In Sierra Leone, whenever the country gets badly hit by hardship and an enormous lack of food, we hear politicians talk about the need for citizens to go back to farming. We even see how some of these politicians go to villages, and negotiate with local chiefs to have large pieces of land allocated to them. They collect tractors meant to support local farmers, pose with them on their farms, and tell citizens that if they can do it, everyone else should. But while they share photos of the beginning, we never get to see pictures of the harvest.
Even though many of these politicians often use the farms to score political goals, some genuinely want to cultivate to encourage locals, especially the youths, to go into farming and help tackle the nation’s growing food problem. I have heard testimonies from people in several communities about the enormous support they receive from people like Umaru Napoleon Koroma. Even though the farms fail, he continues to support them in his little way.
But farming in Sierra Leone isn’t as simple as acquiring land, planting seeds, and boom boom, you harvest. Many farmers failed badly in their farming efforts. And this is no fault of their own.
Politicians and their supporters often say Sierra Leone has fertile land to grow all crops. But the truth is, our land isn’t as fertile as we may think. Many of the areas available for farming would require massive investment to make them fertile before farming. It requires even more resources to start farming in new areas (land that has never been farmed before).
Then there is the issue of finding the right seeds for the right places. There is also the issue of pests. Sierra Leone has some of the most stubborn pests in our bushes, and we do not have the suitable pesticides to get rid of them. These and access to resources (mostly finance) are the major challenges we face. But the picture our politicians tend to paint is that we have fertile land, and if our youth weren’t lazy, they would tap into farming opportunities and save our country.
Let me share a personal experience. About two years ago, I joined two other friends to start a farm business in Sierra Leone. We thought about growing corn and leased a large piece of land. The three of us spend most of our time outside Sierra Leone, so we put together a team to work full-time on the farm. We hired an agriculture consultant to guide them. We reached out to the ministry of agriculture for tractors to help us prepare the over 50 acres of land. After the ministry sent a team to survey the land, they told us the tractors could not work on our land because it is a relatively new area, and they were worried about damaging machines while clearing. Fair enough. We hired over a dozen people from the community to help with clearing. We eventually cleared about 40 acres. We then planted the corn.
The pests attacked the sooner the corn began growing. We tried different products from Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ghana but couldn’t get rid of them. The pests, plus the quality of the land, killed our farm. We invested over 100 million Leones in the farm, and in return, we only got about 9 million Leones (yes, nine million). I personally invested about 70% of that over 100 million Leones.
Late last year, I decided to try something different. I leased a large piece of land (a swampy area) and decided to do vegetables. I bought irrigation machines, put together a smaller team, and again hired a consultant. We planted cabbage, watermelon, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, okra, etc. And after months of toiling and putting nearly 50 million Leones on it, only the okra survived. The rest died. We asked people at the ministry of agriculture to tell us what went wrong. They said the land was a bad choice. Even when we told them we had a consultant look at the land, they said sometimes it is hard to tell the quality of the land until you try. So we have to try constantly till we get it right. I know a few other young farmers who had similar experiences.
The good part is that two years ago, while I invested in corn, I also planted cassava on the side. I let the cassava grow for two years. And I ended up with a bumpy harvest of the cassava earlier this year and had over a dozen bags of gari.
But how many young people or local farmers have the resources and money to try over and over before getting it right? How many would lose over 150 million Leones and still want to try? How many farmers would plant cassava and let it stand there for two years to increase the chances of a bumpy harvest? What happens within those two years if they don’t have a steady income somewhere? Maybe go into debt and pay when they eventually harvest two years later? Will the harvest be enough to pay the debts?
My dear friend Moinina David Sengeh said let’s teach our children how to grow wheat. But is wheat a staple food in Sierra Leone? What size of our land is compatible with wheat? Can we start having honest conversations about land access and its quality before we teach our kids how to grow wheat and other crops? Can we talk about access to finance and machines/tools to enable our farmers to work better? Can we talk about access to the right seeds? Or should we pretend it’s all good and let our youth get into much bigger problems while trying to solve our food security issue?