By: Tamba Tengbeh
“If you give me rice, I’ll eat; if you teach me how to grow rice, I‘ll eat every day. The words of Mahatma Gandhi are clear indication that rice value chain needs all hands on deck to enhance production and productivity. The aspect of value chain is crucial toward the advancement of the agricultural sector in the country. With Feed Salone being the flagship program of the New Direction government of President Julius Maada Bio, it is incumbent on all Sierra Leoneans to support the initiative to help change the food insecurity narrative and optimize production.
The Essence of Value Chain
Rice Value chain contributes to reducing poverty and achieving food and nutrition security, thereby improving livelihoods of farmers and other rice value-chain actors across the country. So, it is important to identify the parameters that would support the Feed Salone initiative by increasing the productivity and profitability of rice-based agrifood systems, while ensuring the sustainability of natural resources in the country. President Bio has declared agricultural transformation as a priority for his second term for jobs and wealth creation. With dedicated agribusiness companies, the focus will be achieved with the support of the Presidential Initiative on Climate Change, Renewable Energy, and Food Security, headed by a reputable subject-matter expert, Honourable Dr. Kandeh Yumkella.
Rice is the best, the most nutritive and, unquestionably, the most expended staple food in the world. So, the government and partners are making gains by putting in the right policies. But because the task ahead is huge, collaboration and networking are essential to leapfrog the ‘Feed Salone’ initiative at such a time when the world is experiencing food crisis.
In West Africa, rice is an important commodity for food security. Rice consumption has significantly increased since the 1960s, driven by population growth, rising per capita consumption, and urbanization. The ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) in its 2023 People’s Manifesto wants to steadily increase rice production due to Sierra Leone’s annual per capital rice consumption. Between 2009 and 2013, rice consumption was more important in West Africa than in any other region of the continent. In particular, the highest rice consumption rates were observed in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, and Sierra Leone (more than 90 kg per capita per year), and in Senegal, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, and Mali (more than 50 kg per capita per year).
The government is spending over $240 million yearly to import rice from other countries. This is a worrying trend for a country that is food insecure. The Feed Salone initiative introduced by the government is pivotal to increase local production, especially across the value chains with the policy shift at the Ministry of Agriculture. That ministry is creating the enabling environment for the private sector investment to strive along smallholder farmers, augment the various value chain actors, and increase rice production and other agricultural products for food diversification. As a result of the policy shift, the government through the Ministry of Agriculture procured 410 machines that were handed over to machine ring companies to enhance large scale production through mechanized farming. This will complement the Feed Salone initiative with the presence of machines across the country. The machine rings are strategic partners to this initiative and essential for farmers to embrace mechanized farming.
According to the outgoing Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, Ambassador Abu Bakarr Karim, “There is abundance of arable land in exercise of 5.4 million hectares of which only 15% has been utilized. We have an annual rainfall of 389 millimetres and there is water throughout the country. We believed that through good policies, it could help to curtain such huge importation that has been the case.”
To enhance food self-sufficiency, there are many factors the government is going to do from fund mobilization to instituting climate smart agriculture, strengthen coordination and research, whilst addressing the challenges below.
Challenges in Rice Value Chain
There are many challenges in large number of inherent constraints throughout the development of the rice value chain, particularly relating to farmers. The constraints at every level range from lack of inputs and capacity for utilization by farmers to poor post-harvest technology resulting in low grades of rice and high post-harvest losses, linkage and processing issues, thereby getting rice to the terminal markets. However, to advance the development of the rice value chain in the country the government must concentrate on them.
Feed Salone Prospects
In the People’s Manifesto, the SLPP outlined that the overall goal of the agricultural policy is to push for sustainable and diversified production of food, including crops and animals, on a scale sufficient enough to feed the growing population as well as providing gainful employment while maintaining the natural resource base. However, this is possible with a coordinate zest and action oriented steps in engaging the appropriate value chain actors at all level to ensure that priority actions are given preference over sentiment. The agricultural sector was adversely affected during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the government through its Quick Action Economic Response Program intervened adequately to cushion the effects to ensure the availability of essential commodities in the country.
The COVID 19 affected the transformation drivers of many economies in various countries across the globe and rice being the staple food in Sierra Leone and production is not at optimal level comparing to the consumption pattern, the Feed Salone initiative will enhance the production through proper coordination, now that Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security has several value chains projects ongoing to increase rice production and productivity, especially with the irrigation infrastructures being developed in Torma Bum in Bonthe District and Gbondapi in Pujehun District , by the Sierra Leone Regional Rice Value Chain Project (SL-RRVCP) and Sierra Leone Rice Industry Cluster (SLRIC) with funding from the Islamic Development and African Development Bank. The President Bio first game changer will be realized in the coming years.
The initiative is a plus to the domestic rice being produced across the country. However, the focus should be on the quality of seeds supplied to farmers and following good agronomic practices in order to increase the tons per hectares. Since the tons per hectares is really low in Sierra Leone, farmers are producing rice in a variety of ecologies from upland to inland valley swamps to bolilands and mangrove. These ecologies are suitable for rice cultivation, though mangroves are mostly found in Kambia District.
Also, engaging the importers and wholesalers should be concerted efforts since they have market power in their hands. Considering the huge demand of rice in the country, the government should engage them exclusively to invest in the local market with good market information to enhance the effectiveness of the rice value chain.
Benefits of Value Chain
The agricultural value chain was introduced to improve productivity and profitability of the actors in the agricultural sector. The notion of value chain underscores the system approach to value added activities where the action of one component in a system affects every other component within the system either directly or indirectly. Although value chain idea is relatively new in the agricultural sector, it resides on sustainable initiatives focused on improving productivity, competitiveness, and growth of Small-Medium Enterprises.
When the Secretary-General of ECOWAS Rice Observatory at the ECOWAS Commission visited Sierra Leone in May during the formative meeting for the Sierra Leone Rice Observatory (SLoRO), Dr Boladale Adebowale espoused that rice is not just a vital or strategic crop but also a political commodity in West Africa, and it is very critical because of its important role in the local economy, though it was considered an imaginary crop in the 60s and 70s, noting that it is crucial and it is contributing to food security as well as its high nutritional value and should not be overestimated.
“In 2020 over eight million (8,000,000) tons of milled rice was imported at $ 3.4 billion in West Africa region and this depleting our sacred resources, and many of countries are either categories as low income, transiting or moving into middle income , no West Africa country is considered high income economy. But importantly we’re undermining the low indigenous capabilities in rice production and development of the entire rice value chain but also adding to unemployment, we’re shipping jobs through the funds we put to important rice ,” she added.
The ERO was set up by the ECOWAS Commission to support key actors in the West Africa rice sector to better coordinate policy and support value chain development, thereby facilitating finance and ensure research and development to coordinate synergies for greater impact. The ministry of agriculture is currently hosting the SLeRO, a body that will help the government to coordinate all the rice value chain actors in the country with the Feed Salone initiative is a plus, especially now that the political will is clear and loud that food security is the primary focus of the government. The rice value chain actors have to think and collectively work together now that political will is at their doorstep.
In a nutshell, the Feed Salone initiative is a critical pathway to the progressive realization in enhancing rice value chain growth in the country. The private sector should therefore tap into the excellent opportunities the initiative is bringing with apt market forces.