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Guinea-Bissau's Cash Crop Reaps Less and Less

The small, impoverished former Portuguese colony, Guinea Bissau, has one cash crop - cashews. It accounts for an estimated 80 percent of foreign exchange earnings. Eighty-five percent of the population depends on the trade. But changes in government policy, as well as shifts in world markets, are making it harder and harder for cashew growers to make a living. VOA's Nico Colombant has more from our regional bureau in Dakar.

Jerry Ndiaye walks across his cashew farm in Kachunko, outside the capital Bissau.

He says the cashew business used to be a good one, but not any more.

He says one of the problems is the government's meddling. He says officials have been trying to regulate and curb activity by outside Senegalese and Indian buyers, but that this has actually hurt local farmers.

He explains a high fixed government price is not being met by buyers and the government has no credit, only promissory notes.

Ndiaye sorts through dried cashews, removing impurities from the batch.

A very small amount is processed in Guinea-Bissau, because of recurrent electricity outages and instability.

Most of these cashews will be processed in India - the major center for cashew production - before being used in local cuisine or exported to the West, as an appetizer.

A kilo of processed organic cashews can sell for $30 or more in Western countries.

In Guinea-Bissau, a farmer is now lucky to get $0.25 for a kilo.

More border controls also lowered prices in the field.

Some of the buyers have moved their business to Senegal's nearby Casamance region, encouraging farmers there to produce more cashews.

To make matters worse, the allure of cashews has been reduced in India, Europe and the United States, following health scares and reports the crunchy food caused allergies. This all makes the price farmers get in Guinea-Bissau lower.

An economist at Bissau's chamber of commerce refused to be named or recorded for this interview. But he says more qualified personnel should be allowed into reforming the sector. He also says the government's strategy was for the long term, but that in the short term it seems to have not gone according to plan.

The president of the cashew growers association in the nearby town, Farign, Muhamadou Bikirn Diallo, says he would like the government to stop buying on credit and have the money to buy at higher rates. But he admits that money may simply not be there.

Farmer Ndiaye says he will continue growing cashews because he has no other work and he has been successful at this.

Other farmers are going back to growing rice again, alongside millet, potatoes and mangoes or trying fishing. They say cashews can be used for the fruit, or to roast as a treat, or to make the local alcohol, soumsoum, but that it is just not lucrative enough to sell to foreigners anymore.