Mauritania aims to up food output as prices rise

NOUAKCHOTT, April 24 (Reuters) - Mauritania announced the final part of a $160 million emergency programme to combat rising food prices on Thursday, including efforts to boost rice and cereal production and cut its dependency on exports.

The government in the Islamic Republic located on the western edge of the Sahara hopes to be able to lift food production to 99,000 tonnes of white rice and 106,000 tonnes of cereal, enough to cover 35 percent of the country's needs.

Under the programme, Mauritania will buy 20 tractors and 20 combine harvesters, build dams to help irrigate land and set up a fund to help mitigate the shock of any natural disasters.

"These structural measures will be closely followed with a meeting every fortnight to oversee the progress of the works and the good management of the programme," said Yahya Ahmed El Waghef, secretary general at the presidency.

A doubling of the prices of major cereals on international markets since mid-2007 has sharply increased the risk of hunger and poverty in developing countries, and has already sparked food riots in parts of Asia and Africa, including Mauritania.

The arid former French colony, which straddles black and Arab West Africa, has suffered from desertification for decades and from the under-development of its agricultural sector.

More than a third of its cultivable land has been abandoned.

Many West African governments, seeing their people take to the streets to protest the high cost of living, have moved to try to offset the effects of the soaring commodity prices.

Burkina Faso's government has suspended customs duties on rice imports for six months. Mali has also lifted taxes on rice imports, while Guinea has banned exports of food and livestock.

Neighbouring Senegal, which imports more than 80 percent of its rice needs, announced an ambitious plan last week to increase its current rice production five-fold to 500,000 tonnes in a season.

The West African Economic and Monetary Union said on Wednesday it was providing 100 billion CFA francs ($240 million) to help member states mitigate inflation after a series of protests against the cost of living around the region. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit:

) (Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Marguerita Choy)