Somalia: Farmers plant seeds of hope

| May 18, 2015

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Farak Doudi always carries a rifle. He uses the gun to protect his five hectares of banana trees from bandits. Mr. Doudi farms in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia, widely known as Somalia’s “food basket.” Here, farmers like him are starting to rejuvenate the country’s agricultural sector.

Somalia used to be famous for bananas, goats, and sorghum. In 1990, Somalia exported 110,000 tonnes of bananas to Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. The country was the largest exporter of bananas in East Africa. But the slide into civil war in 1991 brought that to an end.

Relative calm has now returned to large parts of the country, and a United Nations-backed government is established in the capital, Mogadishu.

Farmers like Mr. Doudi are starting to benefit from loans through the Central Bank of Somalia, and tractors and land ownership certificates are increasingly common. Some farmers receive money from Somalis working abroad. The country is reconstructing its ports, and exporting an increasing volume of oranges, groundnuts and even camels.

In 2011, Somali militias expelled foreign aid groups from the Shabelle Region. The militias argued that international aid organizations were ignoring local farmers, and importing food rather than procuring it from within Somalia. Achik Dawal is a farmer in Shabelle. He agrees that this grievance was justified.

The militias also improved the irrigation canals to promote local farming. This transformed a dry province into a belt of lush green fields of rice and bananas. The militias further encouraged local farming by not requiring restaurant owners who cooked and served locally-grown produce to pay taxes.

Experts from the European Union, the Austrian government and the UN trained Somali farmers how to grade their harvests. In 2014, farmers produced 200,000 tonnes of high quality grain, which they sold directly to the UN World Food Programme.

But the agricultural recovery is fragile. Mir Daham is an economist with the Central Bank of Somalia. He says, “Our biggest headache is the local market. It’s too small to sell all our crops and livestock.”

There are other problems. Somalia has no agricultural research stations. Although there is a central government, rival warlords and criminal gangs seize lucrative plots of bananas and other field crops. Gunshots and grenade explosions often frighten farmers away from their farms – and they hide for weeks. Mr. Dawal adds, “Robbers [will] beat you for your banana harvest.”

David Warra is a research scientist at the Somali Crop Evaluation Forum, a government agency which certifies grain for export. He says, “We have to employ expensive security guards who demand 300,000 shillings [$430 U.S.] to protect a van of bananas.”

Mr. Doudi returns to his task of chopping down the trunk of a harvested banana tree. He says, “We pray this small progress continues. Our lives depend on these farms, this water and crops. I still till the land with a gun to protect my crop.”

But Mr. Doudi is pleased with the upturn in his fortunes. He says, “It’s a joyous feeling.”