The FAO is working with the Government of Sierra Leone to make sure farmers have better access to quality seeds, fertilizers, machinery and training
"I hope within five years we are selling on the international market," says Fatmata Sesay, a farmer from Kailahun in eastern Sierra Leone.
As head of an organization of farmers - many of them women widowed during the country's brutal civil war - she knows there is strength in numbers.
Before, Sesay just grew enough to feed her family. If she sold, it was only in small quantities and usually at a low price.
But recently she has seen her profits from rice and cassava double - an increase made possible, she reckons, by using high-yielding seeds and by marketing collectively.
And she has seen a change in attitude.
Farmers, buoyed by better earnings, are growing more crops and "beginning to see that farming can be a profitable business," she says.
She hopes that momentum will continue and that farmers, like herself, will be supported in taking it to another level, one that could put them - and the country — on a path to greater prosperity.
Farming for business
The Government of Sierra Leone means business, too, which is why it is moving full speed ahead with its plan to help the country's smallholder farmers make the transition from subsistence to commercial farming.
Boiled down, the five-year, $403mn plan — known as the smallholder commercialisation programme — seeks to help farmers grow more and varied crops, process more of what they produce, and market their goods more effectively.
Around 3.5mn people — roughly two-thirds of the country — depend on agriculture, while some 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. By encouraging farmers to "farm for business", Sierra Leone hopes to lift annual agricultural growth to the 7.7 per cent needed to halve poverty and hunger by 2015.
To achieve this, the Government is working with FAO and other partners to make sure farmers have better access to quality seeds, fertilizers and machinery as well as training — from improved cropping techniques and group governance to financial management and marketing skills.
It is also making a big push to develop irrigation systems, improve feeder roads so that farmers can get their goods to the market and make it easier for them to access financial services.
Agricultural business centres
The agricultural business centre is the centrepiece of the programme — a place in the community where farmers can buy seeds and fertilizers, rent equipment to cut down on labour costs and process, store and market what they harvest.
Efforts are under way to empower existing farmer-based organizations, many of which started out as farmer field schools, to operate these centres on a cost-recovery basis.
"The plan is for the centres eventually to be independent of Government support and external support," says Kevin Gallagher, former FAO Representative for Sierra Leone. "It is important to get them linked to markets so there are opportunities and new kinds of jobs — not just in farming but in mechanisation and shop keeping."
With funds from the European Union, Ireland, the Islamic Development Bank and Italy, 192 centres are being built and equipped with rice mills, cassava graters and drying floors, while board members and equipment operators are receiving training.
Michael Dick, a 35-year-old farmer from Moyamba, thinks the centre will make a huge difference in his community.
By selling bags of unprocessed cassava root, farmers have been losing out on the profits they could make from gari (cassava meal) and fufu (boiled and pounded cassava), and even by-products like starch, says Dick, referring to two popular dishes in Sierra Leone.
"If we had graters and compressors and training we could process and sell these things ourselves," he added. "It would be much more profitable."
FAO is working closely with the Government to make sure the existing centres are on a sound footing with strong management systems in place.
The Government's goal is then to strengthen and expand upon these activities — a goal that got a boost from a recent $50mn grant from the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), a multi-donor funding mechanism.
‘Our goal is to be self-reliant'
The smallholder commercialisation programme, which is part of a 20-year national plan for sustainable agriculture development, is ambitious.
And it's not without hurdles. Sierra Leone has made remarkable progress in the eight years since the end of the war, but it is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Malnutrition and illiteracy rates are high, electricity is patchy and unemployment, especially among young people, is rife.
"The healthcare message was easier to get out," explains David Mwesigwa, FAO Sierra Leone Emergency Coordinator for the European Union Food Facility, referring to the Government's recent initiative to provide free health care to pregnant women and children. "But for agriculture, it is another story. It isn't free. It requires an investment from the farmers.
"The programme is still in its infancy, but it has much on its side for it to succeed — abundant fertile land, decent rainfall, widespread support from the Government and the international community and, perhaps most importantly, growing enthusiasm from the country's farmers.
"Everyone suffered during the war. Our goal is to be self-reliant and that's the message I'm spreading to others," says Dick. "We can't rely on handouts."