MALI: Food situation looks positive despite insecurity

Friday, July 11, 2008
Despite high global food prices, conflict in the north and the onset of the lean season which lasts from July to September, the food security situation in the north and elsewhere, looks positive this year in Mali.

"[Food] prices are going up, but it's normal; stocks are good and the cereal is available. We think overall, the harvest will be good," said Alice Martin-Diahirou, director of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Mali.

"There are pockets of concern for us around the towns of Bourem and Ansongo, near Gao, but the situation this year is not serious like in previous years," she said.

The positive outlook for food security in the north comes despite the insecurity that has recently gripped the region.  A number of violent raids and clashes have caused more than 50 deaths over the past few months as the Touareg  rebellion has escalated.

Gao, 1,200km north of the capital, Bamako, is currently under an unofficial curfew, and many people fear the rebels have laid landmines on the road up to Kidal.

However, aid agencies said so far this was having little effect on their ability to operate. "Although Gao is classified by the UN as facing a security threat, we are not seeing any interruptions to our work here," said Mohammed Ag Hamalouta, from WFP in Gao. "This year is quite a normal one for us."

Rains good so far

The rainy season in the Malian Sahel appears to have started well. "Although we have to treat first predictions with caution, it seems like the rainy season in the Gao and Timbuktu regions will be good," Dirama Diarra, head of research and the development of rainfall prediction at the National Meteorological Office, told IRIN. "We think it will be humid with more rains than normal."

This is welcome news for farmers in and around Gao which lies deep in the Sahelian belt. Mostly they rely on rain-fed agriculture. Even in a good year, it only rains about 10 times in Gao.

Self-sufficient in millet, sorghum

Mali has been more protected than some of its neighbours by global food price rises because it is self-sufficient in millet and sorghum, the staple food of 80 percent of its population, and it exports these grains to its West African neighbours, including Mauritania, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

But the country has not been entirely insulated from global food price rises, particularly when it comes to rice. Mali produces on average half of its total annual rice consumption, importing the rest mostly from Asia. "We have seen some rises in the price of local rice," said Christian Bren from the non-governmental organisation Action contre la Faim in Gao, "but Mali has better managed the high prices than the other countries."

High rice prices mainly affect urban residents who prefer to eat it rather than traditional grains. Consumer rice prices in Bamako were 27 percent higher than the five-year average in March 2008, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Government action

To cushion the blow, the government has levied import taxes on rice, and heavily subsidises fuel costs, making them among the lowest in West Africa. The ministries of economy and finance also introduced additional regulations for imported rice in March: "Any businessman who benefits from tax exemptions on rice imports has to sell it at a fixed price to consumers," said Mahaman Assouma Touré, the national director of commerce.

Because of these measures the government has so far succeeded in stabilising the price of rice at about 70 US cents per kilogram.

The government has also adopted the 2008-2009 Rice Initiative, in which it commits to setting aside land and providing agricultural equipment to increase its rice paddy fields by half, bringing production up to 1.6 million tonnes per year.

The next step, according to Touré, is for Mali to increase its self-sufficiency in other basic products. Mali is still heavily reliant on imports of basic necessities, importing 70 percent of products such as cooking oil and dairy products, but there are as yet no concrete schemes in place to improve yields for any of these products.

According to a World Bank official who preferred anonymity, with the right investment Mali could go even further - moving beyond self-sufficiency to becoming a major exporter.

"Mali has to get over its addiction to rice and start growing other crops in higher quantities - sesame seeds, dates, potatoes, bananas, and mangoes," the official told IRIN. "Mali could become a major bread-basket in West Africa if it plays its cards right."