Why you should care
Thousands of migrants once fled the West African nation, but pineapple cultivation is helping put a stop to that.
Diadie Aboubacar had an epiphany in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea as the boat taking him and other migrants to Europe was waylaid by a gang of Nigerian, Guinean and Senegalese pirates who later sold them to slave merchants. It was September 2017, two years after the young Guinean had left to find a better life in Europe via North Africa.
“I decided to return home if I survived,” he recalls. He did survive, thanks to a chance interception at a Libyan prison by officials of the International Organization for Migration a month later. These days, the 28-year-old runs his own pineapple plantation just outside Kindia, Guinea’s fourth-largest city.
Aboubacar is among a growing number of Guineans who are part of an ambitious experiment to turn one of the world’s poorest nations into a major pineapple producer and reduce dangerous economic migration. Despite large bauxite and iron ore deposits, this tiny West African nation has an annual per capita gross domestic product of just $885. More than half of the country’s 12 million-strong population is under the age of 25, and that combination of youth and poverty has long fueled migration. In 2016, two years after the outbreak of an Ebola epidemic added another incentive to leave, 13,342 economic migrants from Guinea reached the shores of Italy. Only Nigeria and Eritrea sent more migrants to Italy that year.
Now, Guinea is turning to the humble pineapple to stanch that flow. The country’s government — through a “development unit” called the GDU — is partnering with Guinean smallholder farmers and international supporters to offer youth an economic opportunity aimed at dissuading them from fleeing. These efforts are also targeting returnees like Aboubacar.
Since starting in 2017, this initiative has already roped in 400 farms and more than doubled the area under pineapple cultivation in Guinea, from 250 to 550 hectares, under the supervision of the smallholder association, La Fédération des Planteurs de la Filière Fruit de la Basse Guinée (FEPAF-BG). The country’s pineapple production has nearly doubled, from 10,000 to 18,000 tons. Already, more than 2,000 people have found employment. Some farmers have set up training schools to prepare the next Guinean generation. A pineapple farmer can typically earn up to $2,500 over an 18-month cycle with just half a hectare.
[The Guinean government has] set the revival of the pineapple value chain as a national priority.
Adélaïde Kourouma, researcher
Guinea’s homegrown fix to migration also helps Europe and could serve as a model for other countries, say experts. The initiative is receiving investments from the European Union ($5.5 million) and Belgium’s development agency Enabel ($3.3 million) apart from the Islamic Bank of Guinea ($200,000) for irrigation equipment and fertilizers. And there are signs of success. Though a broader crackdown from Italy has led to overall numbers of migrants reducing, Guinea, the third-biggest source nation in 2016, is now eighth. In the first seven months of this year, only 91 Guineans reached Italy, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“We are doing this to create employment for young people, including those who failed to go to Europe and come back here,” says Moussa Camara, president of the FEPAF-BG.
It’s still early days, and exports are, for the moment, limited to other West African nations like Mali and Senegal. But the country’s government is seeking Geographical Indication (GI) status for the Baronne de Rothschild variety of pineapples for which Guinean soil is particularly fertile. The variety can grow in all seasons, over an 18-month period. The GI tag, experts say, will allow Guinean farmers to demand higher markup prices, especially when the country begins exporting to Europe.
This also means the humble pineapple is making a comeback in Guinea. In the 1960s, the country controlled a quarter of global pineapple exports. But tensions with France, an attempted coup by Portuguese-supported rebels, ethnic tensions and socialist policies combined to take a toll on its economy. By the 1980s, a juicier variety called the MD2 in Costa Rica emerged as the most popular pineapple globally, and Costa Rica remains the world’s largest pineapple producer. Guinea wants to reclaim its place.
“The GDU set the revival of the pineapple value chain as a national priority,” says Adélaïde Kourouma, a Conakry-based researcher familiar with the initiative.
Pineapple is favored over other crops because it is less cost-intensive and more profitable than other crops that grow on Guinean soil, such as yams or bananas, says Camara. “That is why the young people who don’t have money can farm pineapple,” he explains.
The FEPAF-BG trains young Guineans in everything from fertilizer applications to irrigation techniques and helps them secure loans and financial support from donor agencies. It also connects farmers with agricultural advisers. Smallholders have been the main beneficiaries so far, but larger producers are now being supported too.
Hadja Mbalou, for one, is preaching the gospel of agriculture to Guinea’s next generation at her farm in Friguiagbé, a village 6 miles southwest of Kindia. The FEPAF-BG gave her a water pump and fertilizer — on credit — to get her started. There, she processes a popular dried pineapple appetizer, runs two restaurants and hosts a school. She wants young Guineans to stay and try to improve their country instead of risking their lives to get to Europe. “I started doing it to encourage young people, including my two young daughters,” says Mbalou. “I keep telling them they should be interested in the work going on here because we have to develop our country to be like those places in Europe we envy.”
She trains her students in pineapple cultivation and processing, and also shows “people who are planning to go to Europe videos of the terrible journey there.” The students, usually between 18 and 30 years old, come from different backgrounds, from teenage migrant returnees to international students. In all, 217 have been trained at Mbalou’s school so far, in batches of 35, and each program lasts two to five months.
Key challenges persist. Many of Guinea’s roads are pothole-laden, and both the police and security officials regularly demand bribes from farmers and traders transporting produce. “The government needs to fix these roads,” says Mbalou. Only a third of the population has access to electricity. The government subsidizes seeds, but bureaucratic procedures make it hard to access them easily. And attracting foreign investments, not just donor aid, remains difficult, with Guinea ranking 152 out of 190 countries on the World Bank’s 2018 Ease of Doing Business Index — though that’s an improvement from the earlier ranking of 169.
But the pineapple-shaped hope still shines through for many Guineans like Aboubacar, whose first harvest is just around the corner. “I am just happy to be home and working,” he says. And Mbalou is confident the prickly fruit will help Guinea stem the tide of illegal migration. “Before, people didn’t have confidence, but now they know they can stay here and farm pineapples,” she says. “If they were leaving to get money they can get here, why should they go?”