KAMPADA NAMOANTE, 15 Jun 2006 (IRIN) - "Cashew nuts are very important! They enable us to eat and earn cash to buy other things," said Bide Man, a farmer in northern Guinea Bissau. "We farm many things, but nothing helps us like the cashew."
The Portuguese brought the strange new tree from the forests of the Americas to their colonies in Africa. But it is in the years since independence in 1974 that the cashew nut has grown to become the base of the Guinea Bissau economy.
Farmers have even stopped growing the national staple food, rice, in favour of the mighty cashew and now the country doesn't grow enough rice to feed itself.
Cashew nuts make up about 90 percent of Guinea Bissau's sum exports, according to the International Monetary Fund. The tiny West African nation is the second largest producer of the nut on the continent, behind Mozambique, and the fifth largest in the world.
But the nut, so prized and expensive once on the supermarket shelves of the West, sells for rock-bottom prices in Guinea Bissau. As a monopoly buyer, merchants from India can largely dictate their price and this year offered just 100 CFA or 20 cents, per kilo.
The government has responded by setting a higher recommended price for cashews of 350 CFA per kilo - still below international standards - but the nuts aren't selling.
And this year, more than ever, hungry farmers are swapping cashew nuts for food - two sacks of cashews to one sack of cheaply imported rice.
"Cashew nuts are the last resource in our country. We pray to God for help to sell them," said Man, standing before an unsold pile of some 50 sacks of the unprocessed nuts - the sum of his harvest so far this year.
Prime Minister Aristides Gomes says there are fundamental problems with the Bissau economy, not least because the country's cashew crops are sold in unprocessed form at rock-bottom prices.
"The day when cashew nuts are processed here, we will no longer have this problem. When you sell a product with no added value, which is not industrialised, inevitably the price is too low," said Gomes.
Small-scale efforts to redress the balance are underway, including opening a new cashew processing plant by the Guinea Foundation for Industrial Development (FUNDEI), where women learn to process the nuts to be ready for eating - raising their export value four-fold.
But according to Rui Jorge Fonseca of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Guinea Bissau's entire agricultural sector needs to be reformed if the country is to harness its economic potential, and that means diversification and urgently increasing rice production.
"Rice production has fallen as farmers have turned increasingly to cashew farming. But that just means that the country has become dependent on importing rice," said Fonseca, adding that Guinea Bissau has a 70,000 ton annual rice deficit.
FAO, the World Food Programme and Guinea Bissau's ministry of agriculture and rural development warn that Guinea Bissau is on the brink of an agricultural crisis following floods in 2005 that ruined vital rice paddies.
Their report, produced in May, estimated that 70 percent of potential rice producing land in the southern regions of Tombali and Quinara has been rendered unusable after protective barriers around rice-fields were washed away by the rains. The flooding allowed saltwater to leak into irrigation channels, destroying rice paddies.
The lean season - the final months before the harvest, when food stocks traditionally run low - has begun in Guinea Bissau. Some families in the south are eating only once a day, according to the FAO report; others are eating only every other day.
"Guinea Bissau is not producing enough to eat - it's the country's biggest problem. Once food self sufficiency is attained then perhaps malnutrition and disease will be reduced," said Fonseca. "Even if social problems are regulated, people will still be going hungry."
Back in the musty food store at Kampada Namoante, Bide Man surveys his bagged cashew harvest. He's prepared to take less than the government recommended price because he needs cash to keep his 12 kids in school and buy rice for them to eat.
"If we can't sell them soon, then they'll spoil," said Man. "And if no one buys them, then I don't know what we're going to do."