As Sierra Leone recovers from a traumatic ten year civil conflict that ended in 2002, hunger and malnutrition continue to threaten lasting peace. The West African country is rich in natural resources such as diamonds and rutile, a titanium ore; however, an estimated 65-75 percent of its population lives in poverty.
Agriculture is regarded as the backbone of the economy and provides a living to 60-70 percent of the work force (around 400 000 farm families). Most Sierra Leonean farmers have very rudimentary tools and practices - fewer than 5 percent of households have access to fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, tractors and power tiller farm equipment.
A sub-standard network of roads across the country also impedes input distribution and consequently, tangible improvements in agricultural production have been limited. Furthermore, the conflict left many orphans, single-parent households and disabled farm labour.
High food prices and financial crisis heighten food insecurity
Sierra Leone annually requires nearly 500 000 tonnes of milled rice, the main staple, to feed its population. Domestic production covers around 70-75 percent, with imports making up the difference. The cost of rice in Sierra Leone rose by over 50 percent from January to July 2008.
While international prices have slid down, local prices are still high, and the downturn in the global economy is creating new challenges for the most vulnerable. Many Sierra Leoneans rely on money sent from relatives working abroad to soften the blow of high food and fuel prices, but with the economic crisis, remittances and investments are on the decline.
Worst affected are low-income households residing in and on the edge of urban and town centres. Smallholder food deficit farmers are also vulnerable to food insecurity during the difficult lean season from June to October each year.
Consolidating the progress Sierra Leone has made over the last few years in peace, national security, economic recovery and governance is dependent on food security and economic growth.
European Union Food Facility
In May 2009, FAO launched a two-year project through the EU Food Facility to help the Government of Sierra Leone boost small farmers’ productivity and improve their access to agricultural support services (input markets, post-harvest conditioning, extension services and technical advice) and rural markets.
Funds, totalling more than €10 million, will be used to support the development of 105 agricultural business centres (ABCs), which will be owned and managed by existing farmer-based organisations.
On average, each centre will deliver services to around 400 smallholder farmers such as micro-credit, the sale of inputs, the rental of labour-saving equipment, the storage of seeds and food to reduce post-harvest losses and the transport of harvests to markets. These activities aim to improve the food security status of 42 000 households.
The project contributes to the National Agricultural Response Programme (NARP), drafted by the government’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security in close collaboration with FAO, the World Food Programme, the African Development Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development in response to the food price crisis.
The project’s activities are also building on ongoing community programmes in the government’s national food security programme, “Operation Feed the Nation”.
The FAO-implemented project will be rolled out in seven districts where ongoing NARP projects are not providing a full package for ABC start-ups. Managers, shopkeepers and equipment operators will also be trained at regional sites, while support will be given to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security throughout the country to help it assist and monitor the entire network of 195 agricultural business centres.
Other FAO activities
Last year, FAO launched a Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) project, valued at USD 500 000, to support domestic food production by distributing agricultural inputs to 5 000 households.
Another regionally focussed TCP Project for West African countries, including Sierra Leone, is helping governments to strengthen their institutional capacity to protect against soaring food prices through monitoring and analyses of the food security situation.
The Irish Aid, OPEC Fund for International Development and Italian Cooperation have contributed over USD 4 million to the NARP through a FAO trust fund agreement.