The Julius Maada Bio Presidency and the People’s Expectation-Food on the Table

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Part Two

April 18, 2018 By Alusine Sesay

It is no gainsaying that the past government did a lot to improve the agricultural sector and achieve food security in Sierra Leone. In their Agenda for Change document, the Ernest Koroma government identified agriculture as the second most priority after energy. In line with their agenda, government increased budgetary allocation in the agriculture sector, coupled with some million United States dollars support from donor partners, especially World Bank and the UK Department for international development, among several others.

To achieve food security in line with their agenda, government initiated the Small Holder Commercialization Programme, which spanned for a period of five years. The Programme focused on four target groups, including small holder farmers, women, young people and small business operators. It main objective was to empower the rural poor to increase their food security and incomes on sustainable basis.

Also, government in 2010 entered into a 15 million United States Dollars loan with the Indian Government to purchase tractors to boost the agricultural sector – an initiative they referred to as ‘tractorisation’ and a total of 265 tractors were purchased. Unfortunately, though, the said tractors were given to either politicians or politically connected individuals who could not make better use of them to achieve the desired goal of food security in the country. And one of the challenges of the said ‘tractorisation’ was the issue of accessing spare parts to fix any breakdown. Worst of all, most of the individuals that were given those tractors could not pay for them. I wonder whether government has paid the loan they used to purchase those tractors.

We again have the World Bank funded West Africa Agriculture Productivity Programme – a multi-year effort to transform West Africa’s agriculture by boosting productivity and sustainability, reducing hunger and improving nutrition, creating jobs and supporting collaboration across borders. The programme came to a close in 2017 with little impact, albeit the World Bank has published a flowering report on the success of the said programme.

In its agenda for Change, government identified the development of agribusiness as strategic because of the possibilities it represents for food security, revenue generation and wealth creation. To promote agribusiness in the country, government established the Sierra Leone Chamber for Agribusiness Development, headed by a young astute gentleman – Ahmed Nanoh – as the executive secretary. The chamber, acting as a quasi-civil society, advocated for duty-free concession for agriculture materials and implements, but that was vehemently denied by the government. The chamber had argued that duty-free concession would increase interest for people to invest in agriculture, increase productivity and enhance commercialisation and subsequently contribute to food security and poverty reduction.

Above are few mentioned strides taken by the then government in collaboration with donor partners to boost the agriculture sector. The question that runs through the minds of many is whether those initiatives are reflective on the lives of the populace in terms of food security and poverty reduction? Were donor monies well spent to achieve food security? People could provide varied answers to those questions based on the angle they come from, but the fact remains, despite the huge chunk of money spent in the sector, the country is still far away from achieving food security.  Many people, especially those in charge of various projects implemented in the sector, could argue with flamboyant reports of successes, but the reality on ground is a far cry from the latter. For the sake of this piece, I have deliberately decided to discountenance some of those flamboyant reports because thousands of Sierra Leoneans are still struggling to access sufficient and quality meals a day. Subsequent reports by United Nations bodies have described Sierra Leone as one of the hungriest countries in the world. Rice which is the staple food in the country remains very expensive as 50kg cost over one hundred thousand Leones.

The point I am trying to raise in this piece is that the mistakes, whether due to complacency, corruption, misguided approach or not has been done and that we should now focus on the way forward as to how the new administration could fix the problems and achieve the desired goal of placing food on the table for the average Sierra Leoneans. Many are of the view that the Julius Maada Bio administration could have learnt a lot from the mistakes of the past regime and should take advantage of that to move the nation forward in terms of achieving food security for all and sundry.

In the first instance, the new dispensation should undertake a thorough evaluation of all the initiatives of the past regime and establish what went wrong, despite all efforts by the government that, the country could not achieve food security. The new direction of President Julius Maada Bio should create the necessary environment for people, especially those in the private sector, to invest in agriculture. If churches and some unscrupulous non-governmental organisations are given duty-free concession, then why not people who desire to invest in agriculture which, according to many analysts, is the backbone of any nation. It is my humble suggestion, even though it would be difficult to go by it because the country is in dire need of revenue, that government provides duty-free concession for all agricultural implements and other related materials. One of the reasons the ‘tractorisation’ failed was that it was difficult to access spare part for repairs because people were not encouraged to import them as a result of bottlenecks at the quay in Freetown. To enhance agricultural productivity in the country and achieve food security, I believe some of these barriers must be cleared. If not an absolute duty-free concession, government should ensure that a minimal cost is placed on agricultural materials brought to the country. In reality, if agriculture is prioritised, it would not only boost food sufficiency but would also help to reduce youth unemployment.

Also, the military, police and correctional service officers are being supplied a bag of rice each every month and government does spend a huge chunk of money to procure the said supply. The initiative to be providing a bag of rice to each security personnel is a fine one, but there have been several reported cases of government reneging on making the supply regularly, albeit such could be beyond their control. Reasonably, if that money could be converted and be used for food production, it would ensure sustainable supply of variety of food to the security sector and reduce the financial burden on government in procuring rice for them each and every month. It would also help to minimise the prices of local produces, reduce the dependent on imported food stuff, and ensure acceptability of our local produces.

Finally, if China, with the largest population in the world can provide sufficient food for its people with little dependence on imported food stuff, I believe Sierra Leone could do better if things are done right. The country is blessed with a vast arable land, which, if properly utilised, could contribute to enhancing food security. Our minerals have taken us to nowhere but to the direction of war, abject poverty and want, hence government should encourage investors who vest interest in agriculture.