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Overcoming poverty through gardening

An account of a widow of six children

February 5, 2021

By Keifa M. Jaward

kmjaward05@gmail.com

It was approaching 6:00 P.M., in a humid evening when I met with Bintu Kamara, 56, for an interview at her Gloucester Road residence in Regent Village. That was my first time to meet with her. I had booked an appointment with her on phone about three days before.

Regent Village is in the Western Rural District. A community that is now encroached by the expansion of the capital city, Freetown due to overwhelming rural-urban migration over the years.  

She was dressed in a long floral Maroon outfit with similar colour head tie wrapped over her head. She was busy moving items from her stall to the main house. She immediately stopped the parking and offered me a seat after I introduced myself to her. Kamara quickly drew another chair and sat closer to me for us to start the interview because she wanted to complete her remaining tasks before she could attend her evening prayers at 7:00 P.M. 

The interview, which lasted for 26 minutes, was frequently interrupted by her neighbours who came to buy stuffs from her before she closed the stall for the day. She tried several times to turn the buyers down because she did not want to stop our discussion, but I could pause the recorder and allow her to sell and we continued after. She was very passionate in explaining her story, especially her affection for gardening the gains she has made from the trade.  

Her motivation to engage in gardening

Kamara has engaged in gardening since her childhood because her parents did not send her to school. “I grew up helping my parents in the garden. My parents were not engaged in any other trade except farming,” Kamara emphasised.

She was motivated by the bumper harvests her parents used to have, especially during the festive when her parents took her together with her siblings for shopping after they earned money from the sales of their harvest. “Every Christmas, our parents used to buy us new dresses and gave us money after we sold our harvest,” she recounted.

Kamara confessed that she became very excited to be helping her parents in the garden because she was assured of a gift anytime her parents sold their harvests.

Her pride of being a gardener

It is now over 30 years since Kamara started her own gardening just after she got married. She is engaged in mixed cropping at both upland and inland valley. As a subsistent farmer, Kamara buys seeds from small shops in Freetown. The seeds are mostly sold for SLL 20,000 (USD$2) per sachet.

Although she is not engaged in large scale farming, but she is proud that she has, among other benefits, been able to manage her home, including  to raise and educate six children, and own a house with the proceeds that she gets from her harvests.

“I don’t have any other means of income and my late husband’s salary was not enough to manage the home because he did not have a university degree,” Kamara revealed.

Her last harvest was on December 23, when the demand for vegetable was high and prices very attractive. On the eve of Christmas, Kamara earned enough money from the sale of a bag of cabbage, tomato and beans. She used the proceeds to buy stuffs for the home, bought seeds for another cropping and bought Christmas gifts for her grandchildren.

Challenges common among smallholder farmers in the country

The prices for vegetables are attractive in the market because it is part of the daily diet for almost every household in Sierra Leone. However, the lack of access to vast acreage of land, inability to afford quality seeds, change in whether pattern and lack of preservative equipment, are now troubling Kamara and most smallholder farmers in the country.

Kamara used to farm on an acre of land but the portion has been massive encroached by construction of houses in the community and the remaining plots has be eroded by debris because the diverted water way now causes flooding in her garden, which is causing many plants to perish.  She and other gardeners in the community now spend more on swamp rehabilitation and agrochemicals to enhance the productivity of their plants. 

Also, there is proliferation of substandard seeds in the market. The Sierra Leone’s Seed Multiplication Unit, one of the country’s main producer and seed bank, where Kamara and other small and large-scale farmers used to have quality seedlings, is no longer functional as it used to be. Also, the Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute (SLARI), a breeding and research centre, cannot meet the demand of the farmers.

 “We no longer have quality seeds as before. Some of the seeds that we buy do not germinate well, and I cannot afford to buy the seeds that are sold in tins by big suppliers because I do not have the land to broadcast all,” she lamented.

Although the farmer based group she belongs to sometimes receive seed support from government and some nongovernmental organisations, Kamara alleges that most of the seeds they receive do not germinate well because the country’s weather is unfavourable for them.  

The need to improve on diverse vegetable farming in Sierra Leone  

Improving the productivity and commercialization of the agriculture sector is at the fore of diversifying the country’s economy with a target to achieve 90 percent food self-sufficiency by 2023. This is proposed in Cluster Two of the Sierra Leone’s Medium-term National Development Plan 2019-2023, a five-year development outline.

The agriculture sector contributes over 50 percent to the national economy and provides employment for approximately two-third of the country’s population.  The sector is dominated by smallholder farmers, who are mostly engaged in diverse vegetable farming.

Apart from its promising economic opportunities for reducing poverty as in Kamara’s case, vegetable farming can create viable employment, provides nutritional and health benefits for inhabitants of a country like Sierra Leone with weak health infrastructure, and promotes desirable biodiversity in the face of a threatening climate.

The passion that keeps Kamara in the garden 

Amidst the numerous challenges, she is pleased that she earns money to buy her basic needs anytime she sells her harvests.  

Kamara’s children are now capable enough to provide her needs. Therefore, they are encouraging her to quit farming because she is aging, that is why she opened the small stall at home, a year ago. “Although my stall attracts much sales, but I am still engaged in gardening because I am too used it,” she confessed.

Every morning, she goes first to the garden to do some work and later comes back home to seat in the stall. She does the same in the evening before closing the stall, but this time, her grandchildren wait for her at the stall.

For Kamara, gardening is a very productive and sustainable vocation. The fact that she is able to afford most of her needs, raise her children and own a house from the proceeds of harvests, she is convinced that she and her peers would have achieved a lot if had the desired support.  

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