Sierra Leone has had to contend with two debilitating setbacks in recent times. In the last thirty years, time enough to represent a whole generation, the country has gone through one of the most brutal civil wars in the history of conflict in Africa. The rehabilitation of the country is hardly completed when the Ebola virus disease became a ravaging disaster to the very survival of the country. The death toll, the pressures on our social and economic life together with the impact on inward investment combined to reduce economic growth from a vibrant double figure projection to almost zero. In the space of three years, the country had to endure rapid contraction of resources, earnings and productivity.
Notwithstanding the pressures put on social and economic interaction, Sierra Leone’s agriculture sector retained some degree of resilience. The falling commodities prices, especially for ferrous metals such as Iron Ore caused a drastic loss of revenue for Government and the eventual collapse of the mines came as a major blow to foreign exchange earnings. As an endogenous shock, the loss of revenue from iron ore and other minerals at a time when a major health epidemic resulted in the virtual ostracism of the country and a flight of projects, man and material resources were altogether harmful for the prospects of growth in the economy. It is significant to note therefore that agriculture retained some semblance of resilience at that time. Food crops were available at such an extent that the prospects for hunger and food insecurity were not adversely affected by the onslaught of the EVD as was experienced in other sectors such as mining or infrastructure where a complete shutdown of operations put into effect. The fact that most of the agricultural produce are organic and perennial was sufficient to secure availability coupled with the closing of borders meant that most food items that would have been sold off to neighbouring countries had to remain in the internal marker hence helping to keep prices stable.
It is in this context of the local conditions faced by Sierra Leonean farmers that considerations of agricultural paradigms need to be addressed. In Sierra Lone, almost 80% of agricultural productivity comes from small holder farmers. Their production capacity is low, characteristic of farming methodologies and smaller acreages under cultivation. Productivity is also low due to techniques and the combination of inputs and fertilizers. For example, rice, the staple food in the country, is experiencing an average of less than 1 tonne per hectare in terms of yield in the upland areas and slightly around 1.5 tonnes per hectare in the lowland swamps and boli lands, while some countries such as Mali are experiencing around 4 tonnes per hectare for the same crop. In the extent that most farmers are engaged in subsistence farming holds out some tractable issues for food security. In the event, the contention is to support small holder farmers to do two things at the same time. They should increase production by increasing areas under cultivation and secondly, increase productivity by enhancing farming processes through mechanization, the adoption of crop rotation and the extension of research through improved varieties. Once this is firmly in place, then the processing of agricultural produce along the value chain from the farm gate to the dinner table would result in what could best be described as a commercialization of small holding.
Alongside supporting small holder farmers to increase productivity should be the realization that larger farms mean more commercial and sustainable production. In this regard, Government need to put some attention to supporting or otherwise engaging large farm networks through farmers’ cooperatives and other nationals who may wish to engage in large scale farming. There is admittedly very little scope for this type of paradigm since the traditional nature of land holding is restrictive, and to the extent that the laws of the land restricts some citizens from even owning lands in the Provinces which are mainly where the rural areas are located. The issues raised here require changes to the Constitution and laws that accords priority to native ownership of land as against the free transfer of land to indigenes who may need to engage on expansive agriculture.
The third paradigm is to attract international farm management companies that would bring in the type of investment in agriculture through institutional financing or the infusion of direct capital investment. If the recent experiences of SOCFIN, LION MOUNTAIN and ADDAX should provide a guide, then issues around acquisition of land in the scale required pose the greatest threat. There are also other concerns around land grabs or the de-localization of lands for agricultural investment. Nonetheless, we see the likes of Golden Mills, Mountain Lion and Lion Mountain setting up processing plants locally to add value to food crops while ADDAX engaged on CASH Crops for bio fuel. The benefits that accrue from out-grower farming networks, local improvements to roads, schools and hospital facilities are far outweighed by low prices for land and low engagement of local communities in profit share and the prosperity that comes with expansive farming.
The above paradigms throw up challenges for Sierra Leone’s agriculture to the extent that a shift sufficient to produce change and progress is what is now being offered by the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, Prof. Patrick Monty Jones. His engagement with farmers is aimed at prioritizing His Excellency the President’s initiative for the next 10-24 months on Ebola recovery. The key result on context is to create around 10,000 jobs in the sector. The secondary focus is to increase production and productivity through enhancing commercialization along the value chain. The Minister’s message is simple. Farming should be viewed as a business, Farmers should be rich and wealthy people if they grow surplus food to sell in the markets and Sierra Leone should feed itself through its own local produce. If this is achieved, then there would be savings to the foreign exchange spent on the importation of less nutritious foods from abroad and a value attached to locally produced, more natural and healthy food from this country.