Monday, November 12, 2007

Vietnamese agronomist aims to feed Sierra Leone

Next May, 20 Vietnamese farmers will travel to the West African country of Sierra Leone to join in an ongoing project that seeks to boost Sierra Leone's rice productivity.

Professor Vo Tong Xuan (1st, L) observes Sierra Leonean farmers demonstrate rice planting techniques




“For 30 years, Western countries and rich donors have been pouring billions of dollars into Africa to try to lift it from poverty and food deficiency, but they have failed,” said Vietnam's leading rice expert Professor Vo Tong Xuan, who initiated the project.

“But the Vietnamese Mekong Delta approach will not fail, because it is different.”

From its initiation, the Working Group for Food Security for Sierra Leone, as Xuan's rice productivity project is called, was warmly welcomed by the Sierra Leonean government.

The plan is to send agronomists and farmers from Vietnam to Sierra Leone to introduce Mekong Delta rice techniques and within three years, to develop a high-productivity rice production training center for West Africa.

The Sierra Leonean Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security immediately set aside 200 hectares of land in the town of Mange Bureh in the Northern Province for Xuan's project, and also authorized the use of its Rokupr Rice Research Station in Kambia District.

At present, two Vietnamese experts are test-planting 50 high-productivity Mekong Delta rice breeds in Mange Bureh in order to identify which breeds will grow best on 100 hectares of project land next May.

“By July 2008, we will see a 100-hectare Vietnamese rice field on the land of Sierra Leone,” said Xuan.

He also plans to work with the Sierra Leonean food and agriculture ministry to organize a field day at the end of next July before the harvest to show Sierra Leonean farmers andofficials what made-in-Vietnam rice technology can accomplish.

“After that, we can rightly name the Mange Bureh site the African Agricultural Technology Applied Research and Training Center.

We hope to train Sierra Leonean farmers during the first few years and later extend training to extension workers and advanced farmers from other African countries,” Xuan explained.

He will travel to Sierra Leone in mid-November to assess the test-planting phase.

And there is more to come.

Next May, along with the 20 farmer-trainers, farming equipment and tools ranging from rice baskets to hand ploughs will be shipped to the African country for use in the project.

The Vietnamese farmers will receive a monthly salary of US$500, which would ensure them a comfortable life in this poor African country.

Xuan said the project's ultimate goal is not only to help the Africans, but also the Vietnamese.

“I want to find more land for Vietnamese agricultural workers now that our domestic land resources are shrinking while the agricultural labor force is growing,” he said.

And the outflow of Vietnamese farmers is likely to result in more Vietnamese services and industrial products being exported to Africa.

“Roughly one hundred years ago, Japan did the same thing in Brazil. And when I calculate the number of Japanese agricultural tools and machines having been exported to Brazil over all these years, I want the same thing to happen for Vietnam,” Xuan said.

But in the meantime, the Vietnamese experts and farmers will have to work hard.

The motto for Xuan's project is “1 plus 4,” which refers to one Vietnamese farmer teaching four farmers from Sierra Leone proper rice planting techniques.

“I believe, once the farmers there reject extensive farming in favor of intensive farming and advanced technology, things will be different,” he said.

Xuan's ambitious plan for Sierra Leonean and Vietnamese farmers, however, hasn't created much enthusiasm within the Vietnamese government, except from the An Giang Province People's Committee.

“In general, Vietnam is still thinking it should be getting sponsored, not doing the sponsoring. Yet, now that Vietnam has a seat at the UN Security Council, it is time it thought about helping poorer countries,” Xuan countered.

At the moment, the project is being financed by three companies in Vietnam and Germany, which plan to ask the Sierra Leonean government for permission to establish a joint-stock company to help manage and expand the project.

“But I believe when our project yields good results, more people will be interested,” said Xuan.

The project's greatest challenge, however, is not lack of sponsorship.

“Our biggest difficulty is actually the difficult working conditions in Sierra Leone's rural areas.

There is no running or clean water, electricity, or convenient utilities, or internet, or TV.

Everything is pretty concentrated in the capital, Freetown, which is 150 km, or seven hours of travel away,” he said.

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