Djibouti could increase its meagre food production by up to 50 percent over five years, but that would require the farmers to plant faster growing crops more adaptable to short rains, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said.
"We have seen from our food-for-work programmes that we can increase production significantly - even up to 50 percent over four or five years," Fatma Samoura, the WFP resident representative in Djibouti, told IRIN on Wednesday.
But, she noted, increased production "would require several ingredients, including quick-growing seeds adapted to a short rainfall cycle, because the rainfall cycle [in Djibouti] is very limited".
According to WFP, Djibouti, a poor desert country in the Horn of Africa, is both a least developed and a low-income, food-deficit country. Pastoralists make up the majority of the 700,000 population. The economy is largely service-based. Rainfall in the country is both erratic and low with yearly rainfall averaging 100 mm.
Some 23 percent of children underfive are moderately or severely underweight, and 22 percent are severely or moderately stunted. The illiteracy rate is 61 percent, which three-quarters are women. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries live in the country, straining the already weak socioeconomic fabric of the country, according to WFP.
Agricultural productivity currently accounts for only 4 percent of gross domestic product. The farmers mainly grow vegetables, fruits and palms. But about 80 percent of the country's food requirements are imported, including all its rice, wheat flour and sugar.
With the exception of torrential rains in April, which caused significant flooding, Djibouti has not received heavy rainfall for four years.
"They need to put in place water retention and infrastructure to catch the water and avoid loss through evaporation. At the moment, the rain goes directly into the ground or the sea. They also need to improve drainage to avoid the flooding," Samoura added.
Noting that increased food production would require significant financial concessions from the government, including tax exemptions on certain agricultural tools and seeds to make them more accessible to farmers, Samoura said significant extension work would also be required for tribes like the Afar and Somali, who are herders by tradition.
Samoura also highlighted the option of Djibouti's plentiful supply of fish. "People need to understand the importance of protein from fish. The nomads don't eat fish, for example. We need a huge awareness campaign by all agencies working here," she said.
"Fish is easily available in all coastal towns and is very cheap compared to mutton - to the good meat that they are eating. And they don't need sophisticated equipment to get fish on their plate," Samoura added.
Djama Mohamud Doualeh, the permanent secretary of the agriculture ministry, agreed with Samoura's assessment. "Yes, it's feasible. Yields are generally low, but could be augmented if irrigation is improved," he told IRIN. "By tradition, these people are nomads, moving from one point to the next. But with the past four years of drought, the entire region is equally affected by drought and they cannot afford to move, because there is no water anywhere."
"And if they can combine production of food with production of livestock, then they can significantly reduce their malnutrition - and this will contribute to the Millennium Development Goal of reducing child and IMR [infant mortality rate] by 2015," Djama added.
A June 2004 food security report by the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System Network said prices of basic foodstuffs had increased by between 25 percent and 30 percent since August 2003, and that this represented a significant threat to the poorest 10 percent to 15 percent of Djibouti households.
According to Djibouti's current poverty-reduction strategy paper, 42.2 percent of its people lived in extreme poverty in 2002. The paper cited the extreme poverty line at US $1.80 per adult per day, which is actually high by African standards, but reflects price levels in Djibouti.