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An interview with Professor Monty Patrick Jones, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Secu

With a view to self-sufficiency Professor Monty Patrick Jones, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security (MAFFS) is focusing his ministry’s energies on creating at least 10,000 jobs across key value chains through increasing agricultural production and productivity and commercial agriculture. To this end, he has taken the strategic approach of aligning the Ministry’s objectives with the President’s Recovery Priorities; the targeted socioeconomic recovery investment package introduced post Ebola and post the commodities price crash.

Rice is the crop at the top of his list for promoting food security, stimulating economic growth and increasing rural income. Sierra Leone’s annual per capita consumption of rice is amongst the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Along with Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone, rice consumption exceeds 100kg per capita per year.

“Agriculture is the mainstay of the rural populations employing about 70 percent of the population and the most dominant of the country’s economic sectors followed by mining,” explains the Minister. “It contributes over 50 percent of Sierra Leone’s GDP. Virtually all farmers in Sierra Leone grow rice which is the staple food. Rice development therefore would not only provide food for the populace, it would provide employment for a considerable number of farmers, save valuable foreign exchange and impact positively on the overall economy of the country.

“Over the years, our production growth rate has not matched the population growth rate. We now need to triple our current productivity levels from 1 ton/hectare to about 3-4 tons/hectare to be able to cope with the increasing demand.”

Improving access to quality seeds and agro-chemicals has been one of the ministry’s main approaches. To that end, 250,000 bags of 50kg assorted fertiliser will be made available to farmers to apply the complete dose of fertiliser to their rice farms. This will be backed up by improved extension services to the farmers to encourage better agronomic practices.

In order to encourage diversification and improve productivity of farmers, the use of Inland Valley Swamps (IVS) to enable multiple cropping is being promoted through various ministry projects, this will also support the ministry’s effort to reduce the harmful environmental impact of some farming systems for a more sustained productivity.

The Government of Sierra Leone spends close to USD10m every year to feed public institutions with imported rice. In an effort to reduce the proportion of imported rice and increase the quantity of locally sourced rice, MAFFS and the Ministry of Trade and Industry have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to ensure that 10 percent of institutional feeding contracts are sourced locally.

In our increasingly health conscious society, there is also the added benefit of local rice’s superior nutritional quality, largely because it is more difficult to polish. Furthermore, local parboiled local rice has two percent more protein than non parboiled rice. It is therefore unsurprising that, in neighbouring countries like Guinea, local Sierra Leonean rice is highly sought after.

In promoting commercial agriculture, Agricultural Business Centres (ABCs) will be transformed into viable production entities to provide basic services to FBOs and other farmers while improving access to markets for processed products is also instrumental to the ministry’s efforts.

In that regard 52 ABCs have been selected nationwide focusing mainly on rice, followed by cassava and the tree crop value chains. Existing tree crop plantations (cocoa, coffee, cashew and oil palm) are being rehabilitated and expanded.

Increasing farmers’ access to finance to transform the selected value chains is another strategy in the ministry’s efforts to transform the sector, as are creating market linkages through the construction of feeder roads.

In addition to its efforts to develop commercial agriculture, MAFFS in collaboration with Trade and Industry has also taken steps to create an enabling environment for increased and improved foreign direct investments while promoting the outgrower scheme. The Minister of Agriculture says: “We encourage investors who want to come in and create nucleus farms which will serve to demonstrate management know-how, and improved skills, techniques and technology.”

Professor Monty Patrick Jones has worked in the past with the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), the AU’s authority on matters concerning agriculture science, technology and innovation. It was there he saw at first hand the advantages to farmers in Ghana, Malawi and Uganda, of direct cash transfer schemes. He is keen to introduce something similar for Sierra Leonean farmers.

Research from UNICEF into present and past cash transfer programmes, indicates that they have led to an increase in agricultural activities in beneficiary households, including greater use of agricultural inputs, more land area in crop production and higher crop output. Beneficiary households have increased ownership of livestock and agricultural tools, and have a greater tendency to participate in non-farm family enterprises.

Moreover, households that receive transfers tend to reallocate their labour away from casual agricultural wage labour to household-managed economic activities. In almost all countries, cash transfers have allowed beneficiary households to avoid negative risk coping strategies and to better manage risk, partly by allowing beneficiaries to ’re-enter’ existing social networks and thus strengthen their informal social protection systems. Finally, cash transfers benefit the wider community, leading to significant income multipliers throughout the local economy.

GDP growth originating in agriculture is two to three times more effective in reducing poverty than GDP growth originating outside of agriculture. As a consequence, Professor Monty Patrick Jones is encouraged by the increasing number of young people who are returning to agriculture in their numbers in districts around the country.

“Our ability to sustain high levels of economic growth is being challenged by rapid population growth, a weaker commodity market, and the effects of climate change. In this context revitalising agriculture must become our priority. It has the potential to provide jobs for our growing youth population, create economic stability, compensate for the fluctuations in other sectors and, of course, feed our population. Investing in agriculture, and attracting young people back into the sector, is not option for Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans, it is a necessity,” he concludes.

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