The Tomabom Agriculture project launched almost three years ago has boomeranged. Food problem which the President Julius Maada Bio struggles to solve still remains at an alarming rate. The hunger and starvation in Sierra Leone tells the story.
President Bio’s trip to Vietnam hinged on agriculture. He wanted to see Vietnamese companies invest in Sierra Leone’s agriculture for a turn around. It is not clear whether Vietnam would answer to his Excellency’s call. When the project was launched initially, it was China that was expected to till the soils of Tomabom and Gbondapi bolilands in Bonthe and Pujehun districts respectively. Instead of China, government has moved to Vietnam for investment in agriculture which is a wait-and-see affair.
Countries are no longer too much into agriculture since the information revolution became real. A known agrarian country, India is now an active player in the IT world. It is one of a success stories in the information age. India’s economy, one of the strongest in the world owes it to ICTs. Other nations are moving towards a similar direction, a situation that raises the question, who will come to Sierra Leone’s Aid?
Sierra Leone, for years, is an agrarian country. It has huge agricultural potentials which government can harness for national development. The human resources are also there. The country has a teeming population of active youth in city centres where they are not gainfully employed. The commercial motorist (Okada industry) has been the landing place for the jobless youth. Government has failed to change the status quo.
They ought to have set the pace to get young men away from the Okada trade. A commercial motorist, Mohamed Kamara told this press that the Okada trade had attracted over 8, 000 youth, a move that renders government’s policy of economic diversification farcical. Government must work hard to cut down the number of ‘okada’ riders. Some effort must be directed to the farms and swamps.
The internationally renowned agricultural researcher, Professor Monty Jones who was also Minister of Agriculture assured Sierra Leoneans that he was here for success stories in agriculture, but was never retained by SLPP government. Jones was appointed by the past government.
Prof Jones was made Chairman of the Global Forum for Africa after his ground-breaking research that resulted into the discovery of Nerica rice variety. The rice could do well in temperate and tropical zones solving a big agricultural problem in the world. Some rice spices could not do well in the tropical areas could but perform little in temperate areas. The problem was solved by James ingenuity.
In a press conference at the World Bank few years ago, Monty Jones who has improved agriculture in 55 countries assured Sierra Leoneans that he would replicate that success in Sierra Leone.
He made the assurance at a press conference held at the World Bank where the former Country Director, Parmindar Bra committed US$55 to the country’s agricultural sector to help small-holder farmers. By the time the agriculturist would sit to plan the agricultural roadmap for Sierra Leone, government changed. SLPP known for its unfriendliness to APC, the new government wasted no time in laying off the then minister, an action that retarded agriculture in Sierra Leone.
Being a technocrat, a great many Sierra Leoneans expected that SLPP would retain the agricultural scientist to see positive result.
In spite of the promises, government has not answered the songs of men in the street during 2018 campaigns who were calling for food. The songs appealed to every Sierra Leonean that food was a felt need for the masses, but was worse at that time.
The people turned their backs against APC government for what they a failure to make food available in the markets. A Price of a bag of rice was too high for a low-income earner. A bag of rice hovers around Le500, 000 (five hundred thousand Leones), a worrying trend for SLPP. The rapid price hikes for fuel spells a dark future for the country’s economy.
SLPP, the main opposition then, was able to capitalise on the cry for food saying they would solve the food problem almost overnight. Government assured Sierra Leoneans that it would set up state, district, chiefdom, town and village farms as a strategy to make food sufficient in the country.
The farms are still away from harvesting and the hunger scenario continues. A study conducted in 2015 produced no good result. A 2015 Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability analysis conducted by the World Food Programme and Food Agricultural Organisation indicated that many households are hunger-affected. This means they consume limited or insufficient food to maintain a healthy and active life.
Global Hunger Index, 2017 ranks Sierra Leone as the third hungriest in the world. The report put the population percentage of the under-nourished at 38.5 compared to 28.6 in Guinea and 16.2% in Ghana.
The low budgetary allocation to the agricultural sector in the face of hunger made matters worse. In 2017, budget allocated to agriculture was 4.1% far less than 10% target under the Maputo Declaration. Per capita public spending is barely US$8.6 compared to US$33.9 in Ghana and US$19.3 in Togo.
It has been argued that even if those farms are in place, the method of farming is just too obsolete to create the desired impact. The country’s agriculture is still subsistent plagued by biophysical and socio-economic constraints. The situation limits the food supply. Sound policies that would take agriculture to another level are virtually absent.
In the absence of mechanised and commercialised farming, Sierra Leone still remains a high importer of rice which her staple food crop. Very close to the 2018 elections, the total rice import at that time stood at US$150m representing 27.7% of total import bills. The 2018 budget statement estimated rice import at US$108m for the first half of 2017.
Poised to win the elections, SLPP heavily capitalised on the prevailing situation at that time by promising to end the nightmare in the agricultural sector.
In page-19 of the party’s manifesto, SLPP identified the problems which has been hunting agriculture for years. Absence of a robust food security, limited access to finance, poor management of agricultural land, limited value addition to food products, poor roads among others were problems that undermine agriculture in Sierra Leone, the manifesto says. SLPP was sure to overcome these problems, and create a society where agriculture thrives.
“In the New Direction, the overall goal of our agricultural policy is sustainable and diversified production of food including crops and animals on a scale sufficient enough to feed the growing population as well as providing gainful employment while maintaining the natural resource base,” a portion of the press release reads in part.
SLPP promised Sierra Leoneans that it would focus on increased production of food and cash crop as well as livestock. They also promised to improve water and land management as well as governance and research.
SLPP also promised Sierra Leoneans that their government would increase budgetary allocation to 10% as provided in the Maputo Accord, promote domestic financing of schemes that would compel politicians to invest in agriculture and work with all mining sectors to invest in agriculture.
Local banks would also be encouraged to provide loans and to revisit the land tenure to make agriculture attractive to foreign investors. These promises still remain on paper.
SLPP government has failed to turn into fortune the country’s vast arable land, rich agro-biodiversity, abundant rainfall and favourable temperatures. The struggle continues as Vietnamese may not come in.