- By Oswald Hanciles :
“I am SLPP, but, I will vote for Ernest Koroma in the November 2012 elections”, said Sonny Tucker, the Deputy Managing Director of Felix Fruit factory on the Newton Economic Free Zone industrial estate of the ‘First Step’ private-public partnership experiment on the Freetown peninsular. When pressed as to why he would do something which is rare in Sierra Leone politics, Tucker said, “The development stimulated by President Koroma is obvious. Experts all over are telling us that at the rate at which the economy is growing, Sierra Leone will soon be one of the best places to do business and live in within Africa”. From Newton, a team of journalists travelling in a jeep suited for the rugged rural road that we moved into from the well paved Freeetown-Makeni highway, passed through these villages in the Port Loko District – Mamanso, Marampa, Magbere, Marfoki, ‘London Mining’, Mabangkere, Tindata – and because the ferry was broken down, at Patefu Magbom, jumped onboard a rough tree-hewn canoe to cross the fast-flowing River Rokel from Marampa chiefdom to Masimera Chiefdom on the other side; we then perched on the fragile carrier side behind riders on ‘Honda’ motorbikes meant for only one person, and were driven to GENESIS FARMS; and there, the 37 year old Deputy Managing Director of the farm, Lansana Sillah, almost echoed what had been said by Sonny Tucker when he described the leadership of President Koroma as being “excellent”. With the backdrop of combine harvesters, tractors, etc. – with the brand names FIATAGRI, Massey Fergusson – Dyna VT 7490; NAVIGATOR 4000, made in Hamburg, Holland – Sillah said that President Koroma is a “natural leader who knows what the people want, and gets it for them”. He praised the duty free concession policy of the government of President Koroma: as this grant concessions to large scale agriculture enterprises like GENESIS FARMS to import machinery. He said that without such tax free concessions no large scale agriculture enterprise would even begin to think of investing in agriculture in Sierra Leone, because it would take time before returns on investment are got. This is the policy that has attracted the experiment in the Economic Free Zone project in Newton, which like “GENESIS”, has the evocative name of “First Steps”
Sierra Leone is a country which is rich in tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, etc. For centuries, when the ‘mango season’ comes, the mango would be over-eaten by rural children, and most of it would simply be left to rot. The Felix Fruit factory has changed this. It is now paying a couple of thousand of leones for a crate of mangoes, which mainly rural women are selling to them – from Bombali, Port Loko, Kambia, and Tonkolili districts; and of course, from women in rural Freetown. Pineapples fetch the prime price of Le550,000 for 18 kilogram weighing crate. The relatively huge Felix factory has these fruits processed into thick concentrates, packed in blue drums, and exported to Europe, mainly Germany. The company is owned by an Italian, and, the European manufacturer of the innovative fruit processing machinery; also, the U.S.-originated First Steps – that has leased vast land in Newton for other companies to come and invest in Sierra Leone – has shares in the business. Out of the two Europeans who are CEOs, all the other 36 skilled workers and 44 casual staff in the factory are Sierra Leoneans.
In GENESIS FARMS also, apart from the Dutch owner of the company, Pieter Pieffer, all the 28 skilled staff and 60 labourers are Sierra Leoneans. Sillah, born on 28th October, 1975, in Lunsar Town, Port Loko District, proudly told me that the Sierra Leoneans in the company were doing all the maintenance and repair work on the machines the company uses. Sillah explained that while they use the locally produced ‘Pa kyamp’ rice seed variety, the farm is experimenting with the ‘Nerica rice seed’ – a high yield and disease-resistant rice variety developed a couple of years ago by award-winning Sierra Leonean scientist, Dr. Monty Jones, recognized by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential persons in the world. The yield so far is 2 and half tons of rice per acre. “This can go up to 7 tons of rice per acre”, Sillah said. They sell the rice grown in the local market. Local NGOs from all over the country – including one called ‘Planting Promise’, based in Kono District – are the main buyers of the rice. Including use of heavy machinery, a significant difference between GENESIS FARMS’ method and that of the subsistence farmers who have grown rice in Sierra Leone for centuries is that they practice the “The zero tillage method”. That is, since 2008 when the farm started, they have used the same land year after year, replenishing the nutrient in the soils with fertilizers and other natural means, and using ‘herbicides’ to rid the farms of weeds, etc. (The traditional subsistence farmers in Sierra Leone largely practised a method known as ‘shifting cultivation’ – continually shifting from one land area to another land area. As the population grows, there is increasingly little land left for farmers to ‘shift’ to, without triggering serious conflict. The fallow period for the soil to replenish itself used to be fifteen years. As the land area narrows, farmers are now being forced to return to land left for fallow only after one or two years. This is dangerous for the soil, and the future of food security in the country). Farms like GENESIS offer hope for the future. “Importantly, the zero tillage method means that there is less water and wind erosion, and it results in far higher yield than what the subsistence farmers would get”, Sillah explained.
Sillah is challenged by the large scale agricultural problems that GENESIS is confronted with: “We are new. We are facing new problems which there is no reference for. We learn from our own mistakes. We solve old problems, and new problems come up”, the well-fed-looking Sillah told us. He is satisfied with his earnings in GENESIS FARMS; if he weren’t satisfied, the 2000 graduate of a vocational institute in Lunsar, father of two boys (Osman, 6; and Musa, 2) said he would have been tempted to leave GENESIS by the allure of jobs in the iron ore mining companies of London Mining and African Minerals.
Over the past four years, President Ernest Bai Koroma has regularly visited nearly every district in the country – especially launching the government’s Smallholder Commercialization Programme, with their Agriculture Business Centers (ABCs): where government has encouraged rural farmers to group themselves into cooperatives, to take advantage of tractors, rice threshers, ‘destoners’ to remove stones from rice, fertilizers, etc.; and marketing knowledge being provided by government. The aim of the SCP and ABCs is to dramatically transform the about sixty percent of our population that depend on farming for their livelihood – from poverty-inducing subsistence farming to wealth-generating commercial farming. Cognizant of the exponential growth in Sierra Leone’s six million population and the pressing need for food, the government’s policy has been to blend small scale agriculture with large scale agriculture – hence the government has introduced incentives to encourage big time investors to come and invest in agriculture in the country. The Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, Dr. Joe Sam-Sesay, under whose leader over the past four years has seen the APC government winning several international laurels – including the African Union badge of Sierra Leone being ‘The Champion of Agriculture in Africa’ – has been exhorting indigenous Sierra Leoneans to pool their resources together and invest in commercial agriculture, which promises sustainable income, and juicy profits through servicing the local markets, and exporting agricultural produce to the rest of the world. The Felix Fruit factory has taken the first step within the Economic Free Zone of ‘First Steps’; and GENESIS FARMS could be the ‘Genesis’ of what can be in the ‘New Agenda of Prosperity of the Sierra Leone of President Ernest Bai Koroma’. It is hardly a wonder that the patriotic, rational and excited Felix Fruit factory manager Sonny Tucker, though an SLPP member, said he would campaign so that other Sierra Leoneans would “join the bandwagon of prosperity which President Koroma has set into motion”.