As African agriculture faces big challenges, the president of Network of Farmers’ Organizations and Agricultural Producers in West Africa (ROPPA) — a Grassroots International ally — is convinced that the Covid-19 crisis is a window of opportunity. A version of this interview originally appeared in Le Point.
As the threat of a food crisis in West Africa looms, and the projected number of victims of the epidemic threatens to reach between 17 to 50 million between June and August according to the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), is it time for some states to take another look at their public policies for the agricultural sector?
This is what is being proposed by the ROPPA, created in 2000 to defend a “food autonomous Africa”. After the 2007-2008 food crisis, its membership of national peasant organizations played a key role in developing plans to revive the agricultural sector. According to its president, Ibrahima Coulibaly, the current crisis is a window of opportunity for developing ambitious policies in favor of food sovereignty.
Africa Update: Response measures to the coronavirus epidemic were put in place during the month of March in West Africa. How does that fit within the agricultural production cycle?
Ibrahima Coulibaly: We were in full vegetable production. Normally, these crops are transported to weekly markets where intermediaries come to get supplies to serve the capitals. Except that in many West African countries, these markets were suddenly closed. That was not the case in Mali, but there was a wave of panic, because people heard that Covid-19 was a very contagious disease. And especially the intermediate traders, even if they bought these products, were not sure of being able to sell them, because of the restrictions on displacements and curfews. In Mali, markets are very vital and thriving places [of food distribution], including at night time. All this chaos therefore seriously affected the markets. And since most of the farmers’ products, except for the potato and sweet potato, cannot be stored, the farmers have been hit hard by the crisis. Their income has dropped.
What have been the consequences for consumers?
In the countryside, there has not really been any change, because people consume what they produce. But in the cities, fruits and vegetables were no longer very available, or selling at higher prices than normal. The prices of potatoes, for example, increased by 50% in just a few days in early March. Currently, we are witnessing rampant speculation. Those who can afford to store their goods wait for the best time to sell.
Africa has seemed to be affected relatively little by coronavirus compared to the rest of the world, and it seems that the cases recorded are mostly concentrated in the cities. What about rural areas?
In the rural parts of the the region, people don’t even believe in this virus! The distrust of policy makers is so high that they say it is just another lie from the government, or possibly just a bad cold. We have seen several cases of influenza, but we do not know whether or not it was Covid-19, because we do not have any screening tests.
The repercussions of the coronavirus in the countryside are therefore mainly economic. Peri-urban areas are also very affected. These were initially villages whose land had been absorbed by the city, where the population depended heavily on small informal activities, such as the sale of ‘beignets’ [fried dough product popular in the region] or other processed products. The incomes of these people – often women – have plummeted as consumers, fearing that their products might be contaminated, stopped buying them.
How will this health crisis affect the 2020-2021 crop?
Our governments have invested heavily in measures to control the spread of the coronavirus. We are talking for example of a budget of 500 billion CFA francs in Mali alone, which is an extremely large amount of money. In this context, one wonders whether governments will be able to subsidize inputs in the agricultural sector. Since the 2007-2008 food crisis, their policy has been to guarantee a subsidy of up to 50% of the cost of these inputs. But for the moment, nothing has been announced, and that seriously worries us. This subsidy is a huge financial support to food producers, and it is crucial today. In the cotton sector, prices have just fallen on the world market, which is reducing producers’ prices. Not having a subsidy means there is even more downward pressure on prices and earnings–this is threatening to be a bad year for cotton. We are equally worried about the situation for grain producers.
The health crisis also has serious consequences for the livestock farming sector. It came at a time when governments were in the middle of negotiations on the free movement of livestock in West Africa. But Covid-19 has accelerated this closing of borders to the transportation of animals. And livestock producers depend on getting their fodder from coastal countries.
According to ECOWAS, the number of people facing food shortages in West Africa could rise to anywhere between 17 to 50 million between June and August 2020. How can this problem best be confronted?
For now, we are still facing many unknowns: when will the first rains arrive?; are we going to have water problems, drought, or locust invasions? If these factors materialize, there is a good chance that the food crisis will aggravate the health crisis. And there, it is really critical that our decision-makers have the courage to implement better policies.
ROPPA and civil society organizations have formed a committee to monitor and develop rapid response efforts for the food crisis. We do not want things to go back to the way it was like before Covid-19. If there is going to be a crisis, it will be critical to work towards positive outcomes and make appropriate adjustments and changes.
When the epidemic broke out in rich countries, one of the first concerns was how to ensure enough food for the population, stockpiling food supplies, closing the borders, and preventing speculation. They are not doing any of that here. We have no stockpiles. Even in years when we produce lots of food, it is all sold as its produced. The food security of our countries is at risk, yet we have enormous farming and food potential. We have often proposed very strong, robust food and farm policies to our governments, but in the end these proposals are being ignored.
We see, for example, reports circulating around on the agricultural sector and best farming practices — they are written by consultants who are paid millions, but who have never even lived in a village.
What are the blockages, in your opinion?
Lack of political courage. We remain very outwardly-focused countries, very dependent on the outside. Decision makers can put in place certain measures, but they back down far too easily. Our agricultural policies remain submerged by international institutions, donors and multinational agrifood companies. We see, for example, reports circulating around on the agricultural sector and best farming practices — they are written by consultants who are paid millions, but who have never even lived in a village. They are the experts, yet we who are in the field, we are listened to less. We are even often perceived as adversaries, because we have the courage to say that such and such a policy cannot work for us.
The problem of Africa is the betrayal of the political and economic elites. Yet we are anything but poor, we are anything but miserable!
We therefore are counting on ECOWAS, UEMOA and Cills (Inter-State Committee to Combat Drought in the Sahel) to challenge governments and move the region forward in terms of the agricultural policies to be implemented.
You are a fervent defender, like other peasant organizations members of ROPPA, of small farming, characterized by the model of family farming. Why?
This is the dominant model here: families working together and producing together. Agribusiness is a model of [modernized] agriculture that they are trying to impose from the outside. But to modernize is not to copy. It needs to build and grow out of the actual realities of our nations. And small-scale farming can feed our countries. Take the rural populations, which represent 60% to 75% of the population depending on the country in West Africa. They live from their own food production (millet, sorghum, tubers, market garden products).
It is certainly different in the big cities where imported products are very present on the markets. But we need to protect our borders a little more. Our producers only need a little help (access to low cost and subsidized credit, subsidizing agricultural inputs) to be more efficient. Each time they have been supported, they have been able to show their potential. After the 2007-2008 food crisis and the introduction of subsidies in the rice sector in Mali, rice production increased by 30%. We have the ability of feeding the entire population, including in the capitals. I am convinced of that.
The priority is to ensure that the market is buoyant. Foreign companies come to sell their subsidized goods to our countries, at lower prices than our own products, thus disadvantaging local food production. Reducing food imports is already solving the main problem. We must be better protected by regional and national policies.
But are consumers also ready to favor local production, even if it means upsetting their eating habits?
It is true that consumers, when they are poor, have little choice. Their priority is not to know if they are buying healthy products whose origin they know and trust. Their priority is simply to be able to afford enough food to eat. They therefore will decide most of the time to pay for Asian rice even if it is very old, preserved for years with a lot of pesticides, but which is cheaper. It is once again a question of public policies, of support for the transformation and distribution of our products. We are working on these aspects too.
ROPPA created in 2018 the Alliance for Agroecology in West Africa. What is it about?
The objective is to support the transition of family farms to ecological farming in West Africa. Often people see agroecology as a business opportunity to attract funding. But really it is just a farming approach that better corresponds to the reality of most family farms here, which cannot afford to buy chemical inputs. Agroecology simply is low-cost agriculture for these family farmers.
Concretely, we have been training farmers for more than 7 years in these practices at Cifan (International Training Center in Agroecology) located in Nyeléni, south of Bamako. This involves learning how to make organic fertilizers, biopesticides from certain plants that have repellant effects against insects and pests, or better understanding soil fertility systems. We are working with independent researchers from multinational food companies, and we are starting to have good experience in this area. These findings and solutions must now be brought up to the larger political and government levels.