At first sight, Mauritania does not look a promising location for food production.
The country sits on the edge of the inhospitable Sahara desert, with millions of square kilometres consisting of no more than sand dunes. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that more than 80 per cent of the surface of the country is desert. On top of that, recurrent droughts, environment degradation and periodic locust invasions mean the country experiences “structural food deficits”.
Yet, Mauritania’s 754km-long Atlantic seaboard is among the world’s most plentiful ocean fishing grounds. The coast, stretching from Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara to Senegal, provides the government of Nouakchott with a rare opportunity simultaneously to improve domestic food security, earn much needed hard currency and develop the national economy.
But critics say that Mauritania has so far used these fishing grounds as a source of hard currency, failing either to develop its economy or improve food security.
The country started systematically to exploit its fishery sector in 1979, and since then has signed bilateral fishery deals with several neighbouring countries, including Morocco and Algeria and with fishery leaders Russia, Japan and the EU.
The EU, for example, says its fishing deal with the country, known as the EU-Mauritania Fisheries Partnership Agreement, is Brussels’ most important fisheries agreement both in terms of volume and product diversity. Both sides signed the latest two-year agreement in 2012, enabling more than 100 European vessels from 11 EU countries to fish in Mauritanian waters. The EU pays €70m a year in exchange.
The deals with foreign countries provide an important source of income for the cash-strapped government, but experts say it needs to do more to develop the industry. In spite of the importance of the fishing industry, it is barely integrated into the national economy.
Only 5-10 per cent of the fish caught are unloaded at Mauritanian ports, and a much smaller percentage is processed locally, according to European estimates. Morocco, on the other hand, has been able to develop a strong industry, forcing European vessels to discharge most of their catches at local ports.
The FAO has urged Nouakchott “to increase the integration of the fishery sector into the national economy by processing the catch in Mauritania”. At present, more than 95 per cent of fish landed are exported as gross frozen products.
“There is little processing or value-added onshore, except for a small portion of the catch that is filleted or smoked in Nouakchott and minor, traditional value-added processing in Nouakchott and fishing villages along the southern coast,” the FAO says. “The industry is vital for government revenue but does not create many jobs, as most processing is done elsewhere.”
Foreign executives complain that the country provides poor services to the fishing industry and that costs are high, particularly for the electricity needed for cold storage.
One executive says that the costs are three time higher than in Spain’s Canary Islands, in the Atlantic to the north of Mauritania.
Nouadhibou, the port that is home to most of the foreign fleet, does not have enough handling equipment to unload frozen fish quickly from the vessels. The government, however, is promising further investment to resolve the problem.
Over-exploitation of the rich fishing grounds – particularly for the more valuable species such as squid and shrimp – is also a serious concern, foreign critics say. Greenpeace complains that European vessels are contributing to overfishing in Mauritania. The ecological organisation says that it would take more than 56 traditional Mauritanian boats a year to catch the volume of fish that one European industrial vessel can capture and process in a single day.
The German government, in a report issued last year, argued that “by using its fish stocks sustainably, Mauritania could preserve some 40,000 jobs in the long run”.
While the fish sector awaits reforms that could transform it into an engine of economic growth and food security, the agricultural sector faces an even more difficult situation.
Inside the Sahel, the arid region just south of the Sahara desert that includes countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Chad, the country badly needs irrigation infrastructure to grow more food. The World Bank and the EU have pledged $8bn in aid for the region, in part to boost irrigation to increase agricultural production.
But, until the money arrives, the FAO says poor and erratic rainfall has meant failed harvests, “and nearly 25 per cent of rural households suffer from food insecurity” in the country.
“Food prices have remained high, reducing the purchasing power of vulnerable households and making their access to food more difficult,” the FAO adds.
The cost of wheat flour in Nouakchott rose this year to a record of 188 Mauritanian ouguiya ($0.68) per kilogramme, nearly double the price of a decade ago, according to FAO data. The price of wheat flour is critical, as it is a staple food, consumed either as bread or couscous. Wheat accounts for a third of dietary energy supply and almost all of it is imported.
The price of camel meat, an important source of animal protein, has risen further, reaching 1,577 Mauritanian ouguiya per kg, rising 130 per cent in 10 years.
“Mauritania has been struck by successive severe food crises in recent years that resulted in depletion of household assets and high levels of indebtedness,” the FAO warned in its most recent report.
“The armed conflict in Northern Mali has driven thousands of Malians across the border into Mauritania . . . These refugees represent an additional burden to a region that was affected by a serious food and nutrition crisis in 2012,” it added.
Get alerts on Nouakchott when a new story is published