Investment in the agro-industry could save the Sierra Leone economy

By Alpha Bedoh Kamara

Sierra Leone Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, Jonathan Joseph Ndanema, said in 2018 at the Agro-Tourism Festival in Bonthe Municipal Island that ‘his ministry was working on transforming agriculture into a business adventure capable of producing enough food for consumption and for export’.

The minister’s statement, like similar ones made by previous ministers, captured the attention of the local media, making the headlines in the news. People in small towns and villages who make the bulk of the farming community heard the pronouncement on radio and during barray talks, while the fortunate few in big towns and cities saw his animated oratory on TV and on the front pages of the major newspapers.

Unfortunately, the status of the agriculture sector in the country is still in a moribund state yet in craftily prepared government papers the sector is a ‘success story that will soon be‘ producing enough food for consumption and for export’.  It is sad that despite what was said during the campaign amid laudable promises made to address the challenges affecting the agricultural sector for sustainable food production through proactive agro-investment opportunities, the country’s staple food is still being largely imported from Asia.

This situation largely affects women in the country who make the majority of the country’s population as well as the majority engaged in farming activities. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nation (FAO) 2018 report captioned, Country Gender Assessment Series: National gender profile of agriculture and rural livelihoods – Sierra Leone, “…Sufficient effort has not been made by the GoSL and its partners to ensure equitable access to natural resources and means of production. Rural women farmers deserve better recognition and greater appreciation of their tangible contributions to agriculture, rural development and food security”.

There are so many calls to attention for the Government of Sierra Leone to address the problems affecting the agricultural industry, yet things never change. Sierra Leone was among the leading exporters of agricultural produce in Africa. The country was a net exporter of cocoa, coffee, piassavas, rubber, palm oil, sugar and rice, among many other agricultural goods.

Today, Sierra Leone is a net importer of food because of poor governance and neglect by the administrators and the once lucrative sector left in lie fallow. Therefore, the country doesn’t need any other agricultural jargon to put the people at ease. There have been too many, spanning from Green Revolution, National Food Security, and many others, yet imported food is driving out local farmers from the farms.

The people are tired of hearing this rhetoric and want the Government to not only be talking the talk, but working the talk, so that the country could once more produce enough food for consumption and for export.

The lack of sustained and unbiased government investments in this sector as well as high level of corruption in the implementation of public agricultural projects, poor awareness raising about marketing potentials and poor publicity of local goods in the international market affect agricultural activities.

There is too much to gain from this sector but unfortunately instead of clearing the land to plough for food the land is being destroyed by widespread mining activities while the government is signing licenses for miners to continue dig the land for minerals! The once fertile lands in the East and the South which were once the harbingers for sustained food production for local consumption and export are today struggling with the scar of deep mining, and the North – presently being drained for iron ore!

Until the Government think out of the box by realizing that addressing the needs of the people through direct intervention in the agricultural sector is the only way the problem of hunger could be addressed. I am hopeful President Maada Bio will not again join the bandwagon of presidents who put the people on edge with flowery ‘agricultural jargons’ but rather will make sure his minister of agriculture not only rely on international stakeholders to salvage the country from the present agricultural malaise, but ensure money budgeted for agriculture is put to effective use in the best interest of the country. The country also needs a better and reliable statistical data of all agricultural activities, the types of farming and their impact in the local market. The data will help the government to take informed decisions for effective budgeting and channeling of grants and incentives from the government/NGOs to local farmers.

Therefore instead of just embarking on nationwide tours of small agricultural fairs for speech making, the ministry of agriculture should be engaging local farmers to understand their needs and challenges that affect this sector. Lack of a strong local market, unavailable or poor infrastructure for the majority of farm communities, lack of electricity and technical support, and cheap imported foodstuff are some of the hindrances putting local farmers out of jobs.

The country will only make sustainable food production for local consumption and for export if the Government stops playing with the farmers vulnerabilities by putting a stop to ‘white elephant’ agricultural projects and ensures transparency and accountability in the ministry as well as private sector investments. 

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