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Exploring China’s Role in Fighting Poverty and Food Insecurity in Guinea-Bissau

Members of the Campossa Rice Farmers' Association meeting with the Chinese experts of the Sino-Guinea-Bissau ATCP/ File source: UNDP

Since 1998, the Chinese government has partnered with the Guinea-Bissau Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to implement the Sino-Guinea-Bissau Agricultural Technical Cooperation Project (ATCP).

Operating in two-year implementation phases, the overarching objective of this intervention was to strengthen agricultural development cooperation between these two countries, with China sharing its rice cultivation expertise and technology with local rice farmers in Guinea-Bissau, to grow the country’s technical capacity for rice production and increase its overall rice output.

Years of prioritizing cashew nut production, which brings in around 70% of foreign income, at the expense of food production had left as many as 51% of Guinea-Bissau households food insecure, according to the World Food Programme.

A counter-intuitive scenario developed where most of the annual foreign exchange obtained from cashew nut exports, was spent on rice imports. Recognizing this contradiction, the Guinea-Bissau government made local rice cultivation a priority in 2005.

Chinese Follow Bottom-Up Approach

Now in its tenth successive implementation phase, using a bottom-up approach with a strong focus on technical capacity building, local needs and grassroots engagement with local rice farmers, the Sino-Guinea-Bissau Agricultural Technical Cooperation Project (ATCP) has achieved immense success in increasing rice cultivation yield and income levels of rural rice farmers, while promoting food security, according to a 2018 external impact assessment of the program by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Through the Sino-Guinea-Bissau ATCP, local farmers in the Bafata, Gabu, and Oio regions receive rice cultivation training into improved rice cultivation practices, pest prevention, and knowledge of soil types and fertilizer use.

Crucially, this training includes the operation, maintenance, and repair of the agricultural machinery previously unavailable to these farmers, which are made available for the farmers’ use within designated demonstration fields. Its strong emphasis on technical capacity improvement has been noted as a feature of the program’s success.

Farmers report having unrestricted support from and access to the 15 Chinese experts resident in their communities during each two-year implementation phase of the program.

“Whenever we had questions or ran into challenges, they [the Chinese experts] were always willing and able to help put us through, even when it was late in the night, if we called, they always answered,” says Mr. Tino Mafaturi, a member of the Campossa Farmers’ Rice Association in the Bafata region, a farmer’s association in existence before the launch of the ACTP and one of the beneficiaries of its technical capacity building. It is not funded by the ATCP.

He continues: “We have had many people come to help us in the past, but while they just give us seeds and go, the Chinese are different. They truly have become one of us.”

New High-Yielding Rice Variety Born From the Partnership

Moreover, Chinese rice experts work with the local farmers to breed improved rice varieties that are high-yielding and disease-resistant, and an improved rice variety called the Sabe-12 was released in 2013. This unique variety has a maximum yield of 7.2 tons/hectare, which is more than ten times the yield of the local rice varieties.

Sabe-12 seeds are purchased by the Guinea-Bissau Ministry of Agriculture and since 2013 distributed for free to rice farmers across the country. The government hopes that with this, Guinea-Bissau will surpass the initial goal of becoming a self-sufficient rice producer, to being an exporter of rice to neighboring countries.

The Sabe-12 seeds are already exported to several other West African countries like Senegal, Guinea, and Cape Verde, bringing in much-needed foreign revenue, which the government uses to finance its free distribution of the Sabe-12 seeds to local farmers domestically.

Locally grown rice now fills the markets

Sabe-12 rice fields in the Bafata region/ File source: UNDP

Ms. Maria Fatima, the executive member of the Campossa Farmers’ Rice Association, says: “Imported rice is no longer sold in many of our local markets since we started planting Sabe-12. You still find them in the urban markets, though, especially for the rich people. We produce enough rice to eat and sell now.”

In ‘Achievements and Experience of China’s Agricultural Assistance’, the UNDP reports an almost 50% increase in average rice yield, as well as a 54% increase in average total rice output by local farmers who received and applied training from the China-Guinea-Bissau ATCP and grow the Sabe-12 rice variety.

“They have become one of us”

Maria Fatima, a founding member of the Campossa Rice Farmers’ Association in the Bafata region, calls the Guinea-Bissau ATCP “a blessing to our community”.

The program has catalyzed the growth of the association, she says, from “a small group of fewer than 100 farmers working on 20 hectares of land, to becoming the largest farmer’s association in Guinea-Bissau, with 180 hectares of farmland and over 500 members, 95% of which are women.”

She explains that prior to the arrival of Chinese experts, “I owned 0.25 hectares of farmland and produced about 600kg/hectare of rice in a good season. Since they came with their tools and machines, I have grown my farm to over 6 hectares, producing 5 tons/hectare of rice per season. I make enough money to sustain myself and sent two of my children to school abroad.”

The UNDP also notes a 34% increase in average monthly income of local farmers who had participated in the Sino-Guinea-Bissau ACTP training, and in the UNDP’s assessment of the Sino-Guinea-Bissau ATCP, Rui Nené Djata, formerly Guinea-Bissau minister of agriculture, is quoted as saying: “The Guinea-Bissau ATCP has helped train local agricultural technical personnel, improved the enthusiasm of local farmers for rice production and increased their income”.

He further states: “The ATCP has effectively met the country’s agricultural development needs, especially for the rice industry.”

Being intentional about adapting to local needs

The success of the Sino-Guinea-Bissau ATCP has been linked to its strong emphasis on technical capacity improvement as opposed to merely providing funding or infrastructural support. This has driven the self-development of the agricultural sector by stimulating interest in rice cultivation among previously demotivated local rice farmers.

This, coupled with visible rewards in increasing yield and income level of participating farming communities, has encouraged widespread participation by the local farmers and promotes their willingness to cooperate with the Chinese trainers.

A visitor is struck by the deep appreciation the local farmers have developed for their Chinese trainers, who have been intentional about adapting their activities to fit the local context and farming conditions, even going beyond the scope of their activities to help the Guinea-Bissau government draft its Agriculture Development Plan. This won the Chinese team the 2008 Championship for Good Progress in Science and Technology Award from the Guinea-Bissau government.

According to World Bank figures, the gross national income (GNI) per capita of Guinea-Bissau has risen steadily since 1998 when it was about $150, to its current value of $820. It is interesting to note that this rise coincides with the onset of implementation of the Sino-Guinea-Bissau ATCP.

The China-Guinea-Bissau ATCP deserves to be recognised as a model for effective Sino-Africa and even South-South agricultural development cooperation.

Oluwafolajimi Adesanya is currently an infectious diseases research associate at the Institute for Advanced Medical Research and Training, University of Ibadan

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