Gambia Withdraws Import Ban on Onions and Potatoes


The government of Gambia has lifted a ban on imports of onions and potatoes, with female onion producers criticising the move and calling for seasonal restrictions and greater support for local producers. Experience in Senegal suggests there may be a role for seasonal restrictions in stimulating investment in local production. Experience in Namibia meanwhile highlights how successful the use of trade policy measures can be in stimulating local production, if the necessary infrastructure, organisational and administrative capacities are already in place.

At the end of April 2017 the President of Gambia, Adam Barrow, announced the lifting of an import ban on onions and potatoes.  It was argued that the import ban had failed to stimulate the expansion of local production and had simply ‘led to a shortage and a price increase of basic commodities (1)’. Most onion imports were reportedly coming from Senegal (2). A government press release announced ‘the Government of The Gambia wishes to reaffirm that it will continue to pursue an open and liberal economy aimed at boosting trade and economic growth’ (3).

However local women gardeners condemned the governments’ decision arguing ‘allowing importation of onions into the country would mean spoiling the market for them’. Women producers pointed out they lacked ‘the power to build our own storage facilities to store our onion while selling it bit by bit’ and would therefore be likely to be left with unsold and spoiled onions. Women producers argued in favour of seasonal restrictions with ‘an embargo on onion importation when locally-produced onions are in the market and remove the embargo when the onions are finished’.  Women producers also called for government support to develop the sector, so national needs can be met from local production (4).

According to the US export agency in the case of Gambia ‘temporary import duties and outright bans on imports are periodically placed on potatoes and onions to protect local producers.  These bans come into effect at the harvest time of local producers; harvest times are not fixed’ (5).

Gambia’s Agriculture Minister, Omar Jallow, defended the governments’ decision arguing the government should ‘support our indigenes to grow until we are sure they can fulfil the market demands, then we ban but not the other way round’.  He claimed Senegal had adopted this approach in the egg sector (5). He argued the government ‘can protect our producers but not by banning’. Instead the government should ‘increase taxes on imported goods’.  Agriculture Minister Jallow said the government was ‘looking to invest in whole value chain, from production to marketing to add value on whatever we produce’. (6).

Meanwhile in Senegal April 2017 saw the official opening of an investment by the Dutch onion exporter J.P Beemsterboer Food Traders in a 100 ha onion project. While Senegal is the ‘main export market for Dutch onions in the first half of the season’, seasonal import restrictions have encouraged the company to invest in local production. According to J.P. Beemsterboer the project employs 200 people and will act as a ‘model farm where the local growers can gain knowledge’. This is seen as holding out the prospect of improvements in the quality and shelf life of smallholder onion production.  Asked ‘whether Beemsterboer will compete with the Dutch exporters with this local cultivation’, J.P. Beemsterboer pointed out the company ‘only grow in Senegal when there are no Dutch onions allowed into the country’. He said they were looking to ‘market the onions slightly later to prevent the market from being flooded’. Currently when local production was marketed ‘there are still Dutch onions available in Senegal’, this it was argued ‘must be prevented at all times’. (7)

Comments and Analysis

In terms of the use of trade policy measures as part of an integrated product development strategy, Namibia has enjoyed a highly successful experience over the past 15 years.  In selected horticultural products where production is ecologically and commercially feasible it has enabled local horticultural producers to supply almost 50% of the market up from a mere 5% prior to the launch of the Namibian Horticulture Development Initiative (HDI). This linked an improved structuring of stakeholder dialogues on production and marketing, to the tying of import licences for individual traders and retailers to their gradual, yet progressive, expansion of local sourcing. This was achieved through a transparently managed Market Share Promotion scheme. Most recently in 2011 a Special Potato and Onion Scheme was launched which makes provision for ‘all importing retailers, wholesalers and caterers to purchase all their potato and onion needs from local producers’, with import licences only being issued once the local supply of potatoes and onions has been exhausted (8).

Critical to the success of this scheme has been the conclusion of specific supply agreements between producers and traders of onions and potatoes, which ensures continuity of supply, with breaches of these agreements on the supply side triggering the issuing of import licences. This minimises market instability and price increases (for more details see the Comment and Analysis section of the companion article ‘The Belize potato market crisis: Sharing policy experience on sustaining local production in small ACP economies’, 3 April 2017 and ‘Namibia’s Retail Sector Charter and the Strengthening of Local Supply Chains’, 24 March 2017).

Of course Namibia has the benefit of a well-developed transport and communication infrastructure, with relatively large well financed farmers being the principal beneficiary of these HDI.  In the Gambia a range of additional issues will need to be addressed from transport and communication infrastructure constraints, through better farmer and trader organisation, to the regulatory and administrative capacity to transparently manage tied import licensing arrangements and effective border controls.

Investments in all of these areas will be necessary if the functioning of local onion supply chains are to be enhanced. This will also require the proper sequencing of the gradual expansion of local production with the progressive reduction in the issuing of import licences, with the latter occurring as domestic production expands.

(1), ‘Gambia lifts potato import ban’, 24 April 2017
(2) APA-Dakar, ‘Barrow lifts ban on importing onions potatoes’, 24 April 2017
(3) Freedom Newspaper, ‘Gambia Gov’t Lifts Ban On The Importation Of Onions, Potatoes, And Other Condiments Earlier Imposed By Jammeh!’, 22 April 2017
(4) The Point, ‘Gardeners condemn removal of onion import ban’, 25 April, 2017
(5), ‘Gambia – Trade Barriers’, 20 December 2016
(6) SMBC news, ‘Gambia’s food minister defends lifting of ban on vegetable import’, April 26, 2017

(7), ‘Onion cultivation project by Beemsterboer opens in Senegal’, 26 April 2017
(8) Agronomic Board, ‘Horticulture in Namibia’

Key words: Gambia, Onions, Potatoes, Senegal, J.P Beemsterboer Food Traders
Tags:          Horticulture, West Africa EPA