Gambia’s import of rice has grown significantly in recent years compared to the past, the demand for the country’s staple food has increased. The more rice is imported, the more the price escalades in the local markets.

According to the Gambia Bureau of Statistics, an average of Nine Hundred Millions Dalasi was spent on the importation of rice from 2005 to 2014. The highest quantity was 143, 768,000 tons while the lowest was 35,553 000 tons in 2011 and 2006. This includes both commercial and food aid to the government.

The major importers of rice in the country are commercial owners who are mostly foreign business tycoons as the greater population of Gambians consumed rice daily as a staple food with rising demand in the market. The former President Yahya Jammeh who was also involved in business at the time has predicted more than 100 percent increment on the prices of rice in the country which has come to past. Since then a bag of rice has increased to the amount not affordable to many Gambians especially the poorly paid civil servants.

Experts who spoke to this medium about the lack of sustainability on the import of rice to the country at the expense of the growing population called on the government to revitalize the Jahally-Pacharr rice project. This project was first established as rice farm scheme for the large-scale irrigated and mechanised rice production. It is said no country can developed without food self sufficiency.

After several efforts of persuasions, Mr. Sambou Kinteh, former Principal Agricultural Officer responsible for the Central River Region (CRR) and Upper River Region (URR) has finally agreed to talk about the Jahally/Pacharr project, saying he is not selling himself or looking for a job in the new government.

Kinteh explained that the first attempt of Rice Farm Scheme RFS, suffered from poor engineering works with the result that attempts to irrigate failed and production had to depend on rain. He said the Taiwanese Technical Mission, World Bank and People’s Republic of China initiatives suffered from common weaknesses of omission of internal drainage systems, poor access, lack of flood protection work and high canal seepage losses. He added that Rice Development Project also failed without adequate financial provisions.

The former Principal Agricultural Officer and Permanent Secretary has highlighted valuable lessons accumulated from the past initiatives. He talked about the beneficiary involvement in the design and formulation of rice development project especially in site selection and choice of components. He also talked about the scale and level of sophistication of irrigation and mechanical technologies as well as the socioeconomic conditions of the farmers including sustainability of outputs like spare parts, local maintenance and repair services skills.

“Availability of support services: production inputs such as seed, fertilizer and chemicals; institutional support services such as extension, credit and markets; and mechanisation services such as land development, land preparation, irrigation and drainage, harvesting and post-harvest processing is critical for profitable production,” Sambou Kinteh said.

He further talked about a balanced division of management’s attention and emphasis between timely organization of production inputs and services on one hand and ensuring timely crop husbandry practices. He called for focus on development of rain fed swamps, tidal irrigated swamps, rehabilitation of small perimeter schemes and establishment of new perimeter schemes in descending order of priority.

Meanwhile, the recent visit to the camp at Sapo in the Central River Region was like walking in a ghost camp. There was barely a handful of people in the camp. Many of the buildings were old and abandoned.

“This place used to be lively with 24 hours electricity or generator like in the city. We have NARI, DOA, Water Resources, Mechanisation Team and Project Staffs. They were all working in high gear and was very instrumental,” NARI Farm Manager, Modou Sambou said.

Modou Sambou said their mandate was to make adaptive research on basic commodities like rice in low and upland including mangrove ecology. He explained the screening of different varieties of rice before selecting the best suitable for cultivation in the country. He also highlighted the lack of conducive working environment such as during flood, poor electricity and bad salaries among other things.

“Land is not a problem,” he pointed out.

The NARI Farm Manager called for the revival of the mechanisation team which he said would help to revive the rice project. He further called on the government to bring back Tractors and Power Tillers under one team with competent staff or mechanics. He added that the unit should have initial operating capital as a start for lubricants and spare parts.

“We need to have good salaries with hardship allowances. That will keep the workers to stay. It’s not like in the greater Banjul area where other avenues like treks are available,” he explained.

Mr. Modou Sambou said the Mechanisation Team can be providing services that will be responsible for ploughing the farmers fields which he said within one or two season will be able to stand on its own, saying it could cover all rice fields including the one in Kuntaur.

“When this is done there will be no need to import rice in this country,” he emphasised.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ousman Colley, Director of Agriculture covering both Central River Region and Upper River Region could not be reached for comments.