Agriculture remains to be the back bone of the Sierra Leone’s economic development. One time referred to as the socio-economic engine of the country, Agriculture employs over 70% of the total population in the country.
However, there are several challenges and prospects facing the Sierra Leonean farmer in his strive to make living. Key among these is the lack of access to finance to acquire the requisite inputs – equipment, quality seeds and to pay for technical knowhow.
In addressing this, and in an effort of establishing a locally accessible, locally owned and operated financial institution to provide rural communities with access to financial services, the Government of Sierra Leone, with financial support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development established 59 Financial services Associations (FSAs) in 15 districts across the country, narrowing the gap between the needs of the rural poor for financial services and the ability of commercial banks and MFIs to provide these services.
In taking stock of the gains achieved over the years while fostering community ownership of these grassroots rural financial institutions, the National Programme Coordination Unit (NPCU) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in collaboration with Apex Bank of Sierra Leone has commenced the facilitation of Annual General Meetings (AGMs) of FSAs across the country.
In his statement, the Managing Director of Apex Bank Sierra Leone Limited, Nelson Salia-Konneh noted that the Financial Services Associations were established just after the eleven years civil war to enhance financial inclusion especially in rural communities across the country.
He furthered that the primary motive is to help alleviate poverty in rural communities and this he affirms the association has been able to achieve by supporting especially small holder farmers and petty traders whom before that were deprived of the requisite finance to do business.
With the help of the association, the Managing Director added, farmers in rural communities have upgraded their farming activities and now doing agriculture as a business.
Highlighting some of the benefits of the Financial Services Association, Alfred Darlington Musa, the CEO of Darlington Farm at Mano Junction, Kenema district says the provision of loans has help in expanding their farms and productivity.
He confessed that access to finance before the introduction of the Financial Services Association was a challenge. “With the FSA we can now have loans with fair interest rate which has helped us in procuring our farm supplements making work easy for us” he said.
According to Steven Bockarie, chairman of Nongowa Agricultural Business Center, doing farming before the advent of FSA was quite challenging, noting that, they had to travel all the way to Kenema to access finance. The coming of the Financial Services Association in Largo, he added has relieved them from the stress of walking long distance for financial services.
He further disclosed that loans facilities provided by the Financial Services Association has help them increase the acreage of their farms, noting that farmers are now able to buy more seed and fertilizers thereby increasing productivity.
Jeneba Young, a member of the Baoma FSA at Gerehun in Bo district says, through the Financial Services Association she has transformed from being a fishmonger to a shop owner and also having a house on her own.
She noted that, at first she was someone that was afraid of taking loans, however with the Financial Services Association that has changed.
She now has the confidence of taking loans which in turn has improved her business. She therefore appealed to others to have trust in the association as it for the poor.
Like Jeneba the trader, Darlington and Bockarie the farmers, the testimonies of hope and transformations generated by the FSAs could linger forever, also people from all walks of life had something positive to sing about their establishment.
It could be noted that, until 2007 the only institutions providing financial services in the rural areas of Sierra Leone were the Community Banks established by the Bank of Sierra Leone (BoSL), which by then had limited outreach.
No village financial services providers, such as those operating in other western African countries existed.
The Government of Sierra Leone with support from IFAD in 2007 formulated the Rural Finance and Community Improvement Programme (RFCIP), with the objective, among others, to improve access to financial services in rural areas. The Programme recognized that there was a need for development of alternative models of financial services providers, based on a revised conception of institutional forms that were able to provide the rural poor with financial services that could be delivered cost-effectively.