Sierra Leone has been no stranger to deadly epidemics in recent times: the Ebola outbreak from 2013 to 2016 caused massive loss of life and socioeconomic turmoil from which the country has barely had time to recover.
As a consequence, the government acted rapidly in the face of Covid-19, calling a state of emergency on March 25, before the first case was even confirmed inside the country. The subsequent and ongoing lockdown has, on the one hand, ensured that cases and deaths from Covid-19 are still relatively low, but the consequences have been devastating for the country’s farmers. And in Sierra Leone, where 60% of the population are small-scale food producers, this is no peripheral crisis—it’s an all-encompassing problem.
What follows is a report from one of our activists in Sierra Leone, Fatmata Mansaray, one of the producers of the Kenema Kola Nut, a Slow Food Presidium.
As I pen this article during the Covid-19 inter-district lockdown in Sierra Leone, over 1000 small-scale local framers in the districts of Kono, Kenema and Kailahun in the east of Sierra Leone are going dry.
These people, who cultivate and serve food to others for a living in their communities, are now left as beggars, dependent on food donations from the government and family members.
New regulations came into force on April 20 which put restrictions on group gatherings. The selling of fresh foods could continue, but only in oﬃcially-designated markets following strict operating procedures issued by the Ministry of Health and Sanitation.
This pandemic has put small-scale producers and landless farmers under strain. These groups
depend on the country’s agriculture sector to make a living, and the nation depends on these groups
for its food supply.
These lockdown measures may help Sierra Leone win against the virus, but if the patterns of small-scale planting, harvesting and distribution continue to be disrupted then hundreds of thousands of people will lose their livelihoods; the whole country could ﬁnd itself slipping into deep food insecurity.
Not Enough Relief
The relief packages announced by the central government so far have not provided enough support to
the huge numbers of small-scale producers and landless communities. Another big issue for small-scale farmer which has not yet been addressed is local markets: as they’re all closed due to the risks of contamination, most of them have no means of selling their goods.
The closure has hit producers of vegetables and dairy products particularly hard. Some trading is permitted, but farmers are being forced to sell at artificially-low prices set by the traders.
Slowing to a Stop
The cultivation of the fields depends on the availability of affordable hired labor in local communities and villages. In rural villages, the investments that subsistence farmers can make in resources are largely dependent on what their relatives living in urban areas can provide.
It’s normal for many small-scale farmers to and from urban and peri-urban areas in order to be able to farm the fields in rural areas. But these farmers have resorted to simply staying at home to avoid breaking the law. The Ministry of Health and Sanitation’s regulations on the (non-)movement of people and lockdowns in some towns and cities has caused farmers to slow down or abandon their work completely. “We are not moving; we cannot travel into town to buy animal dung for our crops. Kenema organic maize will be drastically affected,’’ remarked one farmer. While work is left incomplete, the farms are literally running dry of water. This scenario has had a drastic impact on agricultural productivity across Sierra Leone.
Supply and Demand?
As the scourge continues, farmers expect the theory of supply and demand to work in their favor. But the current market prices of farmed goods are not providing much relief to beleaguered producers.
With President Madda Bio advising people to “stay home, stay safe’’, only a small number of people are turning up to the markets which are allowed to open. This isn’t entirely through choice, either: some towns have been placed on a strict lockdown and limited the movement of people. This is especially true in the districts of Kenema, Kailahun and Kono.
The situation has caused a number of crops—tomatoes, fruits and other vegetables—to be destroyed, meaning more lost revenue for local farmers. This is partly because the physical transportation of food from farms to urban centers has been slowed down by the crisis. At times, transport has been completely unavailable because of travel restrictions. Many transporters fear taking risks and do not turn up to collect farm produce. And when they do, the escalating cost of fuel makes it less affordable than before. The fact is that most small-scale farmers in Sierra Leone rely on this private transport to ferry their produce from the farms to urban market.
Long Term Effects
As these trends have amplified so the realities of the crisis have triggered a reconsideration of several long-held beliefs, with possible effects on our future choices for the economy and society. These effects range from our attitudes regarding eﬃciency versus resilience, the future of capitalism, the dense concentration of economic activity, our national industrial policy, and our approach to problems that affect us all. Covid-19 is one such problem, and it calls for global, collective action by governments and institutions, much like climate change.
As history has shown, the choices we make during crises can shape the world for decades to come. What will remain critical is the need for collective action to build an agricultural system that is Good, Clean and Fair for everyone; a system that delivers inclusive economic growth, prosperity, and safety for all. The most important lesson we must learn from the Covid-19 pandemic is the importance of working together on problems that affect the entire human race. As the virus has shown, we are much stronger when we are united.
by Fatmata Mansaray