The Gambia is one of the poorer African nations, and about 75% of the population depends on crops and livestock for its livelihood. But feeding the people depends on more than agricultural methods, so here are my observations on some of the other issues.
One problem is about economic attitude. Food is exported because the pull of cash is too high. The attitude of having fun now and not saving for food tomorrow was very clear when I was there. It was Tobaski (their Christmas equivalent) and it is traditional to sacrifice a ram, so over-priced rams were bought by families who couldn’t afford it (another similarity to Christmas…). Would the situation be improved by responsible attitudes and an understanding that eating their food is better than selling it to pay for mobile phones? If we increased agricultural productivity would we just feed this problem.
Transport is a problem, particularly in terms of food distribution. One of the main crops is groundnuts, and many villages grow a surplus. My friend reported that her village chief organises the selling of groundnuts. He ripped the villagers off, but at least they get some money for nuts that would otherwise go to waste. We saw a barge full of groundnuts come down the river one night (well OK I was fast asleep but I am reliably informed it passed our tent), and at one village there is a large conveyer belt that supposedly transports groundnuts to the river bank – that’s what you can see in the image at the top of the page.
But there are very few boats transporting nuts, and the road system is very poor. The Dutch are currently working crazily hard to build a road along the south bank of the river. But much of it is still dirt, and anyway I’ve never seen a lorry. So maybe increasing yields is no use until a transport network is built, and if we’re thinking of using GM seeds for example, we have to think about the practicalities and social impacts of distributing them. But road systems come with problems as well as benefits. Are they what we really want?
One last point – population growth. Large families are common – our guide has 7 sisters and a half brother. There are many cultural reasons for this, for example one of the tribes is particularly known for marrying young (14/15 is quite normal) and it’s common to have multiple wives. Why do we keep coming back to this point? A scapegoat seeing as we haven’t managed to fix the others, or an understanding that feeding the world is going to get even harder?
Me and some millet