Abundance of agricultural produce in Somalia may sound like an impossibile thing. That is what years of international media attention on hunger, malnourished children, drought and war has wrought. But is that so?
The agricultural sector in Somalia is perhaps the most misrepresented aspect of the country.How else can one reconcile the fact that as of early 2001, agriculture accounted for 47 per cent of the export from Somalia? Or that Somalia is rated as the world’s leading exporter of frankincense? Or that out of the 627,337 square Km of land mass that makes up the country, 69 per cent is permanently under pasture, supporting cattle, camel and goat farming, while 1.73 per cent is under cultivation, supporting a banana, sugarcane, sesame and cotton farming alongside other crops? Yet all these happened in the past. Today, better commercial agricultural projects are underway in different sections of the country.
For these projects, the priority is not just large-scale farming, but also seeking better and more scientifically informed ways of improving the crop yields and finding alternative crops to cultivate. To this end, an agricultural entrepreneur, Mr Mohammed Hussein (above, inset) has partnered with Benadir University in Mogadishu and set up an agricultural research and demonstration centre at a farm located in Afgoye in the lower Shabelle region, some 30Km from the city of Mogadishu.
Since January 2013, they have been engaged in pilot test-cultivation of different strands of cotton and sugarcane and keenly monitoring and documenting their findings. The approach of the group is to research on best farming practices that can work better for the region, provide support in terms of seed multiplication, equipping farmers with the right agricultural tools, and other farm inputs. Once the farmers have grown their crops, the investing group offers to buy the produce and market in the local market or the international market.
Dr Omar Kulmiye, the deputy dean in the faculty of Veterinary Science at Benadir University in Mogadishu, says that between animal husbandry and crop cultivation, animal husbandry makes more sense economically in Somalia at the moment. He certainly knows better, since he worked as the Afgoye Dairy Farm Products Organisation from 1984-1991. He explains the deference: “Somalia is rich in both crop produce and animal produce. Animal husbandry is better in terms of revenue. The country exports beef to Middle- East. Besides the export, there is a good market for animal products locally.”
In his view, the kind of yields currently being realised in Mogadishu can be improved through cross-breeding and proper feeding programmes. Milk production, for instance, is one of the animal products that he advises that can easily be improved by improved feeding programmes and by cross- breeding. But it is not the harvest that worries him. Value addition is limited due to lack of proper processing plants. Mr Abdul Khbeer Mohyidin, the co- owner of Khana Khazana — an Indian hotel and restaurant based in Mogadishu, adds that he has access to only fresh milk in Mogadishu and none of the by- products. “To make biriani, for instance, we need yoghurt for the flavour.
But that yoghurt will have to be imported. The same goes for other dairy products like ghee, cheese, skimmed milk etc. There are no firms that can process these things here in Somalia,” he says. At the farm in Afgoye, the traditional farming district in Mogadishu, the farming area is a different world. The swathes of green rows of bananas, the dangling paw paw fruits, and cotton inter-cropped with bits of maize. The brown soils ready for planting lying side by side matured crops waiting for harvest.
Mr Omar Haji Hussein, the researcher who was in charge of the pilot project that looked at cotton farming. Working with Benadir University and the agricultural entrepreneur, he planted and recorded the progress of a new strain of cotton which he hopes to grow on a much larger scale. The trial project lasted roughly four months from planting to harvesting and yielded 650Kg out of the 625 square metre pilot farm. “The farmers are interested. They want to explore cotton farming alongside banana and sesame plant growing on a larger scale,” he says.
The agricultural entrepreneur believes that the future lies in commercialisation of the project and seeing to it that the produce gets to the international markets. All the talk about commercialising the farming sector, international markets, investors and setting up value addition points such as the processing plants, sound a tad ambitious but they are achievable. To get to such levels however, there are challenges that have to be overcome. The greatest of which is financing. For the farmers who work far from the city, there is limited information about the availability of financial institutions that can offer financing for equipment. The banks might also be hesitant to finance farming as a commercial venture.