Particularly During Ramadan
By Mustapha Jallow / Assan Bah
The ongoing rise in prices of essential commodities over the past months, coupled with the skyrocketing in transportation fares have made life unbearable to Gambians as they struggle hard to manage their household budgets.
In this holy month of Ramadan, citizens make various kinds of food or meals for breaking the fast referred to as ‘Iftar’. But the worsening economic situation has left many frustrated.
Our reporters sound the voice of citizens on the cost of living in both the Greater Banjul Area and West Coast Region. Most of them lamented how things turned from bad to worse in the recent weeks as far as food prices are concerned.
At popular food markets such as Wellingara, Latri-kunda (Sabiji), Serrekunda and Brikama, customers and traders are still unhappy about the lack of solutions to these problems, hitting almost every Gambian.
A bag of American rice (50kg) is now sold at D1,450, while a 50kg bag of sugar is D2,000 and 20 litres cooking oil also jumped to D2,000 thanks to the global supply chain, the pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine.
“World food prices jumped nearly 13% in March to a new record high as the war in Ukraine caused turmoil in markets for staple grains and edible oils,’’ the United Nations Food Agency said in April 2022.
The USDA’s Economic Research Service also updated its March-2022 report predicting a 4.5%-5%rise in food prices this year. Eating out will see the highest increase, 5.5%-6.5%, the report said.
While the prices have gone through the roof, transportation fares did not also spare anyone. It is causing a serious economic crisis for residents, especially in a country where the majority are living in poverty.
“The prices jumped numerous times, but salaries still remain low and our money is worth much less (there’s no value in our dalasi). In that case, poor people suffer the most,” said Ousman Ceesay, an Arabic teacher, who was met on Wellingara’s street.
The cost of living has forced Kumba Badjie residing in Wellingara to engage in petty business, where she buys goods per kilo and resells them to adjust her family daily survival.
“What I earn today, equals what I used. So, if I survive today, I don’t know what tomorrow will be like, she lamented.
Badjie said sometimes she will spend D1,500 or D1,000 in buying food items, but the high prices in the market are making things difficult for her, saying there is not much profit and she is living from hand to mouth.
“A bag of potatoes is sold for D700, while onion is at D600 or D550. Can you imagine?” she asked.
Badjie said customers would blame her for making her items costly, but she has to convince them that the problem is at the top level (importers) and store owners. She called on the authorities to quickly step in and address what she referred to as a new pandemic (rising prices).
“These challenges have really disrupted lives and supply chains across the world, where even Gambia has not been spared,’’ said Saidou Bah, a senior secondary student. “The truth is that traders and other businessmen are not the real cause of the spikes. They are also human beings and need something to live with their families. So, the government should take up its responsibilities to bring down the prices.’’
“Imagine a cup of cooking oil is now sold at D25. ‘Sadam’ rice per cup also jumped to D15. The increase of commodities is not fair to buyers at all,” said Aisha Dumbuya, a resident of Latrikunda.
Dumbiya, who was met as she entered the market to buy foodstuff for the evening ‘Iftar’ for her family, lamented that the fish-money is barely enough to cover their living due to the skyrocketing of commodities.
“The situation is getting tougher every-day, especially in the month of Ramadan,” she added.
Fatima Saidykhan, also from Latrikunda, sees this Ramadan differently because of the prices and transportation fares that have gone up drastically.
“My husband does carpentry; I cannot depend on him all the time. Therefore, I have to struggle very hard to be able to prepare a good Iftar for him and our children,” she said. “Now, I even find it hard to afford vegetables.”
Sometimes, Saidykhan said, she receives financial help from her sisters and brothers. But the token is never enough due to these challenges.
“We are suffering. We want quick intervention from Government to ensure prices go down,” she urged.
However, Ebrima Sankareh, the Government spokesperson, said in a statement that steps are being taken in ensuring that essential commodities are available and affordable to the Gambian population.
He said Government has not increased any duty or taxes related to these essential commodities and expects retailers to be reasonable in their pricing. He warned that failure to comply may require the government to deploy tools to address the anomaly.
Sankareh added that the state security apparatus will embark on a strong monitoring to ensure that consumers are not exploited.
Although there were some reliefs due to the government’s efforts to curb any rise in prices of food products, citizens believe that the government is not doing effort to address the problems since food prices continue rising rapidly.
“The ongoing pandemic, climate shocks, conflict and rising costs are creating a perfect storm in which many people are edging closer to starvation,’’ said World Food Programme (WFP), in its latest report.
Suwaibou Touray, Wuli East member of parliament said “food prices were going up well before the pandemic and Ukraine/Russia conflict. It has been increasing since Sir Dawda Jawara’s Government.’’
He said the reason behind the increasing cost of commodities was the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP), which was an old policy.
“The policy is causing us this trouble. It has failed since Jawara’s time and Jammeh and now President Barrow’s Government is also continuing with the same policy,’’ said Touray.
But Touray believes when price control is created, the country will curb price hikes, saying all food items should be controlled by checking the cost of items where it is produced as well as the cost of the transportation and taxes attached to it.
He recommended that the country needs good programmes of production of rice, onion, and even potato, so that the importation of food commodities into the country will be reduced.
Babucarr Saho, who was found arguing with friends about football in the street of Tallinding, said he does not understand the reason for the increment in prices of commodities and of fares in the country.
In Ramadan, he said sugar, chicken, meat, rice, oil, onion and potatoes are goods that are used to prepare meals for breaking the fast. But said these items are the most expensive nowadays.
“A loaf of bread with “Armanti” mayonnaise only is now D20. Soon it will jump from D20 to D25 or D30. We call on the government to put measures in place over the prices because citizens are facing tough conditions,” he said.
Nenneh Jagne, a vendor at Wellingara small market, complained of not gaining much profit from her sales. She said other items that are grown in the country are more expensive than the imported items.
Jagne has been selling vegetables for 15 years but is now experiencing tough moments as her customers are not coming regularly compared to before when prices were stable.
“I buy goods and try to resell them to make ends meet. But sometimes I return home empty-handed. I have children, and their school fees and other daily needs come from here. I’ve to pay the house rent and water bill too,” she narrated.
She urged Gambians not to blame the government alone because most of the crises are caused by citizens themselves, saying the government cannot move the country alone without the support of its people. Jagne tasked the authorities to visit the markets and see for themselves how sellers and buyers are struggling or coping with the crisis.
Fatou Singhateh, another vendor, advised businessmen not to use the fasting period for their self-gain, saying some are busy thinking of ways to exploit their fellow Gambians.
He accused importers of making it hard for buyers and sellers, instead of assisting them by not raising prices of their imported commodities.
Alagie Sey, a canteen owner at Wellingara market who sells food stuff, said he used to buy a bag of American rice (50kg) at D1,400 and sell it at D8 per cup.
For the bag of ‘sadam’ 50kg rice, he said it costs D2,400. He stated that he will buy one bag and resell it at D14 per cup, saying even though some sell it at D15. But Sey couldn’t continue with ‘sadam’ rice because it was not gaining much profit.
Sey said he sells the locally produced onion at D450 per bag or D400 unlike the imported bag that costs at D600. Although the prices of commodities are hiking, he said he will make his items reasonable for his buyers.
“There are different prices in the market. But I am making my goods affordable to my customers because our earnings are not the same,” he said. But Sey had to abandon most of these imported goods such as eggs, onion, ‘sadam’ rice and so on and focus on the products made and produced in the country.
“We (stall owners) are suffering. The buyers are also suffering. We want authorities to know that the situation is getting out of hand,” lamented Sey. “It has been a tough year but we expect more in the coming weeks,” he said.
Sey called on the relevant authorities to listen to the crying of citizens and urgently act to address the issues.
“If importers pressed huge charges on us, we will also increase our items,” said Aseyatou Jallow, who was sitting at her husband’s shop. She believed that the issue is not on them but the way they get the goods from importers, whom she added are not helping.
“In our shop here, we sell a spoon full of mayonnaise at D9, but others are selling it for D10. I also sell a loaf of bread with mayonnaise for D19, while some sell it for D20. My husband and I just want to make our business grow because in Gambia many are low-income earners,” she said.
Bakary Njie, market master of Serekunda Market, said the increment of basic commodities has deeply affected them (vendors). But he said the crisis is all over the world.
“Everyone is affected. No one will escape this because most of the products are imported. Therefore, we have to face it until a solution comes,” he said.
In Brikama, Ello Bah, who feeds ten people in his household, said he used to buy four cups of cooking oil but the situation has forced him now to afford only three cups because items are expensive and he is not economically strong.
“If you buy a good at D100 today, the next day, it will jump from D100 to D150. But I have to buy it since I cannot go a day without getting fish. I will sacrifice the little money I made to buy in order to resell,” Bah said. He urged the government to help resolve the crisis because they are in a difficult situation.
Kemo Dem, another vendor residing in Brikama, said each time he visits the market to buy merchandise, traders will tell him that the price has increased. Dem engages into small business to earn a living, but he said buyers think that he was fixing his own prices.
“The government should talk to the citizens instead of just keeping quiet,” he said.
Fatou Marong, a vendor in the same area and a mother of five, said she travels to other regions to buy vegetables and resell them in order to make profit.
“I wake up early in the morning to look for something that I can take home for my children. But things are very hard on me, especially in the markets,” Marong said.
Ahmed Abdifan, a Mauritanian and rice and cooking oil trader at the Brikama market, said they buy commodities at high prices.
The cost of transportation and renting, he added, is partly responsible for the sharp increase of essential foods on his side.
One Mary Gomez still expects prices to go higher as Eid, Christmas and the New Year come closer and closer.
“I am a Christian and I really felt for our Muslim colleagues during their month of fasting. The prices I heard at the market scare me because I know that Christmas is getting closer, sellers would add up more prices,’’ she lamented.
“I also hope that the in the coming year (2023) things will get better because the prices aren’t affecting buyers alone but importers and sellers as well,’’ Ms Gomze added.
Meanwhile, Nyang Njie, an economic analyst cum social commentator, said the government is faced with a moral dilemma to help citizens access staple commodities with reasonable prices. But due to the open market, he said, given the nature of the economy there is not much the government can do as it relates to price control.
For him, not enough has been done by the government to curb the inefficiencies in the market, such as corruption, inefficient port system and cost of doing business in the country.
The Gambia is listed as 102nd least corrupt nations out of 180 countries, according to the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International.
“This Ramadan will undoubtedly be one of the toughest since the economic recovery era of the 1980s for Gambian households,’’ Njie said in a comment he made on his Facebook platform concerning the rise of food prices.
Commenting on the issue of policy, he said most of the policy tools that can ease the situation are medium to long-term, and the most effective tool would be an import substitution strategy. He added that the strategy would spur local supply of rice to dampen the effects of importation.
“The efficacy of waiving import duty on rice is highly questionable because the price of rice hasn’t decreased commensurate with the elimination of import duties. I am therefore of the view that this reduction is a saving for the importer that never filtered down to the consumer,’’ the economist explained.
Foroyaa has found out from most of the local shops and stores about the prices of commodities.
A bag of 50kg ‘sadam’ rice was sold at D1,950 but now increased to D2,400, while a bag of American rice (50kg) was costing 1,350 before jumping to D1,450. A Habiba gold bag of 50kg rice is now sold at D1,400 and the 25kg bag at D900. A gallon of cooking oil (20litres) now cost D2000; it was at D1,650; while onion also costs D650 but some shops sell it at D550. A bag of sugar (50kg) rises to D2000 or D1,950, it was sold at D1,700. A bag of potato is now costing at D700, while others sell it at D620.
This means The Gambia does not produce enough food to meet its own needs and lacks the economic power to fill the gap by importing food.
A canned tomato paste (2200g), which costs D115, is sold at D150. A canned Sardine used to cost D25, but it has significantly increased from D25 to D30 and canned-beef (hen) was also sold at D50 before increasing to D60. For 5-litres of Armanti mayonnaise was at D750 but now costing D925, and D225 or D250 for 1 litre and the 500ml is sold D125. Jadida butter (900g-bucket) is sold at D600 and D100 for (450g).
Bread started from D5, then D6, D7, D8 but the latest price for bread is at D10.
Chicken legs are widely consumed across African regions, mostly used during ceremonies such as weddings, naming ceremonies, Eid prayers, Christmas celebrations and other events. The prices of chicken have also escalated. One carton of frozen chicken legs 10kg now costs D950, and on retail D125 per kilo and D60 per half-kilo.
Moreover, a tin milk of Peak gold (170g) is now D40 – it was costing D30 or D35 before rocketing to D40, while 200g is costing D90. Omela is tin milk sold at D25 and Vega milk at D20. A tin-box of Jumbo was D80 before its increment to D100 and per one is costing D2.50-bututs. According to World Bank official data, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in The Gambia was 1.90 billion US dollars in 2020, saying the GDP value of Gambia represents less than 0.01 percent of the world economy.
“Lower remittances, higher health spending and rising food prices also impose a burden on household welfare. Poverty is expected to increase to 9.6 percent in 2020, and will decline marginally to 9.0 percent in 2022 as growth recovers,” the data added.
Meanwhile, several attempts were made to engage the trade ministry through its permanent secretary over the concerns raised by the masses on the hikes of foodstuffs to no avail.
In 2021, an official at the aforesaid ministry informed this medium that The Gambia is a net importer, and mostly rely on importation, but blamed COVID-19 and high pricing of a container.
According to ‘Investopedia’, a net importer is a country that buys more from other countries in terms of global trade than it sells to them over a given period of time.
“The only solution to tackle the high prices of commodities is to produce rice and other items in our country because we have the land,’’ Ousman Bojang, director at the trade ministry said.
On 12th April, 2022 the government issued a statement after a cabinet meeting in which it stated that,
“Cabinet has commissioned an eight-member Economic Taskforce to look into the recent rise in fuel and commodity prices and the implication of the Russia-Ukraine war on all sectors of the economy. The Taskforce is assigned to develop a diagnostic analysis of the current situation of the economy and recommend measures to mitigate the impact of the conflict on the living conditions of people in The Gambia.”
It has also announced the taking the following measures: suspension of overseas travels except for statutory meetings of the UN, ECOWAS, AU, World Bank, IMF, AfDB, IsDB or where the organisers will fully pay the cost of participation in such overseas events; paying half per diem for the missions where the Government will provide accommodation; reduction of all monthly fuel allocation to eligible officials by 20%.
Foroyaa will be monitoring the state of prices in conjunction with the implementation of the stated government measures and the conclusion of the economic task force.