By Beny SAM
Sierra Leoneans who were born especially before and in the 1950 and 1960s, grew up in the abundance of food, agriculture generally was booming, rice and cash crops were exported and our Le2 was equivalent to the British Pound and a bit stronger than the US Dollar. A vocabulary like “foreign Exchange.” I still vividly remember us teachers at the Albert Academy ordering Buckby Shoes from London using our Leones with no recourse to any foreign currency. All the paperwork was done on our staff room tables and after one or two months or so our shoes were brought to us, just like that.
In terms of food sufficiency, before the 80s we ate only rice produced locally and the only rice imported in small quantities in packets was the “Carolina” rice, I think from the USA which almost only European and other white foreigners eat it.
Especially in West Africa, the shortage of rice could be enough trouble for any Government. The importation of rice which is Sierra Leone’s staple food, started earnestly in the early 1980s. There were times we had long queues for rice and it was rationed and only few cups were sold.
The first Agriculture Ministers of both the Koroma and Bio Administrations boasted of their ability to export rice within about two years of taking up office, but both could not even meet half of the country’s needs. Up till today the country is importing $240 Million worth of rice per annum. Now we have as one of the five government’s “Game Changers” as “Feed Salone.”
Definitely a lot of resources have been pumped into the agriculture sector especially by the Koroma and now the Bio Governments. We were all privy to the following strategies or activities adopted by the Koroma government: Tractorization; Small and Medium Enterprises; the Agricultural Business Units and the Agricultural Business Centres and a host of others. Yet the current Government is still spending millions of US Dollars to import rice for even our forces. It also supports Businessmen with foreign exchange to be able to import rice for commercial purposes.
The 2024 National budget has removed subsidies from rice and increased the tax by 5%’ this move has angered a lot of the average Sierra Leonean who at the moment cannot afford to buy a bag of rice. In its first Term, the Bio first minister of Agriculture promised this nation enough rice in a couple of years as according to him the government had started the multi-million Dollar Torma Bum- Gbondapi rice production project.
At the end of President Bio’s First term in office most opposition figures challenged his claimed successes by the general cry of food on the table. The Creole has an adage which says: “Dry dog sweet, bot waetin for eat tae di dog dry?” Agricultural productivity is seasonal for the most part and you have the processing aspect after harvest. The Opposition APC is saying that one of the major campaign issues on which the SLPP won the elections in 2018 was the prevalent poor economy, hunger and poverty before the elections. It is worth noting that the Koroma Administration pronounced an austerity regime and was to present a report in May 2017, but never did. Nevertheless for them, it is imperative that the SLPP must put food on the table no matter what since the then new government boasted of having the magic wand.
The SLPP for their part are saying that the economic mess they inherited was so overwhelming that cannot be turned round overnight.
What we are going through now as a nation is unfortunate because we had and still have all it takes to have put this country ahead of other countries a long time ago. Tell me, were we not leading in so many things during the colonial and immediate post-colonial period? Even in Education, as recent as the mid 80s we had students from all over the world coming to attend the great Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.
Currently our food situation according to WFP, “the latest food security analysis shows a deterioration in food security in Sierra Leone compared to February 2019, with the total food-insecure population increasing from 34 percent to 47.7 percent.” In effect this means that in Sierra Leone, almost half of the population (3,921,752) does not consume enough nutritious diet to live a healthy life. There is acute malnutrition placed at the rate of 6.7 percent which is far higher than the 2017 one which was 2.6 percent. Our Food insecurity and malnutrition is said to be caused by limited access to nutritionally diverse foods: 85 percent of children between ages 24–59 months do not consume a diet that meets minimum dietary diversity.
The World Food Program (WFP) identifies drivers for an increase in our food insecurity is “recurrent climatic shocks, including flooding and erratic precipitation pattern during the seasonal rains, in addition to a challenging macroeconomic situation.” The negative impacts of Covid-19 Pandemic and the global food crisis due to the Russia –Ukraine war are also drivers.
The International Food Policy Research Institute highlighted the 2023 World Food Day theme of “Water is Life, Water is Food. Leave No One Behind,” which underscores the often-underestimated role of water in food systems. Although water is vital, it tends to be invisible in many critical processes, including ecosystem health, energy production, and manufacturing. This lack of awareness is problematic as water systems are near a breaking point. The consequences of paying insufficient attention to water’s vital roles in sustaining ecosystems, communities, and agriculture are profound and include the increasing risk of food systems “breaking,” which would increase undernutrition and lead to humanitarian crises. This is the situation Sierra Leone finds itself where there is limited clean water for the population especially eastern Freetown which is overpopulated and houses so many slums.
To complicate matters in Sierra Leone, we are told that 60% of our diseases are water-borne. Unfortunately more than 50% of the population drinks untreated water from wells or streams that are open to many impurities. Well as it is, it is quite plain that the combination of not enough nutritious food and impure drinking water definitely spells doom for our country. Turning this situation round does not seem to be in the offing just yet. Or do you think otherwise?