Nursing Sierra Leone’s agricultural sector back to health

Sierra Leoneans love to eat rice. For them, rice is the food to live on. “It doesn’t matter what other food they eat, they must eat rice at least once a day before they can say they have eaten at all,” explains Umaru Fofana, editor of Politico, a Sierra Leonean newspaper. But now Joseph Sam Sesay, the minister in charge of agriculture, forestry and food security, wants his compatriots to loosen their relationship with rice.

Over reliance on it, Sesay believes, could affect the country’s food security goal. “I encourage our people to change their habit and alternate rice with other crops grown in the country.” By “other crops”, the minister is referring to yams, cassava and sweet potatoes.

Sesay hopes that if people eat other food varieties, locally produced rice, of which there was about 693,000 tons in 2013, will be more than enough and there will be no need to import food. But Sierra Leoneans have simply shrugged off the minister’s advice, as if to say: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Changing Sierra Leoneans’ eating habits is a tough sell, but the minister draws inspiration from Nigeria and Ghana, two West African countries whose citizens used to consume plenty of rice but are now also eating a lot of cassava, yams, beans, potatoes and other foods. In Sierra Leone rice is also a high-voltage political issue. Voters usually favour candidates who promise to make rice easily available and affordable.

Looking at other crops

In a report for the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Sierra Leonean researcher Ibrahim J Sannoh notes that while agriculture accounts for close to half of Sierra Leone’s GDP, local rice production alone contributes 75% of agricultural GDP. Sierra Leone’s “annual per capital consumption of rice is amongst the highest in sub-Saharan Africa”, states Sannoh.

Analysts believe that the minister is right to push for other crops. “Rice is Sierra Leone’s staple food but the country’s agricultural sector is largely subsistence and does not produce sufficient rice for domestic consumption, not to talk of export,” reports NewsWatch Sierra Leone, an online publication. In 2008 the government created the Agenda for Change programme, setting itself a goal of food self-sufficiency and possible surplus for export.

Five years later, depending on who is doing the evaluation, progress is a glass either half empty or half full. NewsWatch grumbles that “more than 60% of rice consumed in the country is still imported from abroad”. The World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations organ that fights hunger, reported last year that households in Sierra Leone spend “on average 63% of their total expenditure on food” while about 52% of the population borrows money to buy food.

Poverty still a problem

Sierra Leone’s broader poverty picture is not pretty either. Nearly 53% of the population lives on less than US$1.25 a day, according to the World Bank. The UNDP Human Development Index, which evaluates countries based on life expectancy, education and income, ranked Sierra Leone 177 out of 187 countries in 2013. Unicef reported last year that about 34% of the population is physically stunted due to malnutrition. The situation is particularly dire in Moyamba, Pujehun and Kenema districts – some of Sierra Leone’s bigger regions.

Inadequate infrastructure is a major impediment in the march towards food security. Erratic electricity supply and bad roads affect farming, reports WFP. “Consumers too are negatively affected by poor infrastructure and floods during the rainy season.”

Nevertheless, Minister Sesay boasted last year that rice production has increased by 35%, and cassava and sweet potato production by 34%, while palm oil, coffee and cocoa have also seen an upswing. Andrew Keili, a development expert who regularly consults for the World Bank, supports efforts to diversify agriculture. In a blog post, Keili agreed that eating foods other than rice will help food security efforts. However, he stressed that “some of these alternative foodstuffs may be affordable for fairly affluent urban dwellers to buy… but may be beyond the reach of poor people”. Citing a WFP report, he argued that with inflation at about 13%, poverty is the main cause of food insecurity.

CAADP’s role

The silver lining is the ongoing decrease in the amount the government is spending annually on food importation, which dropped from $32m to $15m between 2007 and 2013. World Bank data appear to support the minister’s assertion that progress is being made. For example, between 2007 and 2013, rice production increased steadily from 370,000 tons to 693,000 tons. Despite such increases, Sierra Leone’s agricultural sector is growing at 5.3% – shy of the 6% target set by the African Union in 2003 when it adopted the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP).