Dr. Henry Musa Kpaka, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, is an accomplished economist and agricultural expert tasked with effecting significant change in the country’s agricultural sector. Drawing on his extensive professional expertise at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the World Bank, he is working hard to realize President Julius Maada Bio’s objective of transforming Sierra Leone into a food-producing nation. In this interview, Dr Kpaka discusses the Ministry’s policies and activities aimed at maximising the country’s agricultural potential. Excerpts:

The administration of President Julius Maada Bio prioritises agriculture in his pursuit of sustainable economic growth and social improvement. What programmes are in place in accordance with the FEED SALONE mandate to optimise the country’s agricultural potential?

The government has taken a number of initiatives to enhance Sierra Leone’s agricultural potential. We aim to develop six rice clusters, agro-industrial zones, 73,000 hectares of Inland Valley Swamps (IVS), 30,000 hectares of irrigated rice and vegetable fields, and increase agricultural machinery availability through mechanisation and irrigation initiatives.

We have equally adopted the Seeds and Input Systems Interventions to enhance the Feed Salone initiative. The government is working assiduously to improve the capacity of the Sierra Leone Agricultural Institute (SLARI) to produce high-yielding seeds; establish agro-dealers, promote hybrid seeds. and support the private sector in fertilizer blending and manufacturing.

Aggregation, Processing, and Marketing Interventions are yet another strategy. The plan involves establishing rice production clusters in strategic locations, rehabilitating rice processing mills, and implementing policies to encourage institutional purchasing of locally produced food for government institutions.

Another effort, Agricultural Financial Interventions, aims to establish an agriculture credit facility, develop rural financial services for smallholder farmers and entrepreneurs, especially women and youth, and establish a mechanization scheme.

Agricultural Technology (AgTech) and Climate Smart AgInterventions are also core to our strategies. Government plans to establish a National Farmers Registry, strengthen extension services, and promote climate-smart agricultural practices.

Externally funded projects will equally have an impact on our agricultural sector. A number of externally funded projects, including the Food System Resilience Programme (FSRP), supported by the World Bank with 81.5%, the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme (GAFSP) with 18.5, and Feed Salone with the remaining funds, are aimed at enhancing the country’s food security and productive base for five years.

Additionally, the Smallholder Commercialization and Agribusiness Development Project (SCADeP) in Sierra Leone fosters productive business relationships between smallholder farmers and agribusiness companies.

How does the government intend to help Sierra Leone become self-sufficient in food production and export cash crops to other countries, like cocoa, coffee, oil palm, cassava, maize, soybeans, and cashew?

Sierra Leone’s government is working towards self-sufficiency in food production by reducing its reliance on annual rice imports. The country spends about $200 million annually on rice imports. Our goal is to become self-sufficient in staples like rice by 2028. To achieve this, we must significantly boost production and productivity while simultaneously considering environmental impacts, such as cultivated area expansion, mechanisation, quality seeds, and extensionists.

The government’s planned agro-industrial zones and rice clusters are expected to enhance Sierra Leone’s ability to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production. Centralizing rice production in strategic agro-industrial zones improves market linkages, increases production, and closes import gaps, while using irrigation to increase cycle cycles per year. As part of our efforts to become rice self-sufficient, we will improve agricultural practices, leverage technology for better yields, and enhance seed and input systems.

Government is enhancing cash crop exports by expanding cultivation areas, improving crop varieties, and enhancing yields. We are also improving market access, establishing credit facilities for rice, onion, and poultry, and strengthening the policy environment and institutional frameworks.

The ultimate goal of Sierra Leone is to move from small-scale to mechanized rice cultivation. To what extent has the government achieved its objective?

First, there is a policy shift. The government implemented the Machine Rings programme to improve agricultural mechanization by making 410 machines available to farmers through 14 private sector operators. Now, we are focusing on accelerated rice production in places with a comparative advantage in rice farming, where the Machine Rings equipment will be relocated.

Secondly, under the Feed Salone initiative, we plan to launch a Mechanisation Credit Scheme in 2025, offering low-interest loans to support private sector machine acquisition, focusing on creating an enabling environment.

Then, we are focused on expanding cultivated land in 2024. The government aims to triple the amount of 45,000 hectares of land for cultivation in 2024 through World Bank-assisted projects and government subsidies.

Lastly, through our whole-of-government approach, we collaborate with sister ministries like Transport, Energy, and Environment to enhance infrastructure and create conducive conditions for large-scale production.

How are you leveraging your extensive research background at the Tony Blair Institute and the Ministry of Agriculture to drive a significant transformation of Sierra Leone’s agriculture sector?

At the Tony Blair Institute, I collaborated with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Chief Minister’s Office on a number of agricultural initiatives. I played a key role  in the National Agricultural Transformation Programme (NAT 2023), also known as Policy Shift, which was crucial to the Feed Salone programme and aimed to modernize agriculture through a private sector approach.

I led a team of technical personnel within the Ministry of Agriculture to lay the groundwork for agricultural policies, such as the President’s Feed Salone project, that have guided the Ministry’s policies to date. I also supported the new Sierra Leone Agriculture Research Institute (SLARI) Act, which is an important legislative step toward encouraging agricultural growth and innovation in agriculture  sector research.

So, these, and more, put me in good stead to spearhead Sierra Leone’s agricultural transformation initiatives.My extensive research background at the Tony Blair Institute has been instrumental in aligning various interests and driving the necessary change aimed to strengthen our agricultural sector.

And, thanks to my institutional knowledge, which has given me insights into the government’s policy development processes and operational dynamics, I am fostering robust collaboration with agricultural sector partners, including international organizations and donors, leading the Agriculture Donor Group, and representing the Ministry of Agriculture on international platforms for investment and domestic production increases.

What prospects does the agriculture sector in Sierra Leone have over the next five years?

Our goal is to transform Sierra Leone’s agriculture through a targeted and systemic, whole-of-government approach, aiming to boost productivity, achieve food self-sufficiency, increase export earnings, and establish a climate-resilient food system. Agriculture is currently the largest contributor to Sierra Leone’s economic growth, outperforming mining and all other sectors. In five years, the government expects the agriculture sector to grow by 10% every year.

We aim to be rice self-sufficient by 2028. The goal will be achieved with enhanced irrigation, mechanization, infrastructure investment, foreign investment support, and business empowerment in six rice clusters/agro-industrial zones. We are looking beyond rice cultivation. We plan to diversify from rice cultivation into cash crops, leveraging the country’s diverse climate and fertile land, fostering a robust agricultural sector, and generating valuable foreign reserves.

The government is implementing a holistic approach to boosting food production, focusing on infrastructure and supply chains. The agricultural strategy aims to create 35,000 formal and informal jobs, focusing on women and youth. We are creating financing instruments to empower farmers and promote farming as a profitable activity, while also avoiding deforestation and investing in agroforestry.

Are there investment opportunities for foreign investors in the agricultural sector? If so, what are they, and what efforts are being made to achieve this objective?

The government is actively pursuing a variety of investment-attracting initiatives. We are boosting the agricultural budget to 7%, aided by the President’s advocacy, and developing policies to enhance local production through land law modification and stakeholder involvement. The approach emphasizes private sector participation in efficient service delivery, funding, and technology transfer, such as through easier access to land and agricultural finance. In 2024, the government’s investments will be directed towards targeted agricultural value chains, with an emphasis on productivity in specific areas such as rice, chicken, and onions. We are also promoting the Public-Private Partnerships model, fostering collaboration between the government and private investors for mutual agricultural sector benefits.

Sierra Leone has numerous investment opportunities. Investors are encouraged to invest in the large-scale production of cash crops with great export potential, such as rice, cocoa, coffee, and cashews. Investors can make use of Sierra Leone’s vast arable land and agroforestry. The country’s agro-industrial zones provide similar investment prospects. Special economic zones centered on agriculture are being created or participated in, providing incentives and integrated facilities. Prospects in agricultural infrastructure, renewable energy sources, aquaculture, and fisheries exist, with potential for development due to the country’s extensive coastline and freshwater resources.

What obstacles are in the way of Sierra Leone’s increased food production, and how has your ministry been tackling them?

The ministry is addressing obstacles to Sierra Leone’s increased food production, including traditional farming methods and limited modern equipment, by focusing on industrial zones and irrigation facilities.

Sierra Leone’s low agricultural productivity and yield of 1.9 metric tons per hectare are equally being addressed through mechanization, improved irrigation, modern farming practices, and quality seeds and inputs. The scarcity of high-quality seeds and inputs is hampering yields. The government is focused on improving the capacity of research institutions such as SLARI to produce better seeds and establish a network of trained agro-dealers for efficient distribution.

In food production, generally, poor infrastructure and storage facilities lead to significant post-harvest losses of 40% on average. The government is investing in infrastructure to address 40% post-harvest losses in food production, including roads, electricity, rice mill rehabilitation, industrial cluster establishment, and improved storage and processing capacity.

Limited access to agriculture finances is equally hindering food production, necessitating the use of tailored financial instruments like the Agriculture Credit Facility for onion and rice production, as well as poultry farming and credit risk guarantee facilities.

The lack of agricultural technology and data systems hinders informed decision-making. In 2024, the National Farmers Registry and e-voucher system are being revamped for digitization. Climate change vulnerability is another challenge to increased food production. Our focus is on enhancing climate resilience by implementing climate-smart agricultural practices to mitigate vulnerability to climate change.

Many African countries have been caught between the battles of genetically modified food (GMO) and traditional organic food. What is your experience in Sierra Leone, and how are you navigating that space?

The debate in Sierra Leone is almost non-existent due to other systemic issues. As in other parts of Africa, current debates revolve around the possible benefits and risks of GMOs. GMOs can enhance food security by increasing crop yields, improving pest resistance, and improving nutritional content, particularly in harsh weather-prone countries like Sierra Leone. However, there are concerns about the long-term environmental impact of GMOs, potential health risks, and socio-economic issues, such as the dependence of small-scale farmers on large multinational corporations for seeds.

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