Mali's farmers face uneven rainfall, rising food costs

by Soumaila T. Diarra | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 6 June 2011 12:46 GMT
Variable rains linked to climate change mean hard times for Mali's small farmers

GWELEKORO, Mali (AlertNet) - In this quiet village, farmers are waiting for the onset of the rainy season in July so that they can plant their crops.

But recent experience has left them worried about whether this year’s rainfall will be adequate - or whether it may prove too heavy at the wrong time.

Small-scale farmers in this west African nation face an uncertain future, caught between harvests imperilled by fluctuating rainfall, and rising cereal prices that make it hard to feed their families when they need to buy food. 

Sidiki Konate, a professor of climatology at the University of Bamako, said that since severe droughts struck the country in 1974 and 1984, annual rainfall has dropped continuously, which he attributes to climate change.

But unexpectedly heavy rainfall at the end of the rainy season in 2010 also damaged the harvest in Gwelekoro, about 60 km (38 miles) south of the capital, Bamako. Many farmers were unable to salvage their crops.

Issa Coulibaly, a member of the Malian Association of Farmers’ Professional Organisations said rainfall instability caused 50 percent of small farms to fail from 2010 to 2011. Experts say that this changing pattern of rain distribution is likely a consequence of climate change.

THE HUNGRY SEASON

In Mali, the rainy season is traditionally a hungry season, when food stocks from the previous year’s harvest run low. With the harvest reduced by erratic rainfall, the shortfall this year looks likely to be even more acute. 

Madou Kone, a 50-year-old farmer from the village of Heremakono, seven kilometres (four miles) west of Gwelekoro, used to harvest enough food each year to feed his 30 family members. But now he expects a shortfall and that, combined with the rising price of cereals, has him concerned.

“I’m expecting a difficult food situation before the end of this year. For the first time in my life I may buy extra food in the market. And I think the prices will continue to rise,” Kone said.

Villagers noticed increased prices for sorghum and millet, the staple crops of the region, soon after last year’s harvest ended.

“Cereals are particularly expensive this year,” said Karim Diarra, 43, a farmer in Gwelekoro. Diarra said that sorghum, which used to sell for about 23 West African francs (about five U.S. cents) per pound right after the harvest, now costs at least 45 francs (about 10 cents). A pound of millet costs nearly 70 francs (about 15 cents).

Surveying the horizon from her seat on a traditional bench in Gwelekoro, 65-year-old Niene Traore sounds close to despair.

“We are expecting difficult times,” she says “Cereals are expensive already and we don’t have enough stock of food for the rainy season.”

FOOD BANKS

The rise in food prices in rural Mali may be part of a global trend, driven by rising world population, higher food budgets in emerging giants like China and India, and loss of crops around the world to a spate of floods, droughts and other disaster. But some local farmers identify problems closer to home which go beyond rainfall instability. 

“In Mali, the food price problem isn’t only linked to the level of production. It is also due to the middlemen and speculation. The government must control food prices and create cereal banks to reduce the prices of the staple crops during the hungry season,” said Baba Drame, 78, the chief of the village of Heremakono.

Authorities agree that middlemen exacerbate price problems by buying grain right after the harvest and selling it back to farmers at inflated prices later in the season.

Moussa Leo Keita, general secretary of the Malian Ministry of Agriculture, said that the government is combating this problem with cereal banks - community stores that sell grain at subsidised prices.

Keita contends that overall cereal production is strong in Mali. He points out that the country produced seven million tonnes of cereals in 2010-11, an increase of 15 percent over the previous year. Government targets call for 10 million tonnes in 2011-12. 

The government has been running an agro-meteorological assistance programme to advise farmers on how to adapt their crops to the rainfall shortages. National TV and radio stations broadcast meteorological bulletins to tell farmers when to start sowing and what kind of seeds are adapted to different soils and rainfalls.

Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.