About twelve months ago, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) embarked on a journey to transform the agriculture sector in line with H.E President Bio’s vision for a sector that attracts private commercial investment, is driven by innovation and mechanisation, creates jobs and sustainably feeds the people of Sierra Leone.
This past week, my team and I took two giant steps towards implementing this vision. First, On Thursday March 11th, 2021, MAF partnered with the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) to launch a hundred billion Leones (USD 10 million) Agriculture Credit Facility (ACF) to finance private sector participation in the sector. This facility will be accessed through commercial banks by agribusinesses to import or produce agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertiliser, and pesticides. As an incentive to the private sector, we negotiated an interest as low as 5%, compared to the going market rate in the mid-twenty percent. As a further guarantee to avoid crowding out the private sector, MAF will no longer directly procure and distribute agricultural inputs to farmers in the country. Instead, MAF will directly support registered vulnerable farmers through a smart subsidy program, which will be rolled out via an e-wallet system that farmers can redeem for inputs from agro-dealers across the country. In collaboration with the (Ministry of Finance, MAF will establish a Clearing House (an escrow account) worth sixty billion Leones (USD 6 million) to cash out e-wallet. This means stepping away from years of a government-led procurement process rife with inefficiency and corruption for the Ministry. The smart subsidy will attract private investors in the sector and lead to big wins for our farmers, who will benefit from cheaper, quality, and timely inputs. This approach also helps the government to reduce costs and opportunism in input delivery in the country.
Another equally exciting achievement for my team and I this week, was signing contracts with fourteen private operators to lease and manage fourteen Machine Rings across the country. This signing ceremony marked a new approach to promoting agriculture mechanisation. For the first time, the government makes 410 machines and implements worth Le 168 billion available to farmers through the private sector. Previous failed approaches relied heavily on government, farmer groups or private individuals that were not business-oriented. This new lease-to-own public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement is business-oriented, which is why each Ring operator will pay the government the full cost of the Ring by the end of the lease period. They are expected to build profitable businesses that will allow them to make annual payments to the government.
This mechanisation approach will rapidly put more lowland areas under rice cultivation and set us on a path to deliver on H.E President Bio’s Human Capital Development (HCD) target of 86% rice-self-sufficiency by the end of 2023. The Machine Ring concept also immediately creates jobs in the fourteen districts. We estimate creating about 820 jobs for machine operators, and additional hundreds linked to repairs and maintenance services. This will help reduce youth unemployment in rural areas. And perhaps most critically, this approach will be made sustainable by establishing an Agriculture Mechanisation Fund, resourced from machine operators’ annual payments. The private sector will access this Fund at a low-interest rate to replace machines and grow their fleet. The Fund will also be used to train and certify operators to support mechanisation growth in the country.
With the private sector leading in these critical areas, my job is made easier. I will be the fiercest advocate for our farmers, making sure quality service is delivered to them. For input provision, we have already placed the necessary policies and regulatory bodies to support this private sector shift, including The National Fertilizer Regulatory Agency Act 2018, The National Fertilizer Policy 2017, The Seed Policy 2017, and The Sierra Leone Seed Certification Agency Act 2018. For the Machine Rings, MAF will set up a cross-MDA and community level monitoring teams and use fleet management technology to ensure the private sector keeps its promise. We will also maintain the responsibility to provide agriculture advisory to our farmers, relying on digital technology to reach as many farmers as possible while keeping costs down.
The progress made so far is an excellent example of effective collaboration at all levels in the sector, including MDA, donors, the private sector, NGOs, and civil society. My leadership team is also grateful to the hardworking civil servants at MAF who have committed themselves to make H.E President Bio’s goals a reality and to help our farmers. Without their effort, we will not succeed. This work has also been supported by a team of technical advisors, including Advisors from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI), who has been working alongside Division Heads to get the policy shift’s technical pieces and delivery mechanisms right.
Let me be the first to say that these achievements, while significant, are only a component of what is needed to boost productivity in the sector. The sector still requires a lot more investments and many more bold and innovative programs. We will celebrate these successes today, but tomorrow we will roll our sleeves to tackle the next challenge segment-by-segment of each priority crop and livestock value chain in the country. With a mandate and support from H.E President Bio, my Ministry will not rest until we put into place other interventions that will support a true transformation in the sector.
***The author, Dr. Abubakarr Karim is the Acting Minister of Agriclture and Forestry (MAF)