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Rural transformation in Sierra Leone: Meeting the challenges of fragility and Ebola

The 38th session of the Governing Council, IFAD's annual meeting of Member States, highlighted rural transformation as a key to sustainable development. Here is one in a series of articles exploring that theme.

19 February 2015 – Even before the Ebola crisis, Sierra Leone was a fragile state. At the time the outbreak hit in May 2014, the country had been slowly recovering from a brutal 10-year civil war that left hundreds of thousands internally displaced.

Nearly 70 per cent of Sierra Leone's population lives in rural areas. The most important occupation is family farming, but farming activities have practically ground to a halt as a result of Ebola. Bans on group labour and the weekly markets where agricultural produce is traded – and restrictions of movement from one community to another to stop the spread of the disease – have brought unintended consequences in the agriculture sector.

It might seem that the Ebola epidemic would extinguish the hopes of rural people who had only recently regained some measure of stability. But experience from IFAD-supported projects shows that when communities have the tools and skills they need to rebuild their lives, they learn lessons that are not soon forgotten.

Revitalizing the rural economy
While the fate of many participants in Sierra Leone's IFAD country programme is unknown, food-security assessments indicate that Ebola has wreaked havoc on livelihoods in the country as a whole. Prior to the outbreak, however, IFAD's ongoing initiatives had begun to revitalize the rural economy. Specifically, they had made progress in empowering people and communities in the Kono, Kenema and Kailahun districts in the east, and Koinadugu district in the north, to overcome the effects of the civil war.

Sia Foryoh, responsible for installation and maintenance of irrigation systems in Kono. ©IFAD/ Sarah Morgan

Access to loans, training and education provided to farmers through the IFAD country programme transformed not only lives but perceptions. People had begun to see farming in a new light – as an opportunity to generate income and run a profitable business.

"When we came back after the war, a few started farming but they weren't making much money," said Sia Foryoh, a service provider in Kono who had been training farmers to rehabilitate, irrigate and cultivate swamps for intensified rice production. The IFAD-financed activities created new hope, Foryoh added.

Where people had once viewed smallholder farmers as poor, they began to see them differently. Farmers in the project area were opening bank accounts, taking out loans and investing in tools, seeds, labour and other equipment. As a result, many had come to realize that agriculture could potentially be more profitable than diamond mining – the country's traditional economic mainstay.

A foundation in rural finance
Thanks to the IFAD-supported Rural Finance and Community Improvement Programme, for example, a network of 17 flourishing community banks and 51 village banks were formed in rural areas across the country.

Sheiku Dauda, manager of the Koidu youth centre. ©IFAD/ Sarah Morgan

The rural finance component is a key part of the programme. A banking system that supports income generation and stimulates cash flow to rural areas is integral to reviving rural economies.

The community banks had offered farmers loans to enable them to make the investments they needed. Village banks had also offered access to credit. Previously, banking for the rural poor had been virtually unheard of. Access to rural finance was a crucial factor in changing mindsets and creating a reliable source of income that could be used for investment in farming or small businesses. It helped people learn to save and borrow, and gain empowerment and hope.

Farming as a business
Meanwhile, the IFAD-financed Rehabilitation and Community-based Poverty Reduction Project helped young people like Sheiku Dauda reclaim land and start their own farming businesses. Dauda, in his twenties, had also been manager of the Koidu youth centre built by the project. When he was interviewed last spring, he was adamant about not returning to mining when farming was more profitable. In the village, farmers had bought motorbikes and built houses.

Miata Samai inspecting plants in Tegloma cocoa cooperative nursery. ©IFAD/ Sarah Morgan

Miata Samai also understood the benefits of farming. A widow with four children, left penniless after her husband's death, she had inherited a cocoa plantation in Kailahun district.

As part of the project's focus on high-yielding and high-earning agriculture, Samai was encouraged to grow cocoa and had become a member of the local cocoa cooperative. Members learned about many things, including world market prices and how to broker linkages with big buyers from as far away as Japan. In three years, they had achieved improved quality and a 60 per cent increase in production. They had also been successful in gaining fairer prices for their cocoa.

The same project rehabilitated 7,500 hectares of tree crops covering plantations in the east and south of Sierra Leone – areas that had been abandoned as a result of the civil conflict. Ageing trees were replaced with improved varieties, and nurseries were established. Farmers, such as Samai, were trained in new techniques to improve yields and the quality of the crops harvested.

Rebuilding lives
Nine months on from the outbreak, rural people in Sierra Leone are still struggling to cope with the impact of the Ebola virus. Families, communities, food supplies, household incomes and rural livelihoods have all been hit hard. And there may yet be worse to come, though there are also hopeful signs that the crisis is abating.

But with IFAD-supported banks now the sole providers of banking and financial services in Ebola-affected areas, their establishment – just over one year ago – has been seen as timely, according to Dr. Joseph Sam Sesay, the Sierra Leone's Minister of Agriculture. Their staying-power after the flight of most commercial banks certainly gives reason for hope, not least because it signifies that the renewal of the rural economy can occur again.

After all, the people of the communities of Kono, Kenema, Kailauhun and Koinadugu districts have been here before. The resilience they nurtured in the aftermath of civil war will likely be tested. So, too, will their hope, strength and resolve. However, with support from IFAD, its partners and the international community, they will rise again.