Improving Agricultural Production and Productivity

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When President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone appointed Professor Patrick Monty Jones as the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security about one and half years ago, he was given a clear mandate: leverage his wealth of experience in agriculture to drive Sierra Leone’s goal of making the agriculture sector the ‘engine’ for socio-economic growth and development.

The former Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and a co-winner of the prestigious 2014 World Food Prize, plunged into action and has remained in motion ever since. Through well-articulated initiatives, Prof. Jones is gradually galvanizing Sierra Leonean entrepreneurs to embrace mechanized farming. The Ministry is also opening agriculture to private sector participation and foreign direct investment.

In the ensuing interview, Professor Jones sheds light on his ministry’s efforts at improving agricultural productivity and unlocking opportunities that will create jobs for Sierra Leone’s teeming youths. Excerpts:

Monty Jones
Food security and job creation are essential aspects of the Agenda for Prosperity. How is the ministry under your leadership actualizing these goals?
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security is supporting farmers with improved inputs and enhanced extension services, which have improved output and productivity of crops, livestock and fish products, the major sources for food and nutrition security.

Little wonder that the food self-sufficiency index in the country has improved to about 80 percent, from 72 percent in 2015. Rice self-sufficiency deficit has decreased by 13 percent according to a 2016/17 yield study. With these positive strides, government will be in the position to meet the full needs of the people of Sierra Leone and at the same time, export and attract foreign exchange. It is worth noting that the yield in rice production grew from 0.87 metric tonnes in 2015/16 to 1.8MT for 2016/17. The ministry was also able to meet the target set by the Presidential Delivery Team (PDT) on job creation of 10,000 new jobs; 10,233 temporary and long-term jobs were created across key agriculture value chains.

Government has boost farming in food and tree crops, which has created jobs for the youths. Our efforts in improving livestock and aquaculture have also created job opportunities for the majority of the working population. Complementary activities such as rehabilitation of feeder roads and inland valley swamps, agro-processing and value addition undertaken by the Ministry, together with the private sector, are equally creating job opportunities for our teeming youths and women. Government, with support from development partners, has also established youth farms to demonstrate to the youth that like other activities, agriculture is a profitable business that can guarantee gainful employment and generate income for the youth.

On assuming office, we established the Strategic Advisory Unit (SAU), which is helping the Executive Management Committee (EMC) with strategic and policy matters as well as facilitating the coordination, monitoring and evaluation of the activities of agricultural projects and Divisions.

We have introduced the Direct Cash Transfer to Farmer Based Organizations (FBOs) to the tune of 20 to 25 million Leones per FBO. This venture is to enhance their capacity to pay for such activities as land preparation, transplanting, bird scaring and harvesting. This initiative is focuses on women and youth farmer groups. This period in the history of agriculture and rural development also witnessed our 80 – 20 Strategy, which devolves 80 percent of all agriculture funds to the support of farmers while 20 percent goes to administrative issues. As many as 250,000 bags of (50kg) assorted fertilizer were distributed to all the 16 agricultural districts of the country. This is the largest consignment of fertilizer ever imported into the country. The Global Agriculture and Food Security Project (GAFSP) provided 540,000 improved oil palm seedlings and in collaboration with the FAO established 104 Farmer Field Schools in 13 agricultural districts.

Are you employing technology?
Certainly. The Ministry has been providing equipment and modern machines to support production and processing for value addition to crops, livestock and fish products such that farmers’ incomes and wellbeing are being transformed as productivity is improving.

Under bi-lateral cooperation, we championed the expansion of the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA) Sustainable Rice Production Project from Kambia District to Bombali and Port Loko Districts. The main thrust of this project is to transfer Japan’s rice production technology to Sierra Leonean farmers with the aim of increasing production and productivity thereby reducing rice importation. To enhance the working capacity of the ministry’s extension staff in the projects three operational districts, JICA recently donated 35 motorcycles to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security. Also, under the bi-lateral cooperation, our staff are benefiting from regular training opportunities in China and Japan.

To what extent has the Agriculture for Development (A4D) project helped in fast-tracking economic development in Sierra Leone?
The overall goal of the project is to reduce poverty through increased agricultural productivity, diversification, and private sector participation; improved research and extension service delivery. It has increased the incomes of rural families and boost food security in selected districts through increased production and improved quality of cocoa, coffee, and cashew; reduced transaction costs, and maximized the efficiency and effectiveness of value chains of targeted crops.

Implementation strategy of the A4D project is predicated on the framework of the Agenda for Prosperity (AfP), which emphasizes inclusiveness and recognition of the important role women play in development. The A4D project is aimed at transforming smallholder subsistence farmers into highly productive market-oriented producers. The project has enhanced the capacity of 33,000 (20,000 cocoa, 10,000 Coffee 3,000 Cashew) farmers who have been trained in improved husbandry practices.

The project has also contributed to increased awareness about the economic importance of cash crops, especially in the North, Sierra Leone’s main rice bowl. Farmers in the North have been sensitized to appreciate tree crop farming as it offers more lucrative investment opportunities in agriculture than the traditional food crops such as rice, maize, cassava etc.

What are the major challenges of agricultural development in Sierra Leone?
Despite recent gains made in commercializing agriculture through large-scale mechanized farming, agriculture is hobbled by a plethora of, sometimes, man-made challenges.

Being still heavily dependent on the rains, which leave the sector highly susceptible to the vagaries of weather patterns, agricultural production and practices are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Irrigation can help mitigate the impact of weather, but only about 12 percent of arable farming land is irrigated. Production is possible only in inland valley swamps during the dry season.

Moreover, outmoded land tenure system in the provinces is holding back enhanced agricultural productivity, which makes large-scale commercial agriculture difficult and limit private sector investment in the sector. Inadequate finance is another problem. If we want to see subsistence farmers metamorphosing into large-scale commercial farmers, we must improve access to finance. Then, there is weak infrastructure, which limits access to local markets and big towns, and fragile agricultural extension and advisory services that make it impossible for the transfer and adoption of new farming techniques by local farmers. Nor can we ignore weak capacity in research and the unavailability of reliable data and low value addition, which continue to hobble growth. Most worrisome, due to all these challenges and other sector-specific shocks, private and foreign investors are sometimes unwilling to invest huge sums of money in agriculture.

How best could the global community help your country to fight hunger and enhance the availability of food?
Sierra Leone’s infrastructure is not primarily developed and this area needs support of our foreign partners. Improved infrastructure will attract small-scale, medium-scale and large-scale producers into the sector.

Development partners can support increased research into plant and animal breeding for better crops and livestock, which will take into account the unique environmental factors in the country. With the growing effects of climate change, we need more irrigation. Average yields in irrigated farms are higher than those in rain-fed areas.

Information technology will support better crop, fertilizer and pesticide selection. It will also improve land and water management, provide access to weather information, and connect farmers to sources of credit. Already, simply giving farmers information about crop prices in different markets has increased their bargaining power. Esoko, a provider of mobile crop information services, estimates that better use of ICT can boost incomes by 10-30%.

Sierra Leone has as much as 5.4 million hectares of arable uncultivated land yet most farms occupy less than two hectares due to poor land governance and ownership laws. Land reform has had mixed results in several African countries, but changes that clearly define property rights will ensure the security of land used as collateral for finance.

What type of investors do you like to attract to Sierra Leone?
The county needs to progressively diversify from traditional food and tree crops into fruits, vegetables, fish, and flowers. However, lack of access to finance and poor infrastructure are slowing down our pace.

Are there special incentives for investors?
We are opening up the sector to private sector participation and foreign direct investment. Foreign direct investment is key to achieving our strategic policy objective because besides the infusion of huge capital, it also enables the transfer of new techniques through the introduction of new farming technology and human capital development. Over the years, government has been introducing institutional, structural and tax reforms and dismantling constraints to private participation. These include land reforms, tax breaks, import waivers for capital equipment and inputs and tax holidays on capital income. Recent improvement in our Doing Business reforms, gains in the fight against corruption and one-stop –shop for the incorporation and registration of companies are testimonies to government’s commitment to overall growth and development of the sector.

What is the outlook for agricultural development in Sierra Leone?
The outlook is bright. Sierra Leone is blessed with abundant land for a range of crops and livestock. The climate allows the growth of a variety of agricultural produce. Government is doing its best in providing the enabling environment to encourage private investment in the sector. These include but not limited to the adoption of a new land policy and the design of clearly defined and well-targeted tax incentives.

Government has also developed a policy to allow private sector participation in the procurement and distribution of fertilizer. A seed policy has also been developed and a seed agency is being established. Financial sector reforms are being implemented to improve access to finance for farmers such as the establishment of Financial Services Associations, Community Banks and the introduction of e-payment systems for farmers. As a result, both domestic and foreign investors are now showing interest in investing in the agricultural sector in Sierra Leone. Agribusinesses such as GOLD TREE and SOCFIN have invested in oil palm production and processing, LION MOUNTAIN and MOUNTAIN LION invested in rice production, processing and marketing, to name a few.

 

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