An introduction to the economic history of rural Gambia

The basic question of this article is, to what extent two centuries of widespread cash crops production and relations to the world economy have promoted an understanding of market economy in rural Gambia. Further, how have the relations been between the Gambian farmer and the world market?

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Fyhri (1998), The Gambia: The complexity of modernising the agricultural Sector in Africa, thesis in geography, University of Oslo.

Traditional production and 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 chronical 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 century.

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%.

Groundnuts and slavery
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 palmoil 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 system.

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, labour-intensive agriculture 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 production decline.

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.  

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 system.

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 statal and corporative instititions (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 underprice 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 "traditional" economy, 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 colonisation and development thereafter.  


By Rainer Chr. Hennig, afrol News editor

Consulted Bibliography

Brooks (1975), Peanuts and Colonialism: Consequences of the commercialisation of peanuts in West Africa, 1830-1870, in "Journal of African History, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 29-54.

Carney (1986), The social history of Gambian rice production: an analysis of food security strategies, PhD thesis, Michigan State University, Ann Arbour.

Fyhri (1998), The Gambia: The complexity of modernising the agricultural Sector in Africa, thesis in geography, University of Oslo. Available in our library!

Weil (1984), Slavery, groundnuts, and European capitalism in the Wuli kingdom of Senegambia, 1820-1930, in "Research in Economic Anthropology,"  vol. 6, pp. 77-119.


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