Grains in Mali: More than Meets the Media

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Mali Cereal GDP

SGR background

Mali’s effective food governance policy stems from a two pronged approach, the first of which is a strong strategic grain reserve (SGR) system. SGRs first rose to popularity in the past century starting in the United States following the Great Depression with the introduction of the Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933, which directed the US to purchase excess grain to stabilize prices and keep production profitable for farmers, while also contributing to a grain reserve that could be tapped in the case of severe weather impacts on crop production. As countries around the world were burned by individual economic or weather shocks that affected food availability, they too adopted grain reserves. 

However, the tide turned in the 1980s. In the US, the 1985 Farm Bill began dismantling these farmer safety nets, and by 1996 the US government had completely pulled out of grain management and given price support programs the axe in favor of a free-market approach. This same policy shift was pushed for in developing countries. In the 1980 and ‘90s, under IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs, developing countries in Africa, South America, and Asia, were nudged toward neoliberal policies that encouraged deregulation of agricultural commodity markets. The policies were met with mixed results and controversial ramifications. 

Currently the US has no strategic grain reserve, but many countries both developed and developing have adopted opposite policies. China has a massive reserve, rumored to amount to 300 million tons, although official statistics are confidential. Following food crises at the beginning of this century, most notably the 2007-08 crisis, many nations have invested in SGRs. Furthermore, there appears to be a rise in the numbers of people impacted by food insecurity, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the FAO, while the percentage of sub-Saharan Africans who are undernourished has decreased, the real numbers have only increased over the past quarter century.

It’s important to note, however, that SGR policies are not simply about stockpiling grain. Storing grain is expensive and can have negative ramifications on domestic economies if not managed carefully. It requires a skillful balancing act between unloading stocks and reducing spoilage costs. Furthermore, SGRs are much more complex than managing grain stocks. The strongest SGR policies are dynamic and include other elements that strengthen market management.

Mali’s production push

The second prong of Mali’s approach has been to encourage grain production through policy mechanisms. Shortly after gaining independence in 1960, the Office of Agricultural Products in Mali (OPAM) has regulated cereal markets and prices while managing strategic stocks. Since 1965 OPAM has overseen a small cereal stock of 35,000 tonnes called the National Security Stock (SNS).

OPAM originally pushed for significant market oversight, holding monopolies over the market and providing significant subsidies. As these policies were axed for more free-market policies, OPAM introduced the Program for Restructuring the Cereal Market (PRMC) in 1981. PRMC evolved to eventually run Mali’s integrated food reserve system which has a variety of elements that combine emergency funds, market information and early warning systems, with management of the reserve cereal stocks, culminating in a comprehensive and well-coordinated food security program that has been hailed as a model in the region. Following the Sahel food security crisis in 2004-05, during which the SNS was depleted and emergency food funding fell to its lowest levels, Mali set up the State Intervention Stock (SIE) of an additional 35,000 tonnes.

The government works closely with its early warning system to release this stock during the lean season to stabilize pricing on the market without drastically manipulating markets. Furthermore, management of the stocks is independent of the marketing board, but is still involved in buying and selling of the grain in reserve leaving it less vulnerable to corrupt practices.

Having an even-keeled and successful food reserve policy allowed for domestic market consistency, which encouraged farmers and private sector investment driving increases in cereal production. Several external factors also aided the success of cereal production. A relatively peaceful and effective political situation up until about a decade ago also encouraged funding into agriculture and allowed that investment to flourish. In fact, average credit to agriculture, forestry, and fisheries over the past 25 years is just under 13 percent, the highest of any West African nation. 

Mali Ag Investment

Furthermore, while landlocked countries are often placed at a trade disadvantage, Mali, forced to innovate, turned this geographical shortcoming into an advantage with regard to cereal production. The lack of cheap and easily accessible global trade put pressure on the nation to develop domestic sources of cheap grains. It was also one of several factors that resulted in more investment in intranational transportation infrastructure which helped reduce the cost of grains throughout the country despite production being concentrated in the southern half of the country.

These policies allowed Mali to navigate the Sahel drought and locust infestation of 2004-05 and the international food crisis of 2007-08 better than most West African countries. During the international food crisis of 2007-08, rice prices in the capital city of Bamako did not experience the same price shocks as those in other West African urban centers. 

Strategic grain reserve policies are only half of the success story. Tactical reforms and calculated government intervention encouraged grain production as can be seen in the meteoric rise of corn and rice production. 

Mali Cereal Production

Corn catapults

Corn (also called “maize”) production was first encouraged in the early 1980s by the Compagnie Malienne de Développement des Textiles or Malian Cotton Company (CMDT), which launched the Maize Intensification Project. The initiative was meant to encourage cotton growers to cultivate corn as part of routine crop rotation and as a way of providing increased food security for cotton farmers. Corn was specifically promoted because it is the most fertilizer responsive of the rainfed cereals. Therefore residual fertilizer provided for cotton production could be secondarily utilized, efficiently raising corn yields.  

As prices fell and the cotton export market became more volatile between 2004 and 2008, more Malian farmers were able to easily switch over to growing corn, as well as sorghum whose adoption was also encouraged by CMDT. This increase in cereal production is a factor that several experts credit with buffering the nation from more severe impacts of the international food crisis of 2007-08.

Between 2008 and 2011 the Malian Ministry of Agriculture launched a series of initiatives to further boost production of several cereal crops, one of which was specifically corn. The government aimed to nearly triple corn production from less than 700,000 tonnes in 2008 to 2 million tonnes by 2011. While there were concerns that such a drastic increase in corn production could harm prices, slashing farmer incomes, a simultaneous increase in poultry and livestock production provided a burgeoning domestic market for corn, buffering demand despite constricted trade opportunities in the region. 

Mali Feed Livestock

Rise of rice

Since independence, Mali has consistently focused efforts on cultivating the rice production potential of the inner Niger delta region that spans the central and southern regions of the country. With the Niger River fed by tributaries like the Bani and further naturally irrigated with substantial albeit variable rainfall this region has beneficial conditions for rice cultivation. Currently around 5 percent of Mali’s Gross Domestic Product comes from rice, indicating that the measure has been rather successful. 

Mali Precipitation Anomalies

During the liberalization of OPAM throughout the 1980s, the organization went from having a monopoly over the cereal market to providing a more hands-off approach, which disrupted production in the short term but ultimately allowed producer prices to rise. The rise in prices incentivized rice production, and it simultaneously produced more revenue for the ministry, which allowed for the sustainability of subsidy programs, which could therefore encourage increased production of rice. The policy shift ultimately proved effective, rice paddy production more than quadrupled from 1980 to 2000. The approach was also innovative at the time because of the high level of collaboration that took place between government and donors as well as its multi-year commitment, which increased confidence in the program.

Initiative Riz (French for “Rice Initiative”) was a strategy spearhead by the Ministry of Agriculture that has set an ambitious 10-year plan beginning in 2009 to boost rice production, ultimately angling for annual rice exports to amount to 1.5 million tons by 2018. The plan begins by subsidizing inputs like fertilizer and better seed varieties while scaling up investment into agricultural equipment. Despite significant political and environmental turmoil, production has still made some substantial gains. From 2008 to 2015 rice production rose 43 percent. Mali still remains a net importer of rice, but these programs have reduced its demand for imports dramatically. Malian rice imports amount to just 5 percent of total domestic demand, one of the lowest figures in sub-Saharan Africa.


Mali’s success in boosting grain production is highly contrasted by the pervasive poverty that lingers in the country. The country is one of the poorest in the world, with more than half the population living in severe poverty, as defined by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative’s multidimensional poverty index. Its Gross National Income per capita is less than half that of sub-Saharan Africa as an average. Since the fertile regions of Mali are concentrated in the southern half of the country, agricultural and infrastructure investment has been disproportionately funneled to southern regions. This has left the northern and central Sahel regions neglected. Instability driven by Islamic extremists and increasingly dry conditions have been the biggest barriers to food accessibility.

 So although Mali has made great strides in increasing food availability within its borders, it has neglected to ensure equalized accessibility of these resources. While insecurity issues exacerbate inaccessibility, the issue is likely to be further compounded by the effects of climate change—over the past 30 years, rainfall in Mali has declined by about 30 percent. As this will put continued pressure on agricultural systems and food security, SGR initiatives remain critical, but addressing the accessibility of food becomes paramount. 

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has presented one step toward tackling accessibility issues: school meal programs. A program like this can alleviate childhood malnutrition while allowing governments to unload grain and boost domestic grain demand without meddling too much in domestic markets. Mali already operates a very small school feeding program of just 4,000 tons annually. However, IFPRI estimates that this program would need to be increased to 90,000 tons to feed all students who are underfed. 

Now that Mali has spent the last half century laying solid groundwork for cereal production, it’s time the country turns its focus toward better methods of distribution and improving nutrition. 

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