Better Rice Eases Hunger Fears in Gambia

Amie Bayo knows rice. For most of her 48 years, this mother of four from the Gambian village of Jahaur has walked barefoot to her rice plot, pausing only to hike up her skirt and wade through the brackish streams that crisscross her path. When the spring rains come, the streams swell, often washing out the bridge. Amie will balance her lunch on her head, sing a soft song, and, with water up to her necklace, walk straight through it.

She’s grown up with the soft mud of the paddy between her toes. Growing rice, it’s safe to say, is in her blood. She remembers sitting in the fields as her grandmother worked, banging pots and shouting away the birds that treated the fields as a buffet table.

But this planting season it wasn’t the birds; it was fish. Amie’s field is on the shores of the Gambia River where tides of fresh water lap in twice a day to irrigate her rice. But that fresh water also brings Amie’s nemesis: tilapia. The big-lipped fish came en masse and chewed her rice seedlings down to a nub. “I thought I wouldn’t have anything this year,” she says. “I thought I would suffer.”

Amie knew if she didn’t get help she wouldn’t have enough rice to feed the eight people who live in her compound. Or enough to sell for extra money. She would have to resort to digging the roots of a wild plant and selling it in the market as a kind of natural potpourri. But that wouldn’t be enough to cover the cost of a bag of rice. The Gambia imports some 78 percent of its rice, and Amie knew she’d have to pay. At the time, a 100-pound bag cost $47. That was up from $29 in January 2008. Amie knew she was in trouble.

But Catholic Relief Services, through the Association for Village Support, a local nongovernmental organization based in the area, gave Amie—along with 1,500 other families—a $20 voucher to buy fertilizer, something she had never used on her rice. She said she thought that river water was enough. And, besides, the fertilizer, she figured, would just wash away. But with a field full of gnawed rice stalks, Amie was desperate; the fertilizer couldn’t have come at a better time.

With 50 pounds of fertilizer and advice on how to apply it, Amie’s rice not only grew back, but she thinks she’s going to have her best harvest ever: 35 bags, minimum, she says, standing amid the golden piles of rice drying next to her field. That will top her best year of 30 bags. She’s going to have plenty to feed her children, buy clothes for them, and pay their school fees. She’ll even have enough to sell so she can invest in a $30 bag of fertilizer for next year.

“Now I have seen the benefit,” she says, as she threshes the golden rice kernels in the hot Gambian sun. “It’s worth selling the rice to buy fertilizer. Before, I never thought of it.”

CRS also gave a new, fast-maturing seed to 280 “seed multipliers,” women who grew the high-quality seeds for the next planting season. Along with the seed, CRS gave each a $40 voucher to buy fertilizer. The seed multipliers should grow more than 22 tons of seeds to ensure enough will be on the market for next year.

Immediate Help, Immediate Results

When the price of rice spiked last year, CRS was one of the first to respond. It was an opportunity for farmers to take advantage of higher prices and raise production. Just like in The Gambia, CRS gave female rice farmers in Burkina Faso fertilizer and seeds. The agency’s quick reaction meant that the farmers’ current crop would have a higher yield and they wouldn’t have to wait until this year for assistance.

The need to increase rice production in Africa—and decrease reliance on imported Asian rice—is so acute that CRS, along with the Africa Rice Center and other partners, has set up a two-year program in Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria to help increase the rice production of 10,000 farmers in each country. The goal: Boost domestic rice production in the four countries by 30,000 tons. This will be done by providing improved seed, fertilizer and technical assistance.

“Rice is perhaps the most important cultural and cash crop for small farmers across West Africa,” says Tom Remington, CRS’ agriculture advisor for Africa. “CRS-supported programs—in partnership with the Africa Rice Center and others—will ensure that West African rice farmers become and remain competitive in rice.”

A Second Planting

A few villages down the road from Amie, you’ll find Ndey Jallow, a smiling woman whose knock-off chandelier earrings would make Liz Taylor proud. But she wasn’t so happy a few months ago. River hippos submarined into her village’s rice paddies under the cover of darkness, wallowing and lolling through their manicured fields. There was nothing Ndey could do. As big as propane tanks, and with nasty attitudes, hippos are known to “staple” those who enter their territory. Hippos are strictly vegetarians but will use their two protruding canines to clamp down and bite people when they feel threatened. It’s illegal to shoot them in The Gambia, so Ndey could only shake her head, suck her teeth, and hope the damage was minimal.

But this year, she will be able to make up for what the hippos destroyed. CRS gave her ATM-3, a new variety of rice that Taiwanese researchers in The Gambia developed. It grows to maturity in three months. The rice that she usually grows (barrah mano, or “labor rice,” is what they call it) takes four to five months to mature. By the time it matures, the fresh water in the Gambia River that irrigates her crops will turn salty because of a lack of rain. The salty water kills the rice plants.

The new variety, which is sprouting in floating green carpets as thick and trim as a barbershop crew cut, will be ready before the salty water arrives. Ndey was so impressed with its fast growth that she took it upon herself to plant the second crop. Nobody from CRS told her to. She thinks she’ll be able to harvest a second crop of rice before the salty water arrives.

Last year, Ndey harvested eight bags of rice. But it didn’t grow to maturity. When she milled it to remove the husks, the rice grains disintegrated into powder. With the new variety, the rice is rock hard and white as baby’s teeth. So far, she’s harvested 12 bags. And there’s more to come in a few months. That’s going to help her pay for cooking oil, meat and soap: three of her biggest expenses.

What’s the difference in taste between traditional rice and ATM-3? “It’s the difference between sugar and honey,” says a smiling rice farmer named Sokhna Jow. “The taste of the rice made us cultivate it.”

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  • Loretta

    I sure hope these “better” rice are not the genetically engineered rejects that much of the world doesn’t want because of the health risks.
    Are the fertilizers natural and 100% biodegradable (as tested by 3rd party sources, not by the companies that make them)? Or are they made by the usual suspects that our own country is having difficulty with? If they are not quality fertilizer, how clear is it that something even worse isn’t being introduced?

  • Which do you think is more likely to kill somebody in the Gambia: inorganic fertilizer residues, or starvation?