Saturday, September 22, 2007

Why Don't People Farm the Land?

Tens of thousands of hectares of fertile farm land lie fallow in Sierra Leone, while tens of thousands of able-bodied men are unemployed. There are many ways to answer the question why, but for Peter Kagbo, project coordinator of a rural development association at the village of Masongbo near Makeni, it comes down to three simple words: "Lack of confidence."

"You have to understand that rice farming is hard and difficult work. You can't do it as a hobby. And when you make a mistake - when you use the wrong seed or sow at the wrong time - you have wasted your time and energy, and you and your family goes hungry", he said.

"And so people prefer to sit idle rather then work," he said. "But they also watch... And I for one firmly believe that if they were confident that they could make a decent living from farming they would all go out and do it."

Rice is the country's staple yet most of what Sierra Leoneans currently eat is imported from Asia. Not even 10 percent of Sierra Leone's rice growing land is being cultivated, Kagbo said.

But he has been trying to change that. In 1999, at the height of the country's brutal civil war when Makeni was under rebel control, Kagbo started a farm cooperative and what he calls a "demonstration farm," which this year is cultivating 219 acres of rice, as well as various pulses and vegetables.

"I call it a demonstration farm because the aim is to demonstrate to farmers that they can feed their families and earn some cash," he said.

Facing the work

The farming methods of most farmers in Sierra Leone are currently so inefficient that even those who do grow rice don't produce enough to subsist.

The process is cumbersome even before the farming begins, Kagbo said. Farmers must negotiate a deal with the local chief or land owner for the right to use land.

Then farmers have to find rice seeds. "They can buy the seeds for money but more often they have to borrow the seeds and pay them back with interest."

And how does a farmer know what kind of rice seed he is getting? Rice seed that have a long growing season look almost identical to seeds that have a short growing season, Kagbo said. "It's a big risk."

Then begins the work. The farmer 'brushes' (slashes and burns) the land if it is in the highlands or 'heaps' the wild grasses if it is swamp, and from then on the labour doesn't stop. He must sow, and then weed, and then scare away birds.

Get sick one day and the birds will take all your harvest. If that happens, the farmer and his family is not only without anything to eat or sell, he is also in debt.

Collective approach

There are no guaranteed solutions to rice farming, Kagbo said. "But we have found that if farmers work together pooling their labour they minimise their risks."

Cooperative members also pool their knowledge and resources. "They get to borrow seed without paying interest and we monitor the seeds closely to ensure they pick the seeds that are right for their fields"

"We also cover medical expenses if they get sick or injured," he said,

The demonstration farm doesn't turn a profit. "After we recoup expenses we create a seed bank for farmers for the following year and then share the rest out with amputees and other people in the community who are incapable of farming."

But besides working on the demonstration farm, members of the cooperative each work their own individual farms with members taking turns to work together in one another's fields.

On average, cooperative members get much higher yields on their farms than do other farmers in the area, Kagbo said.

But not everyone can join the cooperative. "We have to be careful how many people we allow in because the more members we have the more risk we take on."

"We would have to get our own tractor and greatly increased our acreage." But the aim of the cooperative is not to get bigger, Kagbo said. "It's to encourage other cooperatives to form."

"Our members get their rice seeds at no interest but the condition is that they spend time working with farmers outside the cooperative.

"The idea is that each member creates his own little cooperative and so the system can spread."

allAfrica.com: Sierra Leone: Why Don't People Farm the Land? (Page 1 of 1)