“Some heroes wear capes. Our heroes wear hats, Wellington boots and tattered clothes. These are the people at the frontline of agriculture in Sierra Leone, championing the cause, overcoming things that seem insurmountable. They toil in mud, under adverse weather conditions just so you can wake up tomorrow and every other day and have enough to eat and spare.”Juanah Nyakeh Bellay
The World Bank estimates that the global food and agriculture sector is worth about $5 trillion, which makes food a commanding commodity.
The food we consume comes from land. It’s what people who seek opportunities, optimists and corporate raiders call “true wealth”. There is nothing as valuable as it. Everything we possess, eat and wear comes from it. It’s God’s greatest gift to us and we’ve done marvellous and wondrous things with it, leveraging and harnessing it to provide the resources we need that are essential to our survival.
I have in mind, one particular piece of land – Torma Bum. It is in Bonthe District and covers three chiefdoms (Bum, Yawbeko and Gbap). It has a riverine ecology.
It is surrounded by the River Sewa, River Wanje, Lake Tibi and the Atlantic Ocean. It is 52,000 hectares of true beauty. It’s pristine land, ideal for large scale cultivation, and if as a country we can somehow plant just 50-70% of that land we’ll become food secure in our staple crop in a jiffy.
I was awestruck the very first day I drove through that land in a tractor, over three years ago. It was harvest period. The harvest had been good and the mood was joyous and ecstatic. The women were dancing and winnowing the rice, the men were threshing the rice, kids were tying the harvested rice in bushels and there was enough food or condor (as they call it in their local parlance) available, enough booze and cigarettes making the rounds too.
At about 6:40pm we left the farm to come back to our residence. I was blown away and inspired by what I had witnessed. As I lay on my bed that night I thought about the state and condition of things in our country and how we have this stretch of arable land, and yet there are people going to bed hungry; how the cost of a 50kg rice was over Le 180,000 back then, with 70% of our population living below the poverty line; how we are the 14th most poorest nation in the world, with a minimum wage of Le 500,000 which was about $60, barely enough to live on for a month.
To add insult to injury a trade report I had read a week earlier reported that we had spent over $160 million to import rice. If just 30% of that rice import bill was given to smallholder farmers, whether through public/private partnerships or government support, it would have started an agricultural revolution.
Countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand came here decades ago to collect rice seedlings from our research stations in Rokupr and elsewhere, to kick-start large scale mechanical rice production in their respective countries. It got me interested and I wondered what I could do to help drive this change.
During the 1980’s, the land at Torma Bum and the surrounding areas were well developed in terms of infrastructure and economic activity. The area was supported by the Torma Bum Rice Development Authority Act of 1979, which provided and implemented schemes for the production and processing of rice. It was managed by a Dutch agricultural company headed by Mr. Peterbolt. It was booming. Then came the war, the infrastructure, production and everything declined.
We still have so much potential. Sierra Leone has a land mass which is about 72,300 square kilometres, of which 72% is arable for rice production. Yet only 12.5% is under cultivation. Agriculture accounts for over 40% of our GDP; it is the largest employer accounting for over 67% of our labour force and the just concluded census puts our population at just over seven million people. Freetown has a population of just over 1,500,00 million people, so that means there are over 5.5 million plus living in the other districts, or 78% of our population living out of Freetown. Six out of 10 people in the provinces consider agriculture as a source of livelihood.
These figures only look good on reports and presentations and when pitched to investors. They don’t tell us the reality of how inept we are at feeding ourselves and how we’ve failed to leverage the available resources at our disposal. They don’t tell us how several related projects are perfectly written but poorly implemented, or how a weak local content policy and a free tariff for rice importers puts pressure on our local producers and leaves them without markets or makes them sell at prices that are not market competitive; or that a significant proportion of our population has a growing distrust for all things made in Sierra Leone and above all that the manifestos of nearly every political party expressly aspire to achieve food security or self-sufficiency, but we are still hungry.
A passion for agriculture
My passion for agriculture stems from my father. He spent months researching and conducting feasibility studies about viable crops to plant, their by-products and uses and the social impact of agriculture. He concluded by writing a report which he titled “The Sustainable Integrated and Inclusive Rural Agricultural Project (SIIRAP)”. It was his life’s dream and his contribution to nation building. He died before he had a chance to implement it, but his work lives on through me and I envision a future where our country is food secure in rice and has enough to export to other nations.
So what is being done or can be done to reduce hunger and poverty in our country?
Most large tracts of suitable land are now either traditionally owned, costly to purchase, mired in controversy or unavailable or unsuitable for commercial development. There is a lack of women and youth empowerment in the sector, a high rate of poverty among small scale farmers, very few financial institutions that are willing to support farmers and agribusinesses, poor extension service delivery and unstable and inconsistent local input supplies.
These are some of the problems we looked at the company I co-founded – SADeV which stands for Sustainable Agric Development Venture – is hoping to solve.
Firstly, contract farming/out grower schemes are proven to be an appropriate development model to achieve food security and alleviate poverty in rural communities as land is ready available, easy to scale, resources and production cost becomes cheaper as economies of scale are achieved. Small holder farmers account for more than 80% of our national rice production. Small-scale agriculture should be considered as a national competitive farming model in its own right and we should recognise its potential to become a pathway to sustainable development and prosperity.
Secondly, we must commit to allocate a minimum of 10% of our national annual budget to agriculture as agreed under the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), which is an integral component of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development or NEPAD).
Thirdly, much talk has been made of rural-urban migration over the years. We have an overwhelmingly young, hardworking and unemployed population migrating from rural to urban areas, leaving arable land lying in waste. At the current migration rate, more Africans will live in cities than rural areas in the next 30 years. With decreasing interest from young people and low investment from both the business community and government, the current spate of mass migration would render us unable to produce the amount of food needed to feed a large and fast growing population.
Make agriculture appealing to the young.
Agriculture is oftentimes viewed as an archaic, primitive and laborious profession where financial security seems elusive. I have a fierce and unwavering belief in its potential and the power it wields to drive macro scale sustainable growth.
Agribusiness is a huge job creator and one of the most effective ways to create jobs and empower thousands and millions of people. The value chain in the agribusiness industry, from food production, processing and marketing could provide huge opportunities for employment, investment and entrepreneurship. So if you are looking to start a business or invest in an industry that makes a significant social impact, provides jobs and creates sustainable wealth, agribusiness is surely the way to go!
We need a commercial soil testing facility in Sierra Leone. We need to determine what soils are depleted in nutrients and what seeds are right for what ecology, and how much and what fertiliser should be applied, as opposed to just planting seeds or applying fertilisers without testing them.
We have to develop high-yielding rice varieties, support research into plant breeding, which takes into account the unique soil types of our country. Seeds shouldn’t be used again for cultivation after the fourth generation, as the yield starts to diminish rapidly. The New Rice for Africa (NERICA) pioneered by our Former Minister of Agriculture (Professor Monty Jones) is a good example.
With the growing effects of climate change on weather patterns, more irrigation will be needed. Average yields in irrigated farms are way higher than those of nearby rain-fed farms. Crop productivity depends not only on the quality of input but also on irrigation facilities. Therefore, canals and tube wells should be constructed to provide better irrigation facilities for the security of crops. Extensive flood control measures should be adopted to prevent the devastation caused by floods.
As soil fertility deteriorates, fertiliser use must increase. Government needs to ensure the right type of fertilisers are available at the right price, and at the right time. The farmers should be made familiar with the advantages of chemical fertiliser through exhibitions and farmer field schools and other training programmes. Fertiliser education about correct application methods lessens the environmental impact, boosting farmer yields and ultimately profit. To protect the exploitation of farmers, effective steps are needed to be taken to check the sale of adulterated fertilisers.
We need to improve market access, regulations, and governance. Improving rural infrastructure such as roads is crucial to raising productivity. We also need to make better use of information technology to support crop, fertiliser and pesticide selection. It also improves land and water management, provides access to weather information, and connects farmers to sources of credit. Simply giving farmer’s information about crop prices in different markets will increase their bargaining power.
Reform land ownership
We need to reform land ownership with productivity and inclusiveness in mind. Clearly defining property rights, ensuring the security of land tenure, and enabling land to be used as collateral will be necessary if we are to realise potential productivity gains. From a legal perspective appropriate legislation should be adopted to ensure that farmers’ right are protected and can be enforced.
To save the farmers from the clutches of moneylenders, adequate credit facilities should be made available at reasonable rates in rural areas. The Community Banks and Financial Services Association should be strengthened to provide loans to the cultivators and they should be made aware of the presence and benefits of these institutions in their communities.
As individuals, we should support Farmers Markets and buy locally produced and processed food. We can help by buying local rice varieties rather than imported varieties.
Most importantly, we need political good will, good governance, good policies and strategies in the food and agricultural sector to make our collective dream manifest.
Often I get asked about what’s cool about agriculture. There is a lot to like – being exposed to nature, alternating office and outdoors, reaping the fruits you’ve laboured to plant. It never gets boring and you never stop learning. And being surrounded by the locals, their simple way of life and warm-hearted gestures, living life to the fullest with so little is something worth emulating.
As youth we are a generation at the cusp or intersection of change and macro scale growth. We are generating new ideas, leveraging the power of the web and technology, we can adopt sustainable business models to create a fresh, new and exciting narrative for the land that we love. I challenge you and everyone to choose and support agriculture. Through collaboration we can proffer solutions and launch promising new ideas to address how we will feed and nourish a growing population, inspire people and develop our nation.
Juanah Bellay, is the Community Affairs and Evaluation officer at Ahbajar Rice Development Company, the largest local rice producer in Sierra Leone, Also the Co-founder and Director of Operations at SADeV (Sustainable Agric Development Ventures) Company, an Agricultural startup rethinking sustainable & efficient ways to produce, process & market rice & vegetables.