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Country profile - Sierra Leone

sierra leone

Infamous for the trade in 'blood diamonds', Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war crippled the economy, destroyed infrastructure and caused immense human suffering. During this time, over one-third of the population was displaced, GDP halved, production of staple crops dropped by 70 per cent and about 90 per cent of all livestock were killed or taken to neighbouring countries.

The conflict ended in 2002, but recovery has been slow and Sierra Leone is still one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 180th out of 182 nations in the Human Development Index. Seventy per cent of the population live below the poverty line, life expectancy for adults is just 41 years and, second only to Angola, Sierra Leone has the worst infant mortality rate in the world.


Rice is one of the main staple crops in Sierra Leone (©FAO/Peter DiCampo)
Rice is one of the main staple crops in Sierra Leone
©FAO/Peter DiCampo

Sierra Leone has a diverse environment, ranging from mangrove swamps and rainforests in the west to large plateaus interspersed with mountains in the east. The country has one of the largest deposits of rutile in the world, a mineral used as a pigment and an ore of titanium, but derives most of its income from the export of diamonds which accounted for 85 per cent of exports in 2007, far exceeding the leading agricultural exports of cocoa (seven per cent) and coffee (one per cent).

However, agriculture is responsible for almost half of Sierra Leone's GDP and employs about two-thirds of the population; yet farming families have the highest levels of poverty, at about 80 per cent. Rice, cassava and vegetables are the main staple crops. According to the FAO, lack of investment, poor access to credit, weak infrastructure and non-existent agricultural support services are the major constraints to agricultural development.

Since 1990, almost ten per cent of the country's forests have been lost due to illegal cross-border timber trade, mining, slash-and-burn agriculture and fuelwood collection. Due to deforestation, secondary forest is dominant and valuable woods such as mahogany and teak, once common, are now rare.

The fight over fisheries

Sierra Leone has very productive coastal waters, but the country is losing an estimated US$29 million every year to illegal fishing vessels. Investigations by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a charity which campaigns against environmental abuses, have revealed that many of the pirate vessels are trawlers, which collect all sea creatures indiscriminately by dragging heavy nets along the seabed. Up to 90 per cent of the total catch, which may include turtles, sea birds, coral and juvenile fish, is discarded, the EJF reports. This has significantly depleted fish stocks, forcing artisanal fishermen further out to sea, compromising their safety, livelihood and food security.

As part of the government's 2008-2012 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), managing and exploiting Sierra Leone's fishery and marine resources is one of the government's key priorities. Plans are underway to establish urgently needed Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) systems and improve policy and legislation in order to tackle illegal fishing and ensure that the fisheries sector is sustainably managed. Improving infrastructure and support services, both for commercial and artisanal fishing, are also key targets.

Smallscale artisanal fishermen are being forced further out to sea in search of fish (©FAO/Peter DiCampo)
Smallscale artisanal fishermen are being forced further out to sea in search of fish
©FAO/Peter DiCampo

In addition, the government has succeeded in its efforts to lift a nine-year ban on fish exports to the EU, which was imposed due to poor sanitation and substandard processing methods. The ban significantly reduced annual export earnings from an average US$50 million in the 1990s to US$13 million in 2005. But, by improving sanitary conditions at fish processing facilities and establishing a laboratory to test the quality of the fish before export, the EU has agreed to lift the ban by December 2009.

Government support

The agricultural sector faces numerous challenges, but the government has stated that agricultural development and food security are the key foundations for economic growth and poverty reduction in Sierra Leone. In the latest PRSP, they outline a number of measures to address what they have identified to be the biggest challenges to the sector. These include establishing supply chains for fertilisers, pesticides and high-yielding seed varieties, increasing post-harvest storage facilities and access to rural credit, improving agricultural research and extension services, and improving rural infrastructure to encourage trade.

As part of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) Compact Sierra Leone signed up to in September 2009, the government committed itself to promoting the private sector in order to up-scale agribusiness and the fisheries industry, upgrading agricultural infrastructure, and increasing the budget allocation for agriculture from three per cent to ten per cent by 2010. At the same time, the government has prioritised a scheme to target smallholders and medium to large farm producers in order to increase exports of agricultural commodities by providing better access to markets and processing facilities.

With vast mineral resources, a tropical climate, abundant water resources, fertile soil, and government backing, Sierra Leone has the potential to experience significant economic and agricultural growth. However, it remains to be seen whether the government is able to afford the vast range of measures necessary in order to fully realise Sierra Leone's potential.

Statistical information
  • Country: Sierra Leone
  • Capital: Freetown
  • Area: 71,740 sq km
  • Population: 6,440,053 (July 2009 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 2.3% (2009 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 41 years
  • Ethnic groups: 20 African ethnic groups 90% (Temne 30%, Mende 30%, other 30%), Creole (Krio) 10% (descendants of freed Jamaican slaves who were settled in the Freetown area in the late-18th century), refugees from Liberia's recent civil war, small numbers of Europeans, Lebanese, Pakistanis, and Indians
  • Languages: English (official), Mende (principal vernacular in the south), Temne (principal vernacular in the north), Krio (English-based Creole, spoken by the descendants of freed Jamaican slaves who were settled in the Freetown area)
  • Inflation: 11.7% (2007 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$4.3 billion (2008 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$700 (2008 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 49%; industry: 31%; services: 21% (2005 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 7.95%; permanent crops: 1.05%; other: 91% (2005)
  • Major industries: diamond mining, small-scale manufacturing (beverages, textiles, cigarettes, footwear), petroleum refining, small commercial ship repair
  • Agricultural products: rice, coffee, cocoa, palm kernels, palm oil, peanuts, poultry, cattle, sheep, pigs, fish
  • Natural resources: diamonds, titanium ore, bauxite, iron ore, gold, chromite
  • Export commodities: diamonds, rutile, cocoa, coffee, fish
  • Export partners: Belgium 41%, US 23.2%, France 5.7%, Netherlands 4.3% (2008)

Date published: November 2009


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