West Africa Rising: Sierra Leone looks to 'smallholders' to solve agricultural woes

The West African nation plans to boost food production via a $400 million project to aid smallholders: subsistence growers farming on plots that average a mere four acres.

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Even as it works to attract big-money investments from multinational mining and oil companies, Sierra Leone – a poor West African nation still recovering from a decade of civil war – is turning its attention to a much less flashy group of economic actors: 'smallholder' farmers.

Drawing on funds from a broad swath of donors, the country’s government is shepherding a multi-year $400 million project that aims to boost the productivity and incomes of its smallholders, subsistence growers who eke out a living on plots that average a mere four acres.

“Agriculture supports over 70 percent of the population in this country… but the people aren’t doing it at any profitable level,” says Sheikh Massaquoi, a lecturer in agricultural economics at Sierra Leone’s Njala University. The problem, he says, comes down to the fact that “the capital is lacking and the technology is lacking.”

Those are two things the government hopes to fix. Drawing on funds from the World Bank, the EU, the African Development Bank, and other donors, the “smallholder commercialization program” will dole out $403 million before the end of 2014.

Among other things, that money will smooth rutted rural roads ($68 million); expand small-scale irrigation schemes ($51 million); offer farmers affordable loans ($27 million); and build “agricultural business centers” – places where farmers can go to buy seeds, rent equipment, and store and market their harvested crops ($36 million).

Sierra Leone can use the help. The farming sector has been growing slowly since the civil war ended in 2002, but the country still imports more food than it exports. Meanwhile, a quarter of Sierra Leone’s 5.7 million people can’t afford to meet their daily nutritional needs, and nearly half of the country is hungry for at least part of the year.

Sierra Leone isn’t the only country that’s pouring new money into agriculture. Thanks largely to the spikes in world food prices that began in 2008, the past few years have seen a surge in support for farming programs in developing countries, says Sally Baden, a senior adviser at Oxfam Great Britain.

“There was a wider realization in the donor community that – particularly in Africa – the levels of agricultural productivity were stagnating or declining, that Africa was falling behind the rest of the world,” Ms. Baden says.

Under the African Union’s Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), many African nations have pledged to boost their investments in agriculture. Some – like Mali and Ethiopia, in addition to Sierra Leone – have followed through on those promises; some haven’t.

Many governments and donors are focusing on smallholders, while others argue that – with so many people leaving rural areas and settling in cities – investing in large-scale agribusiness is a more efficient way to tackle poverty and boost food supplies.

This latter position is not the mainstream view among donors, Baden says.

“For agriculturally based economies, especially those in [sub-Saharan Africa], the majority of the populations are, in most countries, still rural; that is where poverty is concentrated,” she says.

Boosting farmers’ incomes can create jobs and stimulate economic activity in rural areas, she adds, while the crops grown in the countryside can help feed swelling urban populations.

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