Traditional production systems:
Originally, the slash-and-burn method of agriculture
was predominant in sparsely populated Gambia. Besides the growth
of indigenous crops such as
sorghum, millet, fonio, rice and Bambara groundnut (as opposed
to the American groundnut grown
today), the keeping of livestock
was essential to rural households. Involvement in livestock and
degree of sedentarisation varied between the different ethnic
groups. Outside the various empires, farmers were fairly mobile,
responding to attacks from slave raiders, ravaging warlords and
shifting ecological circumstances. A general low population
density implied that free land resources always were available.
There was, on the other hand, a chronic labour shortage. From
the 8th through the 18th century, several crops of Asian origin,
and later on American crops,
such as maize and groundnut, were introduced and quickly assimilated
into local food production systems in West Africa. The American
groundnut was introduced by Portuguese agencies in the sixteenth
Rice as a cash crop:
West Africa is believed to be one centre of indigenous rice species,
and rice was grown on the annually flooded banks of River Gambia
long before Europeans arrived. As rice
production is rather labour intensive, it presupposed some degree
of political stability and labour supply, and it is thus no coincidence
that the Wuli Empire was centred in an area well fitted for rice
production. Rice provided a high yielding and nutritional food
staple and a trade commodity, while the empire could provide political
stability and a labour force of slaves. Long before the arrival
of the Europeans, rice was traded throughout the western Sudan.
With the emergence of the transatlantic slave
trade, demand for rice and other cereals increased. These
products were sold to slave raiders and traders, slaves and European
merchants and slave ship crews.
This made the coast near Gambia a more important production site,
boosting the demand for slaves for rice production locally. By
1800, the agricultural labour force was almost exclusively composed
of slaves, and the slave population of The Gambia is estimated
to have been over 50%.
The American groundnut was introduced to West Africa by the Portuguese
in the 16th century, and spread slowly as a fairly drought resistant
diet supplement. Demand for kitchen oil and industrial oils and
fats (for lubricants and production of soap and candles) was booming
in the early 19th century Europe and America, making it necessary
to import groundnut and palm oil imports from the tropics. Groundnut
overseas trade was introduced by the British in the 1820's, and
found immediate response amongst African growers, including the
indigenous building up of a system of middle men and a transport
This slowly led to a commercialisation of the agricultural sector
in The Gambia during the 19th century. The groundnut trade replaced
the slave trade after 1805. In 1830, ten baskets of groundnuts
were exported from The Gambia. Five years later, 47 tons of groundnuts
were traded. By 1857 export production had already reached 13
544 tons and represented more than 70% of The Gambia’s trade.
Most of the nuts were bought by British and French traders. Production
stayed within the context of slavery.
Groundnuts and strange farmers:
Between the 1880's and the 1920's, dramatic structural changes
occurred in the social organisation of labour in The Gambia. As
in other African colonies, colonial
government had no active policy to combat domestic slavery
worth mentioning before WW2. Unlike other African societies, however,
an indigenous process started in The Gambia, resulting in the
marginalisation of slavery by 1930. Actually, colonial legislation
forbidding slavery had been introduced in 1894 and 1906, but there
is no evidence that it was ever enforced.
Slavery simply became too expensive for the producers within the
new colonial conditions. Groundnut-producing slaves had to be
fed by their owners all year round. Enhanced groundnut production
at the expense of food production, and an ever-increasing population,
deepened the dependency on imported food. As the traditional trade
routes were blocked, and food import and trade was monopolised
by government-licensed Europeans and Lebanese, food prices increased.
Food retailers demanded cash or granted credits (at unfavourable
interest rates) tied to sales of groundnuts to themselves. Thus,
producers got even more dependent on cash-raising groundnut production.
The slavery-based production system, however, with its seasonal
demand for labour, but all-year obligations to the labour force,
was becoming too expensive as food prices were increasing. Hence,
in a transition period of ca 50 years, the organisation of labour
changed from slavery to strange farmers (hired, seasonal labour).
The advantages were obvious. Producers' food obligations lasted
only during the five months of the agricultural season. More labour
could be hired in the critical periods, and the system enabled
even ordinary peasants to gain extra labour. The regional availability
of labour was relatively high.
The strange farmers system was, however, not based on a monetarised
market economy. Strange farmers
were paid in kind, and were fed by their hosts during their stay.
Thus, the existence of this system depended on food availability,
i.e. sufficient local food production or food imports.
As food demand chronically exceeded food production, food imports
continued to grow, to the colonial government's great distress.
Cash crops production did not promote a large scale monetarisation
and capital accumulation in the Gambian rural society. For the
average farmer, cash income was limited and often exceeded by
the expenses of farming. Capital accumulation was next to impossible,
due to government taxation and the need to purchase food (i.e.
imported rice) and seed nuts. Local merchants provided (unfavourable)
credits, to be repaid when the groundnut harvest was sold (to
the same merchant). In bad years, mostly related to low precipitation
or low market prices, incomes were insufficient for repayments.
In good years, some was left for consumption. Thus, farmers in
general saw little of their cash income.
As the general restraint in agricultural production was seasonal
labour shortage, Gambian farmers, however, were more or less forced
to hire strange farmers. In an environment of abundant land resources,
and exposure to natural disasters (drought, locusts, etc.), and
where every additional labour unit produced more than he/she consumed,
strange farmers were vital to food security. Furthermore, government
taxes, to be paid in cash, forced the farmers into producing cash
crops. In this perspective, it is an open question whether the
Gambians now entered the market economy, or actually adjusted
their subsistence economy to the new colonial preconditions.
The 1920's, moreover, were marked by turmoil in the market situation.
After substantial post-war price increases, groundnut market value
tumbled from £ 22 to £ 8 a ton within the year of 1921. There
seemed to be insufficient capital amongst the producers to purchase
seed nuts and imported food, needed both by the producers and
the strange farmers, for the following season. The colonial government
responded by subsidising rice and cancelling parts of debt repayments.
These actions had to be repeated on several occasions in colonial
times, particularly during the 1920's. Subsidies, debt cancellations
and increasing food imports and thus foreign dependency (especially
problematic to uphold during WW2) distressed the colonial government.
||Action was taken by the government to promote food
production, particularly rice production.
Heavy customs duties on food imports were imposed, farmers were
required to produce minimum quantities of cereals and to spend
the first fortnight of the rainy season to plant cereals, rice
irrigation projects were initiated. Periodical increases in food
production were achieved, but this was not enough to cut imports,
and did not take place at the expense of groundnut production.
Groundnut production and sale had become institutionalised within
the Gambian society, and neither fluctuating market prices nor
colonial government policy could in general force producers to
increase food production at the expense of cash crops. Only during
WW2, when international trade was hampered, did groundnut
Thus, a rather surprising discrepancy
between government policy and farmers behaviour occurred in the
last half of the colonial
era. Colonial government pushed for more subsistence, while farmers
sought to uphold cash crops production. Farmers were, in several
ways, dependent on their cash crops production. Government
taxes had to be paid, accumulated credits repaid and demands for
Western commodities had increased.
There is, therefore, reason to believe that market relations were
perceived as a burden, inflicted on farmers by external actors.
However, the farmers' dependency of cash income probably made
them ignore, and even counteract, government policy for a shift
in production towards food staples.
POST WAR PERIOD - 1945-65:
The post-war colonial period saw a more active government policy
as to increase both cash crops and food production, coupled with
large investments. Large-scale rice irrigation and mechanisation
development projects (mostly failures) were to provide food security.
Nonetheless, food imports fluctuated around the same numbers throughout
the period. Basically, food production kept up with population
growth. However, enhanced subsidies on imported rice succeeded
in keeping food prices at a lower level. This, in turn, enabled
producers to hire more strange farmers and increase groundnut
production, but contributed to the failure of the various rice
irrigation projects. Further, the "oxenisation programme",
introducing draught animals in a nationwide campaign starting
in 1955, somewhat reduced the labour shortage. Oxenisation, cheaper
food and population growth contributed to a larger area of cultivation.
Higher livestock numbers gave
more manure, and contributed to higher yields. World market prices
for groundnuts were high in the post-war years, but started to
drop in the early 1950's. Even rainfall was sufficient and fairly
stable. All in all, therefore, these were relatively prosperous
years for the Gambian farmers.
Some wealth accumulation became possible. Better housing, diet
improvements, health care and prestigious
Western consumption goods were now available. Besides that, the
new wealth could be displayed in a larger number of wives and
children, in accordance with tradition. Investments tied directly
to production mostly included livestock herds and drought animals.
Bigger herds, it must be noted, contributed little to productivity
or turnovers, but were a traditional way of displaying wealth
and increasing food security. In general, it therefore seems that
economic surpluses entered into the traditional value sector,
where concepts of easy displayable wealth and gift economy prevailed.
The post-independence development:
The economic development after 1965 was more ambiguous than in
the preceding decades. New, serious problems emerged. Pressure
on the land resources began to make its impact as population kept
rising steadily. The traditional fallow period of ca thirty years,
essential to keep soil fertility when fertiliser or manure availability
was low, shrank towards two years or zero at present. Deforestation
and agricultural intensification laid the land open for widespread
erosion. Precipitation fluctuated dramatically, and The Gambia
was severely affected by the Sahel droughts in the 1970's and
1980's. In addition, groundnut prices
kept falling on the world market, with a short-lived exception
during the mid-70's.
On the other hand, several blessings of modernisation made their
impact during the same period. Labour shortages were further neutralised
by enhanced oxenisation, the sine-hoe-package (a ploughing, seeding
and harvesting devise tied on to drought animals), new roads
(simplifying access to the fields) and new wells. New varieties
of plants were introduced, including a more pest resistant millet
and a more drought resistant and higher yielding groundnut.
Moreover, chemical fertilisers became widespread, usually doubling
yields and making fallow periods superfluous. This trend, however,
came to an abrupt end when government fertiliser subsidies were
halted in 1987. Fertiliser sales have dropped significantly, alongside
with yields, and fertiliser is now a seldom sight amongst the
Gambian farmer. In total, these conditions led to the peaking
of groundnut production in the late 1980's and a slight downwards
trend thereafter. Trends tend towards increased food production
(mainly millet) at the expense of groundnuts, seemingly ending
the Gambian farmers' experimentation with the capitalist production
The ERP (Economic Recovery Program) from the mid 1980's did little
else than enhance these trends. While it helped cleaning up state
finances and the budget situation through cuts it subsidies, it
meant less incitements for the Gambian farmer to intensify his/her
contacts with the market. The cut of fertiliser subsidies gave
too high prices to make it available to farmers with a low liquidation
- which is to say, farmers in general. Rising consumer prices,
especially on food products, have driven these costs out of range,
and led to a renewed emphasis on food production. The privatisation
of former state and corporative institutions (such as the GPMB)
have lead to even less trust in the market.
The question remains open, whether the Gambian farmers at any
time actually involved themselves in market capitalism. Of course,
they were linked to the capitalist world economy
through their trade with groundnuts. There are even signs of enthusiasm
in the relation to this market in middle third of this century.
However their perception of, let alone their belief in, this system
remains doubtful. Several responses indicate the predominance
of the traditional value system to the market economy amongst
the farmers. Failure to reinvest surpluses in good times, a fundamental
ground rule of capitalism, constitutes one vital example. Another
indicator is the recent response to higher fertiliser prices.
Even with present day prices, the use of fertiliser is highly
profitable to the farmer. Still, this does not seem to be an option,
as it would involve an intensification in the relation with the
market (larger credits or sale of livestock), as farmers do not
possess the required capital/savings. Short-term food security
is preferred, but of course also a necessity. Finally, even pro-market
responses can be interpreted in the sense of lacking options for
the farmer, as government taxes and labour scarcity demanded an
involvement with the market.
On the other hand, structural preconditions for capitalist development
were somewhat lacking. The prevailing land tenure system, with
the village as formal proprietor of the land, restricted private
property rights. Obliquities in the world trade system have further
tended to under-price developing countries' export products or
creating trade barriers for them. Obstacles to "development",
thus, are many.
Conclusively, the parallel economies of African countries it must
be underlined. There is the "modern" economy, practiced
by the links to the international market and by policy-making
officials and donors and to a certain degree by the state as an
entity and some local traders and capitalists. Then there is the
practiced by the rural population at large and to a certain degree
by government officials. Mind the
conflict of ideas when policies are developed in one economic
rationality and is set to be practiced by a population with a
foundation in another economic rationality. This is very much
the essence of the history of colonization and development thereafter.