Sierra Leone Telegraph: 22 July 2016
Sierra Leone’s minister of agriculture, forestry and food security – professor Monty Jones, this week addressed local media in Freetown, about his plans to transform the country’s politically controversial Agricultural Business Centres (ABCs).
According to the ministry’s communication unit, the minister outlined some of the key issues facing the ABCs. He spoke about the need to align them to the government’s objectives as part of the country’s post Ebola reconstruction programme.
A Key challenge for the ministry of agriculture is to create 10,000 jobs for young people across the agriculture value chain.
Professor Jones told the media that during the past one month, the ministry and its partners have looked at the ABCs, the purpose of their creation and their contribution to the country’s agricultural development and prosperity. This is what he said:
“Let me say that the ABC concept is a very good one. The purpose for which they were developed is to enhance agricultural production and to promote food security. They are there to render services to the people to increase production and productivity. They were built under the Small Holder Commercialization Project.
“In 2009, we had 193, and by 2015 we had 394 of these units across the country. These units are owned by the agriculture ministry (MAFFS) and the communities where they are located.
“There has been a lot of press coverage on the ABCs so they are not a new concept. The Ministry takes full responsibility for them; and what we want to see is improvements in their performance and service delivery.
“We would therefore like to retain 52 ABCs out of the 394 – four per District. The reason being that the Ministry would have the capacity to manage these 52, and if in the long run we decide that the private sector has to be called in to manage them, the Ministry will need to provide oversight.
“The Ministry will decide on what to do with the rest of the ABCs. Some of them are run by communities and we see no need to take it away from them; others would be taken over by investors. But at the end of the day, we want to avoid the ABCs becoming white elephants.
“They were built for a purpose, and that is to promote agricultural activities wherever they are found. The effectiveness and efficiency must be followed through as the order of the day for the ABCs.
“The four that we choose per District would be strategically located. They would be placed strategically in densely populated areas where there is heavy agricultural productivity in the District.
“The ABCs should have linkages with Farmer Based Organizations and individual farmers. Anybody who needs services should be able to access them through their ABCs. There should be strong link between the ABCs and the District Agricultural Officers.
“The ABCs would therefore become the HUB of agricultural activities and must be able to meet the farmers’ needs. The Ministry of Agriculture should be the servants of the farmers and they are supposed to serve the needs of the farmers.
“We want the press to know where these ABCs would be located so that they can pass on the information to the people. We want them to make use of the facilities. I thought of linking the ABCs to farmers’ groups and they should become learning and knowledge centres.
“In our transformation plans, we must be able to get them to take questions from and provide answers for the farmers. They should be able to deal with issues such as cultural practices, diseases, etc., in a quick and timely manner just so that they are kept abreast with new methods and ways of doing things.
“I envisage a situation where each ABC would have a range of experts attached to it and a manager who has experience of how to run a business centre. This will not only help to strengthen and give comfort to the District Agricultural Officers, but they should provide services additional to them.
“We will try our level best to make sure that the 52 ABCs that we are choosing now are relevant to our societies and that they can contribute to promoting food security, reduce poverty and promote prosperity to our farmers.”
Answering a question posed by one journalist, Minister Monty Jones confirmed that he had made it a policy directive that 80% of all devolved funds must go directly to farmers, so as to support their activities on the farms and to ensure that they increase production and productivity.
Professor Jones informed the press that he had announced this policy directive at meetings he has been having with farmers themselves, and also in the presence of the District Agriculture Officers and the Local Councils and Paramount Chiefs.
He also informed the press that in keeping with this policy directive, he presented cheques to two farmers umbrella bodies, National Federation of Farmers in Sierra Leone (NAFFSL) and the Sierra Leone Women’s Farmers Forum (SLEWOFF) last week, and also to the Koinadugu Vegetable Farmers Association.
He concluded by saying that the Ministry’s intentions are very good, as they contribute to growth and national development through open and transparent service delivery. “The purpose for building the ABCs at the outset was excellent.”
According to the ministry’s communication unit – the transformation of a focussed group of 52 ABCs that professor Jones has now announced, is to make service delivery at these units more effective and efficient.
In addition to the transformation of the ABCs, the minister believes that community banks and other financial institutions that are being put in place would help to engender prosperity for farmers and assist them to reduce post-harvest waste as they sell their goods to local processing companies and rice mills.
The Minister also announced that the Ministry would provide seed money for young people to become self-employed in agriculture by providing services along the value chain. This seed money would be provided through a project called SCaDEP.
‘Young people would be encouraged to put together their business plans and once evaluated as viable, they will be given the money to start their business in agriculture with some further support and supervision from the Ministry. In this way, agriculture would become attractive to young people as it would help them create wealth for themselves and employment for others,’ the minister told local media.
This program as I understand it, intends to promote a social and stable local economy based on shared achievements, for the general progress of farmers and to stimulate agricultural development. The minister may have to draw a clearer outline on the following aspects of the program:
• What services do the ABCs offer to farmers?
• What facilities would they provide for farmers?
• What kind of partnership would they build with farmers?
As I see it, there are two main factors to consider in the effort to boost the agricultural sector in the country – a key area for national development. If the grass-root farmers are to be given the opportunity to have a fair share in this development as the program tends to pursue, these factors are key.
1. Setting up an efficient and organized farming program that would attract and motivate farmers, encourage self-starters of all ages into agricultural activities and, to also put in place proper measures that regulate agro business activities all along the supply chain, without interfering with the principles of the free market. A special program to stimulate farming vocation among the young people is also important.
2. In the production area, we should consider building on and updating farming customs of our forbears for sustainable community farming, which can still be relevant today in our particular case. The system provides community support by establishing a loose cooperative of farm owners and workers provided by the families of farmers, including the farmers themselves. A cooperative group of workers is organized and they go round by turn providing service to each member of the group. In this way, the farm work is accomplished and productivity is enhanced.
The goal set by the ministry of agriculture to employ 10,000 workers in the sector is quite a daunting challenge and even falls far short, owing to the huge number of unemployed in the country, is nothing to call home about. And it may even fail simply into random optimism.
Our traditional farmers cannot afford to take on workers on salary. They just don’t have the means. Except for farming co-operatives and who may take the upper hand to monopolize the sector if given the chance, throwing the minister’s project into the plug hole.
A viable approach can be to encourage people of working age to turn to agricultural activities as self employed, and for government to offer them generous tax incentives and material support – allowing them access to finance.
The loose cooperative system I mentioned above can bring with it sustainable agricultural productivity. The role of the ABCs in my view should be the marketers to market the agricultural produce of the small scale farmers. The ministry should be there to oversee both the agricultural activities of farmers and the ABCs business activity.
The Ministry should also regulate prices of agricultural produce to give a fair share of the benefits to farmers. The ABCs should play the role of middleman between the producers and distributors to retailers. The ABCs should be privatised to keep the system away from party politics which encourages corruption practices.
An efficient and functional supply chain should be put in place, so as to distribute produce supplies to every corner of the country at affordable price for consumers.
Maada is the only way out for SLPP. Trust me, believe it or not. SLPP, are you still sleeping? Can’t you see how things are going?