Sierra Leone: Women vegetable farmers face huge losses due to the Ebola outbreak

Sierra Leone: Women vegetable farmers face huge losses due to the Ebola outbreak

05/02/2015

Women vegetable farmers and traders in the Koinadugu District in the north of Sierra Leone have expressed frustration over the fall in prices for their produce resulting in huge income losses following the government ban on periodic markets and movement restrictions in the country.

Vegetable farmers and traders usually transport their goods to Freetown, the capital, and sell most of their goods at the weekly market. Haja Sundu Marrah, Chairlady of the Koinadugu Women Vegetable Farmers’ Cooperative, explained that due to the Ebola outbreak, their livelihoods have been severely affected as they had to face reduced access to markets and customers.
The Cooperative is made up of thirty groups with a total of 750 women from different chiefdoms in the district, and vegetable farming represents the sole source of income they have to support their households.

Haja Sundu said that before the Ebola outbreak, each group used to plant five to seven acres of vegetables to produce cabbages, tomatoes, lettuces, onions, carrots, peppers, etc., with a turnover worth SLL 10 million, but that has changed drastically as most of them have been discouraged from embarking on large-scale production because of the lack of access to markets.

She lamented that the price of vegetables is now determined by customers because of the lack of access to markets. “A bag of cabbage which was sold for SLL 100 thousand is now sold for SLL 30 thousand and we are forced to sell because we do not have facilities to preserve them and they are perishable commodities”, she stated. She almost wept as she recalled the huge losses incurred by the Cooperative on 28 August 2014. “That is the worst date in the history of Koinadugu women vegetable farmers as over SLL 200 million worth of vegetables was ruined because of the travel ban in the district”.

She explained that every week, they used to transport 15 six-tonne trucks of vegetables to Freetown to sell them, but that day the authorities suddenly prevented them from travelling because of a bye-law that prohibits vehicular movements to and from the district after 6 p.m. “Our vegetables perished like nobody’s business and by then, we were preparing to pay back the third instalment of a loan we’d taken out from a community bank”.

According to her, it is better to transport vegetables at night to avoid the heat that can quickly cause them to rot, especially because the district does not have a refrigerated vehicle to transport them adequately.

Haja Sundu explained that during the planting season in 2014, she took out a loan of SLL 200 million and shared it among the thirty groups that make up the cooperative. “We took the loan so that we could increase production, add value to our products, but this did not happen because of the grave loss that befell us.”

Since last August, they had only been permitted to travel with five truckloads of vegetables accompanied by two members to avoid overcrowdingHowever, as the Ebola figures drop in the recent weeks, President Ernest Bai Koroma announced on 20 January 2015 the lift of the ban on movement restrictions in other to enable economic and social recovery. “As such, no quarantine or restrictions on movements above the household level will be imposed by either government or local authorities” he stated.

Haja Sundu expressed delight in a telephone interview over the recent proclamation made by government. “It has greatly relieved us as we are gradually experiencing a reduction in the transportation cost and we can now transport our commodities to Freetown as much as we can” she said.

However she called on the government and other partners to negotiate with the community bank’s management to grant them a period of grace to repay their loan because the cooperative is still struggling to recover.

As part of its strategy to mitigate the impact of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, FAO is appealing for a total of USD 12.75 million to assist nearly 70 000 farming households most affected by the outbreak in Sierra Leone. Proposed activities include the support to the regeneration of the income of affected farmers through improved access to markets for key agricultural commodities.