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Ebola paid a bad price to Agriculture

June 10, 2015 By Patrick Sallia

Sierra Leone’s first Ebola disease case was confirmed on May 24, 2014, a time when the country’s health sector was ill-equipped to handle epidemics of such nature. The widespread of the virus has had multiple impacts on the national economy and Agriculture.

In the Tourism industry alone, the country has lost more than US$20,000,000 (twenty million United States dollars) income generation.

The National Revenue Authority was able to raise slightly over Two Trillion Leones around November, the last quarter of 2014 out of a reviewed target of 2.28 trillion Leones for 2014. The review made by the Ministry of Finance together with International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank from an initial 2.4 trillion Leones came in the middle of that very year when the outbreak started. The unprecedented situation later forced mining companies which contributed largely to the country’s gross domestic production to shut down operations.

Sierra Leone’s agricultural sector alone accounts for about half of the economy. The two regions (East and South) that were the epicenter of the outbreak, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, produced about 18% of the domestic rice output because quarantined zones restricted workers’ movement and many farms were abandoned. According to some reports cited by the World Bank, rice prices jumped by 30% in the aforementioned affected regions of the country in the year of the outbreak.

Both the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Agriculture Ministry determined that agriculture experts and field staff can be most valuable in the areas of social mobilization and food security as they already have a special relationship with the rural populations at risk of the disease and that such relationships provide access to communities often closed to public health workers.

FAO, in collaboration with UNICEF and the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, in that spirit, trained 127 agriculture extension officers across the country, and FAO provided them allowances and fuel to carryout social mobilization activities in their community work.

In 13 districts, the agriculture extension staff engaged the farming communities with preventive messages on the Ebola virus disease through community meetings, sensitizations and radio discussions. Social mobilization activities have been regarded as a very crucial pillar in response to an emergency health situation of this nature. It has tremendously helped to contain the disease in 10 districts so far.

For instance, Kailahun in the Eastern Province has recorded no new infection for more than 170 days and has only 565 confirmed cases since the outbreak. Pujehun District in the Southern Province is over 200 days with no new confirmed cases and recorded 31 confirmed cases since the disease broke out. Tonkolili District has marked nearly a hundred days with zero laboratory confirmed cases even though the area accounts for 454 confirmed cases out of the country’s total confirmed cases of 8,618.

One year down the line, many farmers from across the country who have spoken to this writer, especially in Kailahun, Pujehun and Tonkolili districts, are in dire need of starter kits including seed and financial supports to help them recover from the devastation that the Ebola disease outbreak has caused to their farming activities.

On 20th April 2015, I left for Kailahun, Pujehun and Tonkolili districts and on 21st April, I visited Gbondu Village in Kissy Teng Chiefdom, Kailahun District, where the first Ebola disease case was reported in Sierra Leone.

Almost all of the peasant farmers interviewed there, like in the other two districts in the South and North respectively, said they have eaten seeds meant for this planting season due to the suspension of public activities as a result of the Public Health Emergency that was instituted by government for almost a year now. The high toll of the virus has affected the availability of labour in the agriculture sector, and that has left most Ebola deceased widows and survivors starving or living below their usual life.

A Senior Produce Officer in Kailahun District, Samuel C. Borbor, told this writer that the quarantine measures and ban on public gathering caused most farmers to abandon their farms. Other farmers complained that their crops, which were near harvest at the start of the Ebola disease outbreak, had been damaged or eaten by wild animals because there was nobody to scare them away, and there is also a strict ban on eating bush meat.

Mohamed Foday, a mechanized farmer in the Kolifa Rowala Chiefdom in Tonkolili District, said that the Ebola disease outbreak has cost him to lose about a hundred bags of seed rice due to loss of the required nutrient for germination. At the time of visit, he was battling to raise money to repair his tractor for ploughing.

Along the Pujehun route from Bo District, the livelihoods of the people largely depend on the cultivation of rice and cassava as their primary agricultural produce. But Mohamed C. Conteh, who is the Chairman of Nyawa Kama Baimba Agricultural Center at Koribondo junction, recalled the low yield farmers experienced in the last planting year due to the destruction caused on plenty of the farms by birds and other animals after the farmers had deserted their farms because of the restriction on movement.

A farmer in Misila Sowa Village in Pujehun District, Ibrahim Wundu, has also started brushing his farm in preparation for the planting season. He is currently challenged with accessing seed rice and there is an increase in the price because he cannot afford the money to buy the required quantity to plant in the land that he has already cleared.

“Even those two bushels which amount to Le160,000 were not bought with physical cash; it was in exchange for 10 gallons of palm oil after I processed some palm kernels from our small palm kernel plantation,” he said.

He lamented that they no longer get customers to buy from them because the periodic markets are still closed and movement restrictions are still in effect.

Once an active female farmer, Finda Musa in Koindu Town, Kissi Teng, is not hopeful to farm this year because he cannot afford the cost of labour. Finda, a widow with six children, lost her husband to the Ebola disease. She now sells pepper-cake to take care of the children.

One must be very worried what will happen if such devastation continues without the urgent and support to particularly the farm households.

Food security for Sierra Leoneans, especially those in the poor rural communities, is at its highest risk.

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