Food security is government’s top priority —Jones

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prof-monty-jones-minister-of-agriculture-sierra-leoneProfessor Monty Jones is Sierra Leone’s Minister of Agriculture and Food Security; and deservedly so. A former Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), Prof. Jones is a co-winner of the prestigious 2014 ‘World Food Prize’ for his work on the New Rice for Africa (NERICA) while serving as a researcher and principal breeder at the West Africa Rice Development Association. NERICA is considered a high-yield, tough species that performs well in Africa and one of the ‘weapons’ meant for deployment in the battle for food security on the continent.

Following a three-year stint as a Special Adviser to President Ernest Bai Koroma, the agriculture expert has been moved up to the cabinet where he is expected to use his wealth of experience to drive Sierra Leone’s goal of transforming agriculture into a catalyst and driver of the economy. Being the immediate past chairperson of the Global Forum on Agriculture Research, who was awarded a honorary DSc by Birmingham University last year, Prof. Jones is challenged to prove his worth and justify his various awards and know-how by changing the face of agriculture in his native land. He takes on burning issues in the fortunes and future of the agriculture sector in this discussion with The African Economy.

 

How will agriculture help to transform or diversify Sierra Leone’s economy?

Our strategic objectives are to increase productivity, production and processing of key commodities such as rice, cassava, cocoa, livestock and fish along the agricultural value chain. We will also promote private sector-driven production as well as value addition activities on agricultural goods by supporting farmers’ activities and ensuring sustainable management and exploitation of forestry resources.

To boost agricultural production, government has identified five priority areas. They are land development and mechanization, research and development, agricultural extension and advisory services, access to institutional credit, as well as innovative financing of agricultural infrastructure.

Land development and mechanization for the lowlands are needed for the cultivation of food crops. This provides opportunities for proper management of water resources and access to technologies such as improved planting materials, agrochemicals and machinery that can boost productivity.

We are intensifying effort in research and development to reduce production constraints and increase yield potential for major commodities through traditional breeding and biotechnology. This will equally improve management practices for aquaculture and fisheries.

Government is prioritizing  agricultural extension and advisory services to meet the immediate needs of farmers and other rural people. This has become imperative since profitability and sustainability depend on the ability of rural people to adopt change and innovation in their use of technologies, management systems, organizational arrangements, institutions, and environmental resources.

Equally important is improving farmers’ access to institutional credit. Agriculture, being a seasonal vocation, makes this challenge more severe.

Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) are critical in financing agricultural infrastructure since they mitigate risk in infrastructure projects through recourse to different sources of financing.  Government’s participation in PPP projects can take the form of subsidies or equity stakes in projects and investments in which revenue recovery may be difficult.

One of the objectives of Sierra Leone’s post-Ebola recovery initiative is to create jobs for young people along key value chains.

How do you plan to use agriculture to achieve this?

The agriculture sector not only creates jobs for the people but also drives the economy. The youths are encouraged to see agriculture as a sustainable source of income. Government aims to create 10,000 jobs across key agriculture value chains.

Part of the recovery plan aimed at job creation include out-grower schemes for poultry, rice and cassava production through public-private cooperation, processing of rice and cassava through selected Agriculture Business Centers (ABCs) and hiring of youths for the construction and maintenance of feeder roads. Also, youths are to be trained and hired for the rehabilitation of inland valley swamps (IVS) and construction of block nurseries for cocoa, coffee and oil palm.

How would you describe the Agriculture for Development (A4D) Project and its contribution to the country’s economy?

The A4D project aims at improving the income and food security of rural families in selected districts with emphasis on coffee, cocoa and cashew. The project is gradually alleviating poverty and transforming the lives of farmers. The A4D project has revived our traditional export crops such that 10,000,000 or more cocoa seedlings were planted and 15,000 hectares rehabilitated. For coffee, 1,000,000 seedlings were planted and 2,349 hectares rehabilitated.

Interestingly too, cashew, an emerging export crop popularly called the ‘hanging diamond,’ has attracted more attention with an estimated annual production of 1,360 metric tonnes. Five Cashew Processing Units (CPUs) have been established in the districts of Bombali, Kambia and Port Loko. An estimated 12,000 hectares of cashew land is cultivated through the A4D and that will lead to 5,000 metric tonnes annual production in 2017.

The Ministry recently took over 13.2 percent of the existing Agriculture Business Centres (ABCs) in different regions of the country. What does it intend to do with them?

We have 52 of such ABCs with four in each district.  The ABCs were set up as part of government’s plan to increase food security. Each ABC will deliver services to about 400 smallholder farmers. These include micro credit, inputs sale, rental of labour serving equipment, storage of seeds and food to reduce post-harvest losses and the transportation of harvested produce to the market.

The ministry will ensure that transformed ABCs have effective governance system as well as financial and market linkages that will improve farmers’ productivity and income. It will provide direction for improved support services to ABCs through research extension, market information, pest management and access to new farming techniques.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security also intends to facilitate the effective functioning of networks amongst the ABCs, create public awareness on their activities and lobby for the allocation of more funds to expand their operations.

What incentives does Sierra Leone have for foreign investors in the agricultural sector?

For foreign investors, all agricultural inputs attract duty free waivers. This is in line with the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Act passed in late 2008, which exempted agricultural inputs.

A five-year tax holiday is also given, with an investor getting net benefits from the second or third year of his investment. Moreover, in view of the time lag between start-up and processing activities, integrated agricultural projects qualify for investment allowance of 60 per cent for five years after the expiration of a tax holiday on expenditure incurred for processing operations.

Agro-processing will have a reduced import duty on immediate goods of 50 per cent of prevailing rate while there will be no corporation tax for the first three years subject to the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme (ETLS).

How can African countries harness their potential in agriculture?

Over the past decade, sub-Saharan Africa has made progress in economic and agricultural growth. The downward trend in agricultural prices ended in the early 1990s. Growing incomes in Asia and Africa, combined with continued rapid population growth, are fueling food demand which, hopefully, will lead to a gradual rise in international agricultural prices. For Africa, the major agricultural growth opportunities will be in regional and domestic markets for staple food. Countries need to strengthen their capacities to meet agricultural development goals. To seize the agricultural growth opportunities arising from recent policy and price trends, sub-Saharan Africa must support economic growth via sound macroeconomic policies, further improvements in investment climate, and investments in infrastructure and institutions. Specifically, sub-Saharan Africa will have to further reduce agricultural dis-protection in commodities and countries that still practice it.

To harness potential in agriculture, sub-Saharan Africa must tackle barriers to intra-regional trade in food and other agricultural commodities and properly finance regional institutions. It is imperative to increase domestic and regional funding of agricultural science and research.

In general, what should Africa do to ensure food security?

African countries should allocate 10 per cent of national budget to agriculture and food security. They should create the enabling environment for private sector investment. The establishment and operationalization of food/strategic grain reserve must be accorded priority. African countries should not only improve agricultural infrastructure to boost productivity but also allow free movement of farm produce across borders.

Other measures include reducing the risk of highly volatile prices and ensuring  price regulation on commodities and larger cereal stocks.

 

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