Vice President Foh, who delivered a statement on behalf of the President, said the launch of the project underscored his government’s commitment to poverty reduction, the empowerment of smallholder farmers, women, young people and to agribusiness development.
“To ensure effective commercialization, our farmers need government and private sector support. This is why my government has continued to support our farmers with inputs, expose them to new technologies and farming techniques, promote better seed production and use,” noted Mr. Foh. “We will continue to support them in addressing environmental challenges relating to the use of fertilizers and pesticides; and we will continue to encourage irrigation and conservation of the river catchments to sustain flows to their farmland.”
To deal with the challenges relating to access to funds and to provide ready markets, the Vice President said the project would empower smallholder farmers and selected agribusiness firms and other commodity off-takers in the country. This, he said, will be ensured through a matching grant that will be directed towards improving post-harvest activities of smallholder farmers and other value chain actors.
“A revolving Agriculture Loan Fund will be established to this effect and unlike other funds managed by the Apex Bank, this will be given towards agriculture production activities only. It will be a concessional loan in order to give rural farmers access to credit with as little impediments as possible,” he added.
Mr. Foh applauded the World Bank and DFID for working closely with government in designing the project, and for providing the necessary funding for implementation. He encouraged other development partners and the private sector to contribute to the Agribusiness Development Fund to increase its size and make it more sustainable.
Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Momodu Kargbo, said the agriculture sector was critical for the pursuit of sustainable and inclusive economic growth and employment creation in the country, pointing to the fact that the sector accounted for the largest proportion of Sierra Leone’s GDP, and contributed an average of 48 percent in the past ten years.
Given its enormous potential in terms of linkages with other sectors of the economy, the minister described agriculture as the primary sector to lead the diversification process of the country. “This is why the 2017 national budget places emphasis on supporting the sector to improve productivity and value-chain development,” he said.
However, Mr. Kargbo lamented the fact that the country has been spending a significant proportion of its foreign exchange earnings on the importation of food, noting that food imports accounted for about 25 percent of the country’s total imports, which averaged around US$350 million annually for the past five years. This, he stressed, has contributed to the widening of the trade deficit, loss of foreign exchange reserves, and depreciation of the exchange rate.
“This situation is certainly not sustainable and we have to reverse this trend by increasing domestic agricultural production – both food and export crops,” he urged.
The Finance Minister frown at what he referred to as “ineligible expenditures” by project coordinators wherein “monies are spent in a way they shouldn’t”. He said such a trend has to be reversed and warned project managers to follow due processes and laid down procedures in public procurement and financial management.
World Bank Country Manager, Parminder Brar, said for the Bank, agriculture was the number one priority; the reason being the sector accounted for almost 50 percent of the country’s GDP with 70 percent of population involved in it.
He said poverty in the rural areas was much greater than poverty in the urban area, noting that the Bank’s mission globally was to reduce extreme poverty and enhance shared prosperity.
“So we have no other option but to work with the agriculture sector, not only in Sierra Leone but globally,” said Mr. Brar. “Sierra Leone has an arable land area of 5.36 million hectares, which is 74 percent of the overall land area of the country. And the amount of land we can actually cultivate is less than 0.4 million hectares; only 8.1 percent of Sierra Leone’s land is currently under agriculture… So even compared to Africa standard, Sierra Leone has a huge potential for growing its agriculture.”
Added to this, Brar said Sierra Leone was also blessed with so much water with 3,000 milliliters of rainfall each year. He therefore saw no reason why the country should be spending US$350 million each year to import agriculture produce. He said the project would help Sierra Leone achieve its objective of not only exporting crops but also reducing food insecurity, which “currently exists in many parts of the country”.
He said in designing the project, the Bank looked at the mistakes of the past under the Rural and Private Sector Development Project (RPSDP) and the West Africa Agricultural Productivity Programme (WAAPP), pointing out that under the RPSDP, most of the feeder roads rehabilitated or constructed did not last for one year. “With the current project, contractors would only be paid if the roads are of acceptable standards,” he stressed.
The Country Manager further noted that the Bank was very happy to work with the Government of Sierra Leone “to move agriculture to the next level”, and thanked President Koroma for being the driver of agriculture in Sierra Leone.
British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Guy Warrington, said he was delighted that the UK was contributing US$15 million to theproject, which he described as valuable. “The ability of farmers to grow productively and get their goods to market is vital to ensure food security and for Sierra Leone’s economic development," he said.
Statements were also made by the Deputy Minister of Agriculture 1, Rev. Marie Jalloh; and the Ministers of Trade and Industry, Capt. Allieu Pat-Sowe, and Local Government and Rural Development, Maya Kaikai.
The National Coordinator of the West Africa Agricultural Productivity Programme (WAAPP), Sulaiman Sesay, earlier gave an overview of the project.