Located on the western coast of Africa, Sierra Leone is known for its beautiful, white-sand beaches lining the Freetown Peninsula. Leaving those asides for the time-being, I and Dr. Vithal Karoshi from the Cornell/Sathguru consortium embarked on a weeklong visit to learn about the seed systems of the country. We came to learn that Sierra Leone is also enriched with a wide variety of agro-ecologies, including forest, savannah, grassland and swamps. The country is blessed with an abundance of rivers and adequate rainfall to support all year-round agriculture. The country has eight main river systems (the Great Scarcies, Little Scarcies, Rokel, Jong, Sewa, Wanjei, Moa and Mano), typically flowing to Atlantic Ocean.
Benefitting from a warm reception for Seed Systems Group’s mission in the country, we met with most of the key agriculture officials aside from the Minister of Agriculture, who was on other official duties during our visit. However, we did meet with Mr Amara Sheriff, Director General, Ministry of Agriculture, Dr Jean Kamara, the Director of Crops in the Ministry of Agriculture, Dr Momoh Turay, Director of the Seed Certification Agency (SLeSCA), Mr Aiah Thorlie, Director of Agricultural Extension, Mr Mohamed Bahsoon, CEO, Seed Tech International (a private seed company) and other key officials in the government and the research institutions.
Sierra Leone’s economy is predominantly agrarian. Agriculture employs about 70% of the population. A tour across the countryside gave us the chance to observe farmers’ fields (small scale), with rice, cassava and groundnuts among other crops. Although green and well-tended, the crops in these fields were clearly planted with low-yielding, traditional varieties and one could not fail to wonder if this will be enough food for the country’s needs. With these questions in mind, we sought to learn more both from the research personnel and the Ministry.
Agriculture in Sierra Leone was once well-developed and there were vibrant research facilities with a lot of private investors in the sector. All this changed for the worse after a civil war ravaged the country from 1991-2002. This was evident from many broken-down machines and buildings at Rokupr Agricultural Research Centre (rice research centre) in the western region of the country. Since the end of the war, very little support has been given to agricultural research, and private seed supply is yet to take off. As a result, farmers have little or no access to improved seed, and research institutions lack the funds and infrastructure required to operate effectively. One highly promising exception to this rule is Seed Tech International, a private seed company which is quickly ramping up operations to get improved seed to the farmers and save the situation. Many like this will be needed to change the current status of high dependency on food and seed imports. The country currently spends over $700 million on average annually to import food. In 2017, the government imported 750 tonnes of rice seed from Nigeria.
However, it doesn’t have to be like this. The current government under His Excellency the President, Julius Maada Bio, has developed a national agricultural transformation programme to reduce high import bills for rice and put an end to rampant food shortages and malnutrition in rural households. The government is also open to private investors and public private partnerships in all agricultural sectors, starting with the seed industry, and yes, there is a huge opportunity for Seed System Group in Sierra Leone.