Food Self Sufficiency, Beyond the Political Rhetoric

Sierra Leone’s economy is reliant on the agricultural sector which, by 2014, had contributed about 47.9 percent to Gross Domestic Product. It employs over two-thirds of the population and generates about a quarter of the export income. With an estimated 5.4 million hectares of arable land, abundant farmland, wide-ranging ecosystems and sufficient rainfall, the sector alone can serve as an engine for socio-economic growth and development through commercial agriculture and the promotion of private sector involvement.

Political commitments:

Sierra Leone keeps spending tens of millions of dollars annually to import rice. It sadly hasn’t been able to fully afford food self-sufficiency despite the political commitments by governments. By 2002 government had pledged “…to work even harder to ensure that by 2007 no Sierra Leonean goes to bed hungry.” These were mere political commitments that didn’t meet the test of time till date.  Successive governments have invested heavily in the sector by improving transport infrastructure to ease the movement of goods, encouraging and supporting private sector investment, as well as lending support to farmers.

 The previous administration had set as goal the need to “move away from subsistence to commercial agriculture, agro-processing, adding value to our agricultural products and realizing maximum benefit from the richness of our soil. A major strategy was pursuing a Smallholder Commercialization Scheme within the framework of the National Sustainable Agricultural Development Programme and the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme. Budgetary allocation got increased from 1.6% in 2007 to 7.7% in 2009 and stood at 10% by 2010.

To what extent is the current administration committed to properly using the agriculture sector in attaining food self-sufficiency? The political commitment is to ensure agricultural development continues to be centrepiece of the country’s drive towards economic diversification and reducing poverty. In a bid to increase food crop production, the current administration is committed to continue to:

  • Improve  the seed bank system to attract reliable private sector players
  • Support  the private sector for large scale agricultural food and cash crop production, processing, and marketing
  • Support local industries engaged in the fabrication of farm tools and the supply for other farming inputs
  • Establish cash crop cooperatives and provide training in processing to ensure our cash crops become competitive for export.

Support from development partners:

The sector has always attracted support from development partners, not least the World Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Islamic Development Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the European Union. Going by the words of the president, development partners were able to mobilize about US$220 million for the development of the sector in one year and an additional amount of over US$45 million was to have been approved last June.

USAID has also been supporting integrated agriculture-aquaculture systems and rice value chain programs to increase private sector investment in agriculture, raise farm household incomes, and improve nutritional status. In addition to supporting activities to improve food access for vulnerable households and communities that have recovered from the shock of ebola, USAID also supports: community-based savings and loans schemes, linking farmers to microfinance institutions, providing innovative grants to small and medium sized enterprises, strengthening linkages between farmers and markets, and providing business training to producer associations.

The result appears to be the cultivation of over 3000 hectares of oil palm, the construction of an additional 25 Agricultural Business Centres and 841 hectares of Inland Valley Swamps rehabilitated with the rehabilitation of 600 km of feeder roads. We have also seen 59 small agribusinesses and 9 medium to large-scale businesses supported by Smallholder Commercialization and Agribusiness Development Project (SCADeP), according to statistics given by president Bio during his May, 2019 address in parliament.

Investment Incentives:

What would be required are investment incentives. The Ministry of Agriculture has spoken of promoting large-scale private sector investment in the sector. Incentives could therefore come in the form of : exemption from corporate income tax;  exemption from withholding taxes on dividends paid by agribusiness companies; exemption from import duty on farm machinery, agro-processing equipment, agro-chemicals and other key inputs specifically for the project; tax deduction for expenses on Research & Development, training and export promotion, among others.

Developing and harmonizing procedures for private land acquisition for agribusiness investments could also be a way of encouraging large scale private sector investment.  The country has significant portion of arable land, most of which remains uncultivated.  Encouraging private sector operators to engage in large scale mechanized commercial farming activities is also vital. It therefore came as good news to learn, that government has engaged foreign private sector players “to invest in large scale farming in the Torma Bum-Gbondappi areas in the South and in the Rhombe and Samu areas in the North.”

Beyond political talk shows:

Moving beyond the political commitment and engaging on practical action points is what the country needs at this crucial period. A shift from subsistence farming to commercialized one should help the country achieve some better results.   The country’s productivity level remains low, compared to other countries. Improving productivity is crucial to effectively utilizing the potentials of the sector.

This can be done through value chain-from research, to extension, to value addition to market. The Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute (SLARI) could play a role in identifying the key commodities; pathways to the market and eventually increasing yield.  SLARI must work in a much more collaborative, integrated fashion and in much more innovative ways and approaches that will ensure maximum impact.

It sounds beautiful, the nation being informed by the president that revenues collected domestically in 2018 improved to Le 4.35 trillion or 14.0 percent of the Gross Domestic Product likened to Le 3.34 trillion or 12.6 percent of GDP in 2017, representing an increase of about Le 1.0 trillion. Beyond this political statements and beautiful presentation of figures, the country must begin to have a true feel of how such funds are used, in a judicious manner for her growth process.

To this end, the agriculture sector deserves more by moving beyond the political rhetoric.

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