harvest to the same trader, reducing their bargaining power and ability to benefit from high rice prices.

At the research station Bado heads in nearby Ndiaye for the Africa Rice Center (WARDA), a poster maps out the 108-day life cycle of a rice plant. Bado says farmers could grow two rice crops a year instead of one, with the right support.


But some previous state initiatives have had little impact.

The “Return to Agriculture” (REVA) plan Wade launched two years ago to stem an exodus of young Senegalese men risking their lives on small wooden boats to get to Europe, fell flat.

Senegal is one of Africa’s top aid recipients, yet farmers complain they have little to show despite the shiny SUVs aid workers and ministry officials drive around the capital Dakar.

“Everything the government gives is politicized. Corruption is king,” said Alioun Diop, a sugar company worker who cultivates 1.45 hectares of rice and other crops.

Promised tractors and water pumps had failed to materialize or been snapped up by ruling party cronies, Diop said.

“I’ve had nothing, nor has my mother,” he added.

Wade, an outspoken economist who has called for abolition of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that organized this week’s Rome summit, blames aid agencies for squandering money and branded food aid a “huge swindle” at the GOANA launch.

His plan aims to end Senegal’s dependence on food imports.

“In terms of land it is possible for Senegal to achieve food self-sufficiency, at least with the population they have,” said Aliou Diagne at the Africa Rice Center headquarters in Benin.

“The problem is on the horizon, and whether they will get the necessary funding to make the improvements ... the horizon of 2015 may be a little too ambitious,” he said.

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Additional reporting by Normand Blouin and Gabriela Matthews; Editing by Pascal Fletcher