The economy of agriculture in rural Yemen [Archives:2007/1015/Business & Economy]

January 11 2007

By: Raidan A. Al-Saqqaf
[email protected]

Agriculture is deep rooted in Yemeni society and culture especially in rural areas, with maxims and sayings indicating that the land is the source of live for the Yemeni person and it is a treasured source of food and security as well as a source of identity for the people living on it. Many Yemeni families have been named in accordance to their locations and villages where they farm and live. Yemen is a predominantly agricultural society, with over two thirds of the population living in rural areas with livelihoods dependent on agricultural production of various crops, fruits, vegetables and qat.

Agricultural activity is considered to be one of the least rewarding economic activities in terms of the value-added and profitability, therefore it is not surprising to find the dominance of agriculture in rural Yemen to correlate with the dominant poverty; over 8 million Yemeni people residing in rural areas live below the dollar-a-day line. Improvised rural Yemen suffers from devastating food insecurity affecting 27 percent of the population and it is getting worse according to reports by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Such alarming levels of rural poverty and food insecurity reinforce inequality. According to the World Bank, the 1998 per capita consumption of the richest 20 percent was 5.6 times that of the poorest 20 percent, noting that the wealthy live in urban centers while the poorer are scattered in rural Yemen. However, official sources indicate that the government's poverty-eradication strategy has had considerable success in decreasing the percentage of people living below the poverty line. However, estimates by the United Nations Development Program indicate that the poverty gap is increasing in spite of national macroeconomic growth. The poverty gap ratio is a measure of extreme poverty and reflects the percentage of additional national income needed to eradicate extreme poverty through bringing every poor person exactly up to the poverty line.

Having established the critical situation of rural Yemen and the urgent need to reform macroeconomic developmental policy in order to focus more on rural development in order to bring economic prosperity, it is important for further research into the nature of economic activity undertaken in rural Yemen.

Role of Agriculture in Rural Yemen

There are approximately 1.5 million households in rural Yemen, 79 percent of which depend on farming or livestock as the prime source of income, constituting 15 percent of the economic production of the country. This means that 1.18 million households produce 21 percent of the non-oil economic production while the other 1 million households are responsible for the reminder economic activity. Paradoxically, agriculture employs 55 percent of the workforce in producing just 15 percent of non-oil economic activity.

The process of agricultural production in Yemen is highly subjective to the availability of water resources as well as types of irrigation, for example the middle highlands are dependent on rainfall receiving an average annual rainfall of 500 to 800 mm resulting in the cultivation of 44 percent of the area, representing 61 percent of the total farms in Yemen, while other areas such as the Tehama region receive an average annual rainfall of 50 to 100 mm, resulting in cultivating 26 percent of the area and representing 10 percent of the total farms in Yemen. Therefore, rain is a key factor for production. This pattern of agricultural also explains the population concentration in the middle highlands, constituting slightly over half the population of the country.

Cereals constitute 50 percent of agricultural production, followed by 16 percent for fruits and vegetables, 11 percent for qat, 11 percent for fodder, while the reminder goes for several other agricultural products. Livestock and fishing also provide importance sources of rural incomes: 91 percent of all households involved in agriculture hold some kind of livestock, whether it is cattle, sheep, goats, camels or chickens. The U.N. indicates that the growth rate of the volume of livestock products reaches 5 percent per annum, making livestock products one of the most important sources of income and key to improving livelihoods in rural Yemen.

The qat dilemma

Socially speaking, qat has become an integral part of social life through qat chews, which are sessions of social gatherings done on routine basis and therefore there is constant demand for qat especially during the summer where social gatherings and events such as weddings increase in numbers and therefore demand for qat peaks. Estimates indicate that qat production increases by 7 to 10 percent annually on the expense of other corps and water resources. Qat is one of the most profitable agricultural products in Yemen and this particular crop guarantees continues flow of cash from the richer urban centers to the impoverished rural areas, especially during the peak season of the summer providing more employment and returns for rural communities.

The government has vowed to combat the spread of qat in the country in an informed and gradual fashion, while striking a balance between its economic, social, health and environmental aspects. However, a theory of how to strike this balance is yet to emerge.

Any strategy for eradicating poverty has to be fundamentally focused on generating income for the agricultural rural Yemen, government projections of poverty in Yemen might be too optimistic especially in the immediate term especially as we are yet to see any concrete steps being taken to enhance agricultural productivity or provide other sources of income for rural Yemen.