By Mohamed Massaquoi
Economists and social experts are concerned about the dreaded economic situation in the country, which by every indication is yet to be surmounted. A good number of Sierra Leoneans are still cash-trapped in the midst of appalling cost and standard of living.
There is massive youth unemployment, poor standard of education, while the closure of major mining companies is among many challenges confronting Sierra Leone.Sierra Leoneans were of the view that the post-Ebola recovery process is to serve as a ground breaking strategy for poverty reduction in the country, but that is another issue all together.
It is no hidden secret that the agricultural sector can play a vibrant role in the recovery process as agriculture is the backbone of growth and development.
For the past years, that important ministry has not received the appropriate attention simply because of selfishness or deliberate attempt to undermine government programmes.
A surprise announcement from State House on Monday, 28 December, 2015 revealed partial changes in the current Cabinet, with the promise that more are in the pipeline.
Two big changes in the current political configuration were the appointment of former Anti-Corruption Commission boss, Joseph Kamara, as Attorney-General and Minister of Justice and Professor Monty Jones as Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security.
Professor Jones is an internationally recognised agriculturist and rice researcher who, until this announcement, was working at State House as one of the President’s advisers.
According to desktop research, Professor Jones was awarded for his breakthrough achievements in creating a rice variety specifically bred for the ecological and agricultural conditions in Africa, Dr. Monty Jones won the World Food Prize in 2004 – the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization’s International Year of Rice.
In 1991, Prof. Jones was appointed head of the Upland Rice Breeding Programme at WARDA, then located in Côte d’Ivoire. It was in this position in 1994 that he made his exceptional breakthrough achievement in combining Asian and African rice varieties to develop NERICA, a “New Rice for Africa” uniquely suited to poor African rice farmers.
Professor Jones had, since the 1970s, seen that native African rice varieties grew most successfully in the continent’s alkaline soils and conditions of varying moisture. However their yield potential was remarkably low, especially compared to the rice varieties that had been introduced from Asia some 500 years earlier. These more productive varieties, in contrast, were limited by low resistance to African.
Therefore, his appointment was roundly applauded by Sierra Leoneans, hopeful that he will transform the agricultural sector.
During one of his visits to State House, Professor Jones is reported to have said that his key interest was to strengthen the investment sector by expanding agricultural growth through large scale farming in corn, rice and other grains across the country, adding that his vision was to establish large scale farming, support supply chains and export high quality products under a Sierra Leone Brand by working with other partners and other line ministries. From one local radio station to another, the professor and his PR team have been blowing his new plans for the sector with little or anything done.
A funfair show was organised for him in Port Loko district during his recent visit to that part of the country. In Kono the ministry was again on his promise mood to the farmers who are seriously wallowing in poverty.
His predecessor, Dr. Sam Sesay, was all over the country with his tractorisation programme, a scheme that never worked. He was always in denial when critical comments were made about the cost of local products in the market, including rice, vegetables and even animal products.
With Professor Jones, workers of the ministry have complained that for the past three months or so, the professor has been focusing on administrative issues rather than addressing the real problems.
The issues of agricultural communication and the capacity of farmers in accessing loans to carry out farming activities as capacity building package and the availability of tractors to till the land are key.
For example, information from the ministry stated that component one of the Smallholder Commercialisation seeks towards production intensification, diversification, value addition and marketing.
The objective of this component was to promote commercialisation of smallholder agriculture through increased productivity, value addition, and marketing, with emphasis on commodity chain development and institutional strengthening of farmer-based organisations (FBO). This component was as well to be implemented by the ministry, who would be lead actors in strengthening and facilitating the creation of FBOs that would be based on Famers Feed Schools.
The Ministry of Agriculture was to contribute to the establishment of Agricultural Business Centres (ABCs), created by 3-5 FBOs who would come together and function as the primary gateway to commercialisation of smallholders. ABCs would provide a range of technical, operational and marketing services to smallholders and be a main entry point for MAFFS extension support. ABC commodity focus will depend on the predominant cropping system and economic activity of the membership, with early emphasis on rice and other food crops, but also including livestock, non-timber forest products and fish processing. The expected results of the component included the formation of 2,750 FBOs trained in FFS, including organisational and business management skills, and organised into about 650 ABCs with adequate capacity, infrastructure and equipment to render services to clients.
Thirteen district ABC networks will be formed with the view to promoting commodity chains, platforms of exchange and eventual apex bodies at national level. Did the former minister succeed in achieving the above lofty goals?
Mr. minister, stop the talk and walk the walk. Sources within the ministry reveal that this is the first time personnel of that ministry have held a meeting for more than ten hours discussing issues.
The new minister has separated the two deputy ministers to various programmes and projects within the ministry, but how is that going to be effective?
What are some of the challenges faced by farmers that the ministry wants to address? These are all the million questions Sierra Leoneans are asking.
Prices of local communities remain high, farmers remained poor, ABCs are constantly being closed!
I rest my case.