GAMBIA: Urban centres under strain as farmers flee

BANJUL, 23 April 2010 (IRIN) - Cash-strapped farmers in Gambia are flocking to towns and cities because of erratic rains in 2009 and the fact that a recently reformed system of extending loans to farmers is still not working, say NGOs and farmers.

Farmers told IRIN they were encouraging their children to head to cities to find jobs as their prospects of surviving through agriculture were nil.

"The situation is so bad for me that I have to send one of my sons to Banjul to fend for the family," said Omar Njie, a 61-year-old farmer in the village of Mbollet in the Upper Numi District of North Bank Division in northern Gambia. "After suffering for five seasons in a row, one of us has to look for another way of sustaining the family," he said. "I am growing older every day and my strength is waning."

Heavy rains washed away some 87.5 hectares of rice fields in North Bank in 2009. In Gambia, the government pays middle-men - called "secco managers" - to buy up farmers' produce, but these managers often do not have enough cash, so farmers are paid in credit notes which they are often unable to redeem.

Njie and his fellow North Bank farmers have all received credit notes but "months on, we haven't seen any payment," he told IRIN.

Njie withdrew his younger son from secondary school last year because he could not come up with the US$173 in school fees. His millet stocks are low as he had to give half his crop to neighbours whose produce was destroyed in the floods. "If things continue like this, I may have to leave for Banjul myself."

At Bundung bus station in Banjul the buses are full of young men aged 19-40 - freshly arrived from Upper River Region and looking for work.

City pressure

Overcrowding in cities, combined with reduced tourist numbers due to the global recession, has led to severe job shortages in urban areas, said an official in the Agriculture Ministry who preferred anonymity.

"Rural-to-urban migration has always been a problem in Gambia," said the official, "and the state of agriculture now, as in the past, is not good enough to stop people from leaving it."

Overcrowding has put more pressure on health centres, schools, housing availability and other basic services like waste collection, residents of Banjul told IRIN. A room in Banjul costs US$93 per month, up from $46 two years ago.

Ousman Jallow, 34, used to be a farmer in Baddibou in eastern Gambia, but quit his farm to move to Banjul in 2009. He now delivers sand and gravel to builders in the capital. "Farming was not kind to me... My time in the city has been more fruitful because I have bought a piece of land that I am now trying to develop. Even if things are to improve for farmers, I don't think I'll go back."

"Secco managers" are also frustrated. Batoru Kebbeh manages a "secco" in Essau, a suburb just south of Banjul. "It is pointless to encourage farmers to bring in their produce when there is no money to buy it," he told IRIN. "After the problems of the past concerning credit-buying, I do not want to get into that kind of situation again... Farmers thought I was capable of paying them, when in fact I had no way near enough money to pay them all."

Making farming profitable

NGO Concern Universal and British organic produce company Haygrove, funded by the Department for International Development, run the "Gambia is Good" (GiG) project, which aims to make farming in Gambia profitable. They purchase organic produce from farmers to sell to hotels and restaurants servicing tourists in North Bank and Western Divisions.

"People are starting to realize farming can be successful and profitable, and this will help avoid urban migration... which will also mean more stable food production for a country that is not food-secure," GiG's business development officer, Mackenzie Dove, told IRIN.

A farmer involved in the project in North Bank, Fatou Manneh, said "In other places youths have all left to find money in the cities but in my village this [trend] is being checked. They can see that it is possible to earn good money and stay at home on the farm."

But the number of farmers persuaded to stay by such projects, while important, is nonetheless "just a drop in the ocean" GiG consultant Adama Bah told IRIN.