On signing the CAADP Compact in September 2009 to demonstrate his commitment to agriculture, President Ernest Koroma declared: “This is an important historical moment not only for Sierra Leone, but for Africa as a whole. We regard CAADP as being pivotal to our poverty and hunger eradication efforts.”
Yet Ibrahim Mayaki, head of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), did not list Sierra Leone among the six countries that have met or surpassed the recommended 10% budget allocation for agriculture. Those countries are Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Niger and Senegal. Rather, Sierra Leone is in the category of countries whose agricultural budgets are oscillating between 5% and close to 9% of the national budget.
Mayaki’s report is not necessarily a criticism of Sierra Leonean government’s efforts in agriculture. Indeed, the country’s current agricultural status is a far cry from what it was a decade or so ago. For most of the 1990s Sierra Leone was best known for its diamonds—and the devastating civil war that the scramble for those precious gems helped to sustain. During that period, the agricultural sector used to grow at less than 2%.
By 2001, when the war was ending, the country could produce only 186,000 tons of rice per year. Fast forward to today, when the West African nation is tapping a different kind of wealth: the crops that can grow on its fertile land. A country that could barely feed its citizens not too long ago is now aspiring to self-sufficiency in food production.
Take Marie Kargbo, for instance, who cultivates rice on a 6ha farm in Kambia district in northwestern Sierra Leone. She’s been having bountiful harvests as a result of increased government support. “Before now, life for women farmers was very difficult,” she told a reporter for the Inter Press Service news agency. “But now rice production has been fruitful, as we have been receiving supply from the government, ranging from seed rice [to] power tillers, fertilisers and pesticides.”
The president’s clarion call
The government reckons it can make agriculture even more worthwhile for farmers like Kargbo. To start with, it hopes to increase the agricultural budget to more than 10% of the national budget. This will translate to more farm implements, tractors, fertilisers and other materials that can help rural farmers. Already the government has phased the previous agenda into another dubbed the Agenda for Prosperity, to be implemented between 2013 and 2018. The new agenda is expected to lay a foundation that will make the country middle-income within 22 years.
Referring to agriculture as “the defining aspiration in the Agenda for Prosperity”, President Koroma announced last December that of the $5.7bn to be used to implement the Agenda for Prosperity over the next five years, $1.6bn will be invested in agriculture. That is about 35% of the total budget – far exceeding CAADP’s target.
Koroma envisions commercial agriculture, value addition and agro-processing. He sounded a clarion call last December: “For far too long we have been saddled with weak linkages between primary producers and consumers, ineffective land tenure systems, suboptimal electricity production, weak telecommunication networks.” He pledged to overhaul the educational system to create “mindsets and skills for innovative application of science and technology” and hence attract investors to the agricultural sector.
The real “diamond”
A combination of factors could bring the dream of self-sufficiency in food production within reach. For example, rainfall, while erratic, has generally been sufficient. Sannoh’s report lists other factors: Sierra Leone covers 72,300km², of which 5.4m hectares (74%) could potentially be cultivated. The uplands represent 80% of arable land suitable for different food and cash crops. Even the lowlands, with higher fertility, can have high crop yields.
The president himself talked about land tenure reforms and the application of science and technology in agriculture. Ideas are pouring forth in torrents, and awareness of agriculture’s role in socioeconomic development is increasing. It’s as though the scales have suddenly fallen off the eyes and Sierra Leoneans are beginning to believe that while the country’s underbelly may store huge deposits of high-value minerals such as gold, diamonds, rutile and bauxite, the real “diamond” is its vast, fertile and uncultivated lands.
This article was first published by Africa Renewal.