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Q&A: Agriculture Can Lead Poverty Reduction

Sabina Zaccaro interviews MOHAMED BEAVOGUI, IFAD director for West and Central Africa

ROME, Jul 28 2009 (IPS) - Agriculture is vital to the economies of West and Central African countries, but poverty remains a reality in the region's rural areas.

Mohamed Béavogui: 'IFAD is helping farmers organise and increase their bargaining capacity... that's where access to market starts.'  Credit:  Sabina Zaccaro/IPS

Mohamed Béavogui: 'IFAD is helping farmers organise and increase their bargaining capacity... that's where access to market starts.' Credit: Sabina Zaccaro/IPS

The urban population has grown significantly over the last 30 years, creating new market opportunities as well as new challenges for agricultural production. Despite this, 41 percent of the overall population in West and Central Africa is classified as poor. Seventy-four percent of these – roughly 90 million – live in the rural areas.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) small farmers have little say in the major decisions affecting their lives, and they are rarely consulted on key policy orientations or investments.

Mohamed Béavogui, Director Western and Central Africa division at IFAD spoke to IPS about the uneven economic growth in the region and how to address the problem of agricultural production.

IPS: What are IFAD's priorities in West and Central Africa? Mohamed Béavogui: Much of the population in Western and Central Africa – about 60 to 70 percent of the population – lives in the rural areas. Agriculture is the main activity and income source for them.

The role of IFAD in this region is extremely important in terms of supporting the areas that can have real impact on poverty reduction. It has long been demonstrated that agriculture can contribute three to four times more to poverty reduction than any other sector.

For us, supporting agriculture means allowing these people to produce more, and producing more means having better lands to produce, controlling water, having good access to technology which is seeds, inputs, fertilisers.

But in order to do this you need financial resources and you need to be organised very well. Supporting them in having their own institutions to get together, being stronger in the market and asking government for better policies is our aim.

IPS: West Africa has a stronger market culture – specifically around agricultural production – than does the rest of the continent. What's IFAD's assessment of this market system? How do you interact with farmer networks? MB: There has been a long debate over the possibility to concentrate on large farms because of their better access to market. Our response is that the majority of farmers are small holder farmers, we cannot ignore them. And now there is evidence coming out that at farm gate (the net value of the product when it leaves the farm) these farmers are very competitive.

In fact they are competing without policy support and with many barriers. Any small farmer in any of the West African countries – when he gets out of his farm to go to the town has so many road blocks to overcome, and this contributes to the cost of his product before he even gets to the market.

But despite the apparent success, there are lots of problems – packaging is a problem because it is not easy to find materials. Transportation is also very big problem, the quality of the roads is very bad. Very often the lorry that comes to the village to collect your product is so old that it then breaks down along the road and you lose your whole consignment. This is something that happens everyday.

The other challenge is farmers' ability to organise themselves in order to be able not only to sell and to transport but also to have negotiation capacities with the buyers out there in town. What IFAD is doing is helping farmers to be organised and increase their bargaining capacity… that's where access to market starts.

IPS: What is the role of information in this process? MB: One of the key elements for negotiation is to understand the prices. The system of information on prices is something we are focusing on, trying to set up systems that allow a farmer in Cotonou to just take his phone and be informed about the prices in North Nigeria.

We do that in Ghana, and in Benin where (radio is also a key support). We finance rural radio stations which are a major source of information for farmers who can be updated on the current market price of oil and rice, for example. What happens very often is that they are asked to plant a product, they receive some money in advance for it, and at the end of the season the buyer comes back and fixes a very low price leaving no possibility for the farmer to negotiate (a fair price), due to lack of information.

At policy level we do our best to facilitate the dialogue between government and farmers, to make the government understand that their policies can influence agricultural production.

IPS: What is your relationship to the very active non-governmental organisations that are pushing schemes on agriculture at the moment? MB: We invest a lot in farmers' organisations. In West Africa, they are vibrant and very active. Today they influence the policy at national level. It is the best way really to make sure that policies that are devised take care of all the aspects, particularly the interests of the farmers themselves.

IPS: Land tenure is considered a key factor for credit, security of investment, control of labour, gender inequality. How is IFAD addressing that? MB: We have a lot of programmes on land tenure and its connections – gender, deforestation, irrigation, policies, traditions. We are conscious that unless the land tenure problem is at least controlled you cannot improve agricultural production. Nobody will come and plant a tree in a land if it’s not sure that the land is for him and he can use it.

Almost all IFAD's projects include land issues. In Burkina Faso, for example, we are helping the government on land tenure policies at country level and we are also helping African Union to support the thinking about land tenure.

IPS: What has been the concrete result of these activities? MB: In many countries until few years ago, all land belonged to the government, without questioning. These things are changing.

In Mauritania, in the Maghama area, 100,000 hectares of land – part of the land is not usable because there is no water: here we help the community to develop irrigation.

And part of IFAD's negotiation is to give every farmer who works on that land a portion of it. This is negotiated in advance through an agreement signed by the owners and the governments. Based on that, the owner of the land keeps the bigger part and the remaining portion is distributed among farmers, even those who did not have even land before.

It is happening, and we make sure that also women get their own share of land, particularly in the areas where food production is completely dominated by them.

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