With no commercial mineral resources or manufacturing sector, agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for many Gambians. The agricultural sector employ about 75% of rural population with 78% of working women and 57% of men directly engaged in cropping, livestock husbandry or forestry (DCS 2003). Overall the agricultural sector account for about 40% of the Gambia’s export earnings contributing about 26% of the Gross Domestic Product, GDP. Crop production and transhumance livestock production are the main forms of agriculture in the Gambia. Agriculture is predominantly subsistence. Crop production and livestock management are the primary agricultural activities in the Gambia. Farmers own and manage both crops and livestock selling surplus to pay for basic needs.
Major crops in the Gambia include pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), groundnut (Arachis hypogaea), rice, maize (Zea mays ssp. Mays), cotton, and cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz). Millet, rice and sorghum are native to West Africa. Groundnut, maize and cassava were introduced to the Gambia by the Portuguese sometime during the 17th and 18th centuries. Commercial production of groundnut began around 1830 (Books 1975). First recorded groundnuts export from the Gambia was in 1830 when a British naval officer Captain Belcher shipped 100 baskets each costing half a dollar to the West Indies in 1830 (Books 1975). By 1851, groundnut exports increased to 11,095 tons. In 1923 the Department of Agriculture was established with the The goals of the Department were to improve the quantity and quality of groundnut grown and the preparation of the groundnut produced for export. In the mid-1950s the ox-plough was introduced and agricultural training centers established across the protectorate to train farmers.
Agricultural policy in post-independent Gambia was principally driven by the need to generate cash to pay for goods and services required for economic development. Through a combination of tax policies, credit facilities and subsidies, groundnut cultivation increased at the expense of food crops. Expansion of groundnut cultivation peaked around 1970s. By 1990s persistent drought, drop in world market prices and led to the decline in groundnut cultivation as farmers return to growing food crops.
Cultivated cropland area in 2002 was estimated at 304,000 ha from 169,000 in 1960 (DoSA 2002; FAO 2004). Despite the increase the per capita arable land decreased from 0.35 ha per person to 0.15 ha. Forty-one percent of the cultivated area was under cash crops, primarily groundnuts with the remaining 59% under cereals. Sesame Seed, a minor, though a increasingly important alternative to ground was grown on 6000 ha.
Per capita arable land between 1961 and 2002. Source: DoSA 2002 and WDI 2000
Major food crops grown in the Gambia are millet, rice, maize, sorghum, cassava and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Favored by environmental conditions, millet is the most widely grown cereal in the Gambia. About 62% of the area under cereal crops in 2002 was millet. Rice is the food of choice for most Gambians particularly in urban centers even though much of it is imported. Since 1960s successive governments have invested heavily in lowland rice production. However, persistent droughts and saltwater intrusion in wetland areas have resulted in overall decline in area under rice cultivation from 28,000 ha in 1970s to 15,000ha in 2002 (DoSA 2002; WDI 2000). Maize is the third most widely cultivated cereal in the Gambia after millet and sorghum. Maize was introduced by Portuguese traders around 1550. However, it was not until 1980s when commercial maize production was introduced as a way to diversify food crops.
Area harvested and production in metric tons under cereal production in the Gambia
Production of major cereal in the Gambia between 1961 to 2002. Source. FAO Agriculture statistics, FAOSTATS 2004
Livestock production system has been essential source of well-being for many Gambian. The sector is the second largest employer in the Gambia, next to only cropping contributing about 25% of annual agricultural GDP and over 5% of total national GDP. Since 1980, the contribution of livestock to the national GDP has steadily increased from 4 to 5.5% with the monetary value realised by the livestock sector increasing from 18.1 million Dalasi in 1982 to 28.3 million Dalasi in 1996 (1976/77 Dalasi).
Major livestock species in the Gambia include cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, chickens and pigs.
Population of major livestock species in the Gambia, 1961 to 2002. Source. FAOSTAT 2004.
The livestock production system in The Gambia is predominantly traditional, and production is aimed at local market. Overall traditional livestock production system is extensive and subsistence in nature, with value placed more on the numbers owned than the economic values of stock owned. Livestock management is dominantly extensive pasture based. In this the animals are free-range on harvested croplands during the dry season and communal rangelands during the dry season and limited to restricted areas or tethered during the cropping season. During the dry season cattle are tethered at night on harvested fields in the evenings.
Over the years livestock production has become more sedentary in nature although, transhumance management is still being practiced on limited basis in a number of areas, particularly in the Central River Division. During the dry season and during particularly bad years, several thousand cattle migrate between the savannah woodlands and the floodplains in search of pasture, water and avoiding disease outbreaks. Small ruminants like goats and sheep are largely sedentary with the animals tethered at homes at night.
The system of management for draught animals, horses, donkeys, draught oxen and a few home based milk cows is semi-intensive system. When these animals are not working, they are tethered on green pastures during the rainy season and barn-fed with groundnut hay, bran and household offal during the dry season.
A recent development in livestock management is intensive management of small ruminants and diary cattle. During the 1990s the ram fattening and home-based diary cattle production was introduced. The ram fattening is a market-oriented program, designed to increase off-farm income, through intensive feeding of rams months before the Muslim feast of sacrifice. Home-based diary cow feeding is designed to on-farm milk production and production of fertilizer for fields.
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