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Settling for a future in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is struggling to recover after a decade of civil war (© FAO/23378/M. Bleich)
Sierra Leone is struggling to recover after a decade of civil war
© FAO/23378/M. Bleich

There is an English phrase "all that glitters is not gold". But, for Sierra Leone, a better phrase may be "all that sparkles does not bring peace and prosperity"; for years, the world's most precious mineral mined from Sierra Leona has become known as so-called 'blood diamonds', as conflict over the diamond fields resulted in over a decade of civil war and destruction.

Sierra Leone is a country with much potential - it has a long rainy season and fertile soil - but it currently flounders as the second poorest nation in the world. During the years of war, research into natural resources stopped, expertise and information were lost, supply chains were destroyed, livestock killed, tools required to farm or fish were stolen, and few inputs were available. Household surveys conducted two years after the end of conflict revealed that 70 per cent of the population lived below the national poverty line - and a quarter in extreme poverty.

Rebuilding agricultural production

Subsistence agriculture provides around 50 per cent of national GDP, with two-thirds of the population involved in the sector. For those involved in farming, the clock has been wound back well before the advent of war. However, a recent study conducted by the DFID-funded Research Into Use (RIU) programme has revealed that there are a number of areas in which innovation research could make a difference in rehabilitating agricultural production.

A process of resuscitating the rural economy had been initiated by the government. But in many areas the rural economy has ceased to function since its social and institutional structure collapsed during the years of conflict. Large numbers of people have migrated to towns and, for those left behind, seeds, fertilisers, tools and other inputs are in short supply and often subject to exploitative pricing by traders. Lack of transport and poor feeder roads also constrains access to markets and the potential for agro-processing.

A complexity of issues

Despite having a long rainy season and fertile soil, Sierra Leone is the second poorest country in the world (World Bank)
Despite having a long rainy season and fertile soil, Sierra Leone is the second poorest country in the world
World Bank

Two million people were displaced during the conflict, about one-third of the population. Many of these have not returned to rural areas, having settled in camps close to urban centres. For those returning to their homesteads in rural areas, re-establishing agricultural production has been an important part of the recovery process. However, rapid population growth is leading to environmental degradation as a result of expansion of slash-and-burn agriculture, extensive deforestation, and over-grazing by cattle; issues that must be addressed if agriculture in Sierra Leone is to provide a way out of poverty.

As one of six focus countries for the five-year DFID supported RIU programme, a 'research showcase' event held in March 2007 highlighted research outputs that might have application in Sierra Leone. For instance, there is a great need to re-establish livestock into small-scale farming systems, particularly small ruminants and poultry - although pigs, rabbits and cattle are also important. Animal health services are virtually non-existent, so it will be essential to provide and strengthen veterinary capacity and the livestock sector.

Another major issue in Sierra Leone is the incapacity to make use of crop surpluses at the end of the growing season. A lack of agro-processing facilities severely constrains post-harvest processing and the opportunity to add value to crops. The RIU study also revealed that the establishment of micro-credit facilities would enhance rural development initiatives.

Working in partnership

Re-establishing agriculture has been an important part of the recovery process (WRENmedia)
Re-establishing agriculture has been an important part of the recovery process

After years of conflict, with a weak private sector and inadequate capacity at local government level, it will be necessary for innovations in research to be led by international and local NGOs or community-based organisations. It is important that a broader network of partners is established including private and public sector organisations, policymakers and the media. Communication and building trust have been identified by RIU as key to developing an integrated approach in Sierra Leone. Other necessities will include capacity strengthening and changes in policy, so that the country's poor farmers and rural communities are able to improve crop and livestock production, enhance agro-processing activities, and access credit and markets.

In August 2007, five years after the end of the war, the first independent elections were held but poverty and corruption continue to blight the nation's potential for prosperity. Although diamond and mineral exports are helping to rebuild its economy, Sierra Leone's wealth lies not just in its minerals but also in its rich natural resources, which are necessary to aid a population in need of improved agricultural production and revitalised rural communities. Rising people above the poverty will take time. But most importantly if peace and prosperity are to be achieved and the sparkle brought back to this beleaguered nation, there needs to be popular determination to bring about change.

With contributions from: Andy Ward, Research Into Use programme

Date published: November 2007


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