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close this bookThe Courier N 130 Nov - Dec 1991 - Dossier: Oil - Reports: Kenya - The Comoros (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
close this folderCountry reports
close this folderThe Comoros - In dire economic straits
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAn interview with President Said Mohamed Djohar
View the documentAn interview with former Production and Industry Minister, Ali Mroudjae
View the documentComoros-EEC cooperation
View the documentExternal aid to The Comoros

An interview with former Production and Industry Minister, Ali Mroudjae

Realistic development for The Comoros, but first...

What are the real chances of economic development for the volcanic, infertile isolated islands of The Comoros? Ali Mroudjae, the country’s former Minister for Production and Industry, discusses them with The Courier.

· The Comoros’ production is badly held back by the shortage of arable land. What is preventing you from introducing new farming techniques - that is to say, intensifying production, and using more inputs, for example?

- There have been a lot of studies of this. We in fact had our soil charted a very long time ago. This was the basis for listing priorities and the top priority was cash crops, vanilla and ylang-ylang and cloves, which brought in a lot of money. For some time now, however, the market has been dwindling and sales declining, as they have all over the Third World. Cloves, for example, have plummeted from CF 3000 to CF 400 per kg and customers are hard to find, so it is sometimes only CF 300 even, a mere tenth of the original price.

The second priority was restoring the land, because with large-scale population expansion of around 3.3%, the threats were enormous, particularly on Anjouan. All our partners, all our funders and all those helping develop the country realised the danger and almost all of them pitched in to try and head it off. Food crops, forestry and all those sectors which could bring in money and could well take over from cash crops were a bit neglected, but the new three-year structural adjustment plan just negotiated with the Bretton Woods Institutions and our development partners takes them all into account, because unless we convert to forestry and food crops, we shall never make up our losses. Food crops make for savings in foreign exchange after all and we import something like 30 000 tonnes of rice per annum - we have managed to keep it down to 28 000-30 000 t for the past 10 years. When you see our galloping population expansion, you understand why a big effort is being made with local food crops nevertheless. But production still has to be boosted and this means planning a processing industry for, say, the food and agriculture sector and so this new agricultural strategy is very much to the fore.

· You mentioned cash crops... The price of ylang-ylang is rather high at the moment, but you cannot take full advantage of it because of the age of your plantations. What prevented you from renewing these plantations for a crop that is of such importance to the country?

- Yes indeed, ylang-ylang is one of the rare cash crops to hold its own. It’s a very special sort of plant, I think, and competition is minimal because you need weather conditions you don’t find easily anywhere else. You need the sort of rainfall which you tend only to get on islands, you need tropical sunshine and I think you need sea air too, because ylang-ylang is a coastal plant and doesn’t grow high up. All this is in our favour, of course, but a great deal of labour is involved too, because many people have to work very hard to harvest ylang-ylang and better distillers are called for if it is to be a profitable enterprise. The flowers are boiled and distilled to produce essence and the equipment which chills and condences the vapour has to be sound, with no holes or leaks. The best ones are made of copper, but we don’t produce copper and our copper machines are 30 or 40 years old and need replacing. Recent arrivals on the market use sheet metal, but it doesn’t last. We have attempted to cope with all this by inviting UNIDO to take part in a project to look at the problem from all sides. So we do have a policy of modernising machinery and boosting output. That is one of the difficulties. Another is the energy required for distillation. We use wood and wood now is scarce... I told you just now about the calamity on Anjouan. Anjouan is where most ylang-ylang is distilled and ylang-ylang is partly to blame for the destruction of the forests there, so we are looking for another source of energy with decent returns. We tried diesel, but it’s rather expensive compared to wood, because wood is free. We once tried to bring in coal from South Africa, but we didn’t have normal relations with this country and I think the trial wasn’t long enough for any proper conclusions to be drawn and perhaps we should try again. I have just tried to make contact with the authorities in Madagascar through the Ministry, because Madagascar has huge forests which it is trying to thin by clearing swathes and so on, which will mean it has to do a fair amount of felling. It has asked for FAO assistance to try and make charcoal with the timber - decent, properly tested charcoal which produces a lot of heat - and it is willing to sell us some for our distilleries. A start has been made, contact has been established and we have been visited by an FAO export and various Madagascan businessmen. We aren’t at the practical stage yet, but the project could get under way very soon.

· The EDF has financed al least one project to encourage maize production as a gradual replacement for rice. How successful has this been?

- You have to see this project in the political context in which it was devised. Ali Soilih was there at the time and he had what is called a fascist policy - between communism and fascism - because it didn’t go anywhere. He tried to clear the decks, and bring atheism to the country.

This policy had its positive points, you can see that now with hindsight, because the aim was to decentralise. But the population rejected it. This was the context in which the first big maize scheme was set up with the idea of diversifying the people’s diet. It wasn’t that maize was something the Comorians wouldn’t eat. It was just the context. When the rme changed, the project was started up again, but under a different name - ‘Maize and food crops’, it was called - because we need maize, if only to keep the livestock sector going. That is where maize can help us to be self supporting in poultry feed, first of all, and, of course, in food for the population. But the basic idea must not be to replace rice. Rice is imposing itself all over Africa because it is cheaper and easier to cook. Even big countries such as those in Europe, which have culinary and gastronomic traditions of their own, are being overrun by rice. When I was a student in France in the 1960s, we used to go miles to find a shop which sold rice - Uncle Bents from the USA it was’ then, but now you can get rice from any supermarket shelf, even in sacks. They eat a lot of rice in Europe. I’ve been to London and most of the restaurants there are Pakistani or Indian and rice is what counts there too.

· Are there any food crops in which you can safely say you have achieved self sufficiency?

- In this country, as you know, the food tradition is green bananas cooked in coconut milk with meat or fish. That is our staple diet. There are sweet potatoes too - the variety we have here is very good and ideal for the population and it is an integral part of our diet - and we also have tubers, that is to say, yams and manioc. What we want to do is stop rice getting any more popular. We want one out of every two rice meals to be replaced by local foodstuffs. That is the policy. Our market gardens are expanding because we are eating more and more lettuces and carrots and so on. We usually eat rice at lunch-time and have a lighter meal - vegetables and grilled manioc or sweet potatoes or something - in the evening. So the message is that, while we want to contain rice consumption, we realise we cannot replace it entirely as it has become a completely irreplaceable part of our diet.

· Can you hope to go in for livestock on an industrial scale, given that traditional grazing implies deforestation?

- We could do intensive rearing here provided we solved the water problem, particularly on Grande Comore. We have livestock areas there, but a hydraulic policy for the grazing land is called for. We have to get water to some places and we are therefore running projects with the EDF, installing water catchments all over the place, using the old craters you can see if you fly over the island. No digging is required, as all we do is line the craters with a thick layer of concrete, a well-tried method in The Comoros which we only need to spread. We did discover water on Grande Comore, contrary to expectations, a few years ago, so all we need to do now is dig down, although for centuries people said there was no water on Grande Comore as there were no rivers and we just had cement tanks.

· But it’s supposed to be very expensive to sink wells on Grande Comore.

- The higher you go, the more expensive it is, of course. The land slopes up steeply from the coast and the higher it is the more it costs to bore. Let me explain. There is no clay at the bottom, but seawater filters into the island through the porous soil and when it rains, rainwater filters in too. When the waters meet, rainwater, being less salty and less dense than seawater, comes to the top and can be pumped out. So there is water everywhere. You can bore on the coast without any problems, although you have to calculate carefully, because if you go too near the shore you could end up with brine. But you don’t have much choice.

· There is still one resource you haven’t exploited - -the sea. What has been achieved in this sector lately?

- That brings us to something which is of particular concern to me. When I went to the Ministry of Production, I realised there was a big drawback to our production policy, because, with cash crops losing their value, some way of compensating had to be found and, in my opinion it had to be found in the sea, in fish. Our waters are full of fish. We have huge amounts of tuna. There are seasons when one fisherman can bring in 20 tuna all by himself - that’s a huge amount for one person - and we have a red fish called sebastis marinus, for example, very expensive fish, as well. This is where we need a policy, the master plan for the development of our fisheries which is wanting at the moment. So there is work to do in this sector. When I arrived at the Ministry some time ago, one or two very efficient projects were already under way. There was an artisanal fishing scheme, for example, to update the tools used by traditional fishermen, who were still fishing from hollowed-out tree trunks with outriggers and paddles. It tried out seven metre fibreglass boats fitted with motors so fishermen could get to the fishing banks quicker and it tried installing rafts all around the islands so the fishermen could be guided by them and save time and fuel. We should also like to have refrigeration facilities for this project near the fishing zones and fishing villages to keep the fish fresh. Thanks to Japanese cooperation with our policy, we now have a school of fisheries, which is teaching extremely interesting fishing techniques. The upshot of the artisanal fishing drive is that there are more and more fish on the Comorian market. There is no shortage nowadays. The problem is keeping it so the market can be regulated and the fish marketed, because we have plenty of it, even enough to export, if only in the region as Seychelles does. We are also looking at the possibility of moving over to semi-industrial fishing with large vessels which can process the catch on beard. That is phase two, non-artisanal fishing, and phase three is a preserving plant to process tuna locally and market it outside.

This is one way of boosting our income from fishing. Another is farming shrimp. I don’t know how good it is, but we are planning to follow in the footsteps of a lot of other countries and go in for shrimp farming. At all events, a French firm has applied to come and run trials and we agreed immediately, so they will be arriving to get their tests off the ground any time now. We also have crawfish at great depth, not for export, but for local consumption - there would be plenty for our expanding hotel and tourist sector. So, those are the different sides of our fishing industry - tuna, shrimp and crawfish.

We can also breed fish in the sea itself, as Moh has little islands where we can make what amounts to a big aquarium - the Japanese are very good at this sort of thing - and raise one particular kind of fish, sebastis marinus, the red fish I mentioned just now, and market it in the region, on Rion, where they are very fond of it. All this is part of our fisheries development policy. With studies and research, we need more and more big specialists, because this is a sector where amateurs are not wanted. We have to join much bigger units, because a little country like The Comoros cannot afford all the infrastructure it needs for surveillance of the coast, territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. There is a regional organisation, the Indian Ocean Commission, and we have a fisheries association called the Indian Ocean Tuna Association, which is financed by the EDF as part of its regional cooperation efforts. We have laid the foundations for a regional association in the greater region, going from India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives over to Madagascar, The Comoros, Seychelles and Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique, about 11 countries altogether. We got together in Seychelles recently to see just how far collaboration could go’ because the Tuna Association aims to evaluate the region’s potential and do some research into the way tuna behaves there and so on. But some sectors which are of economic interest to us are not dealt with by the Association - the surveillance of our waters, for example, marketing and the infrastructure required to process the fish on the spot. We nonetheless think we should have a big association like the one they have in the South Pacific, which has had some very interesting results. It will enable us to swap ideas. A fairly large source of information is of benefit to small countries like The Comoros, we think, and will mean we can exploit our resources very soon.

Something else in the fish sector which is already working is the royalties we get from the agreements we sign with the EC for European vessels - traditionally French and Spanish and this year one or two Portuguese ones too - to come and fish in our waters. The same agreements have been signed with virtually every country in the region. We receive royalties, but we believe we can go on authorising European vessels and have our own ships out there as well, just one or two, to try and boost the local catch.

· You have a great deal of experience in the Government of your country. How do you see The Comoros’ economic future?

- The Comoros’ economic future is very simple. As I see it, everything has to come from the Ministry of Production and Industry where I used to be. When President Djohar asked me to join his Government, I said I would do so on one condition - that I could have that particular department, because that was where I thought there was something to be done. You need firm opinions in that department. You need determination, because it’s a large ministry and it has many tentacles. By the time a new Minister has found out about all the links and the different sectors and so on, he’s gone. That is the truth, sadly, although I think (I may not be in the Ministry of Production now, but once you are familiar with it... ) there is still a lot that can be done, because there is livestock and there is agriculture, although these are things that take time. If we were to launch, say, a fruit policy, it would take at least five years if we got started now. Firm structures have to be set up, so that even if a new Minister does turn up, he can’t alter anything. There has to be someone who is committed enough to do the basic job, which is all over once the policy is launched. Ministers may come and Ministers may go, but they will follow what has been laid down. It’s like ylang-ylang. The plants are there and they don’t alter and all we have to do is harvest and sell.

It’s a pity, but just when conditions seemed right, because our development partners realised that a lot of thought was called for in this sector, they paid for a study which the Comorian Government wanted with a view to the agricultural strategy. The study is virtually complete. It isn’t perfect, nothing in this world is perfect, but it is something we can work with. All the major questions have been asked. They perhaps haven’t been answered in enough depth, but our technicians are ready to add what is necessary and so we can add our own ideas and changes to the document.

We have to take action in the three sectors. We have talked about fish, but we have to deal with food crops too, because food crops can be exported and they stabilise the diet. I forgot to mention that we have a potato project which is going very, very well and that the Comorians are beginning to eat potatoes. We can export bananas and yams, for example. There is a fast expanding African community in Europe which is crying out for things like that, for manioc leaves and various selected products which can be exported. Cash crops exist; something has to be done before we can launch all those products, be they cash crops or be they food crops. We have to have agricultural credit facilities. We have to have them because there is not one single institution which deals with them. Marketing has to be properly organised because we are islands and we have the problem of transporting goods from one island to another. Moh is a veritable garnerbouse for all these products, but they have to be shifted to Moroni, so credit and marketing facilities really have to be organised first.

The third thing for the future is processing. We have to be able to process our goods. We grow fruit here. The mango trees you see here grow naturally. We don’t even have to plant them, but now we are working to a system, because the European market is highly selective. Mali, for example, and various Latin American nations sell top quality grafted mangoes on the European market and we shall be forced to work harder, because our land, which is volcanic, is austere and hostile. Anyway, our future lies with food crops and cash crops - provided we can set the scene with credit and marketing facilities. And then we shall have to tackle agro-food processing.

Interview by A.O.