By Mohamed Juma Jalloh
A proverbial Sierra Leonean politics is meaningless if it cannot translate into food on the table.
The old aphorism, empty bag cannot stand is often heard on many people`s lips, alluding to the central role food plays towards the continuous survival of the human being.
No one is bellowing for a nation as poor as Sierra Leone to operate as a namby-pamby state, where the state caters for the welfare of its citizens from the cradle to the grave.
Nevertheless, it behooves the government to provide the enabling environment or the favourable climate for citizens to survive.
It is a fact that when prices of goods and services become static, the average proletariat and family households would spend less on food consumption; consequently permitting expenditure on other pressing needs such as health, housing etc.
On the other hand, if prices are skyrocketing against a stable wage and or salary; it is a red flag signaling the gradual decline of the standard of living of the people.
It is vital to note that it is very difficult for the price of a commodity to remain the same for over a long period of time.
Capricious changes in the global price of fuel and investments in labour techniques and technologies are normally reflected in the net price of a commodity.
However, with a year and half in governance, the electrifying velocity in which the prices of basic food stuffs are changing under the reign of the SLPP has left many tongues wagging.
Even die hard supporters of the Bio-led government have expressed reservations over the government`s inability to tackle the bread and butter issues in the country.
About 65% of the youths who are supposed to constitute the economically active bracket are roaming urban cities unemployed.
Their only means of survival is by engaging in criminal activities and prostitution.
Many are languishing at Correctional Centers across the country for crimes such as larceny, robbery with aggravation, fraudulent conversion, obtaining money by false pretence etc.
With over 60% of the country`s GDP gotten from agriculture, youths have migrated from the rural areas in droves as alarming environmental degradation is rendering the soil barren.
Changes in the pattern of rainfall, has terribly impacted on farming communities, resulting in the reduction of crop yields and further putting additional stress on the country`s food security and livelihood programmes.
The reality on the ground speak volumes, rather than consume 3 square meals a day; many youths in ghettos and Attaya Bases have confided that they can only afford a single Le5000 dish of cookery in 24 hours.
“The game don gbodo” a young man jokingly said in the local Krio parlance which can be understood to mean the economic situation is very tough.
Along the streets of Freetown, the campaign posters of President Bio before the 2018 elections are still visible with gimmick promises such as “Vote Julius Maada Bio for the effective political and economical management of the state”.
As time steadily elapses, the Minister of Finance, Jacob Jusu Saffa, who was clobbering the previous APC regime for failing to tackle the bread and butter issues, is yet to provide some quick impact solutions on the same recurrent theme.
Instead of taking responsibility, the SLPP government prefers the blame game.
The habitual excuses are always posited that the Bio regime inherited an unfavorable economic situation. An unprecedented domestic and foreign debt burden.
The cessation of large scale mining operations in the country challenged the economy of the much needed foreign exchange.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) halted the Extended Credit Facility (ECF) program under the Koroma era largely due to lack of adherence to the set conditions by the Koroma regime.
Even though the IMF and the Bio government have re-negotiated the ECF program, the economic malaise is deepening because the country virtually exports nothing to secure the badly needed foreign exchange into the economy.
An economy that is oxygenated by foreign hand outs stands on a feeble foundation.
The nation’s economy has not reached the point of hopelessness but Sierra Leone`s inabilility to creating wealth for its people remain structural, deep-rooted and recurrent.
The economy is so fragile that with the slightest of shocks it is wracked and convulsed, as experienced with the scarcity of bread, another staple food in February 2019.
Given the prevalent bottle necks asphyxiating inclusive economic prosperity in Sierra Leone, efforts aimed at revamping the economy does not require knee jerk strategies.
Rather, government must invest its efforts and resources in providing sustainable solutions.
The issue of diversifying the economy hugely trumpeted by the New Direction has proved to be a white horse as budgetary allocations to the tourisim, marine and agro-business sectors are still largely insufficient to make the much needed turn-around to the economy.
The continuous depreciation of the Leone against international currencies such as the Dollar has precipitated the inflation of the prices of goods and services.
The situation concords with a 2019 World Bank assessment of economies around the world that mentioned Sierra Leone alongside Venezuela, Sudan and Burundi as countries that would be worst hit by inflation.
An estimation some people measured (including economists) would only be limited to imported commodities.
What has left many people bewildered including economists is the price rises that has affected locally produced food stuffs.
Many have asked what does the persistent rise in the foreign exchange has to do with the production of local commodities.
By way of comparism to the period the previous APC government exit power, the price of some products have hit an exponential increase by over 50%.
Below is the selling price of indispensable food commodities at the Dove Cut Central market, the food centre that supplies other peripheral markets in the capital City of Freetown.
Many traders who display their wares at the Dove Cut market obtain their agricultural purchase from weekly convergences commonly called “Luma.”
One of the most popular among the weekly markets is the Bamoi Luma located in Kambia district, very close to the border with neighbouring Guinea.
Mbalu Kamara, a trader who frequents the Bamoi Luma said the transportation cost to and from the weekly market is Le120, 000.
The cost for each bag of rice or gari loaded on the truck is Le4000.
Another cost of Le1000 is paid to labourers to up load the bags, whiles the same cost is paid for offloading whenever the goods reach their destination at Dove Cut.
An additional Le 2,000 per bag is paid as a store fee. On the other hand truck drivers transporting the goods to Freetown have complained of extortionate activities from the police who man the check points.
“If you don’t give them money your precious time would be waisted because all the goods in the truck would be offloaded purporting to search for illegal substances like Marijuana and Tramadol,”Festus Turay a truck driver revealed.
From the point of view of traders and truck drivers, the strategic imposition of three toll gates along the Freetown-Masiaka highway is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Large trailer trucks carrying food objects from the provinces pay a total of Le549, 000 in all three gates to enter the capital City of Freetown.
The idea of using the alternative route is not entertained by many truck drivers because it is simply a death trap.
In the end, when all these expenditures are factored in the final sales price of a commodity, one would be in a better position to fathom the reasons for the hike in price of basic food commodities.
The SLPP government when in opposition scored some political points when it promised the electorate to abolish the back breaking toll road.
Now visibly in governance, even a re-negotiation of the agreement is no longer an option and its burden on the country`s economy has been ignored.
Many Civil Society groups are mute on the political trickery regarding the toll gates, the poorest of the poor are left to bear the economic brunt of the political deception.
During the good old days Sierra Leone was an exporter of a plethora of agricultural commodities including rice its staple food.
However, factors such as low production, rising prices and the unavailability of markets for locally produced rice have turned out to be a huge obstacle for farmers and investors involved in the sector.
This, according to the Ministry of Agriculture officials, has led to most of the rice produced being transported to neighbouring Liberia and Guinea where they fetch better market prices.
The trade deficit in rice, has led to the massive importation of expired and rotten rice unfit for human consumption.
Many households over the years have nourished a relish in consuming imported rice grown in Asia, because they cannot afford the locally grown rice as it is far more expensive.
Foreigners doing the importation are always boastful of their connections with the powers that be, accustomed in breaking the laws and corrupting government officials.
Joseph Ndanema, the Minister of Agriculture did not mince his words when he said that there are people in this country who don`t want to see the dream of attaining food self-sufficiency come to fruition because of the high profits they are enjoying from the importation of rice.
Sierra Leone is believed to be spending over two hundred million dollars annually to bring rice into the country.
Being the country`s staple food, rice is always considered as a political commodity, any government that comes to power would like to prioritize substantial rice production.
For that reason, the Ministry of Agriculture only provides support to small holder farmers in the form of seed rice and fertilizers which in most cases does not cater for sustainable production.
On the other hand, the Ministry does not give direct support to foreign investors engaged in agribusiness.
What they get is indirect support in the form of easy access to land from locals at extremely low costs and duty free concessions.
In other countries farmers are heavily subsidized to maximize production.
Another worrying piece of news is the closing down of the Golden Mills in Port Loko District which operates the largest rice mill in the country.
It has been forced to shut down due to low production capacity to meet the mill`s large size and operational cost.
It is reported that the Golden Mill was producing 3 tons of rice per minute (which is about 60 bags ), but that the outer grower farmers the company works with cannot produce the quantum of rice needed to be able to operate without incurring financial loss.
Dr. Joseph Ndanema recently announced that each district in the country has been charged with the responsibility of cultivating up to 1000 hecters of rice in order to achieve the much talked about food self- sufficiency.
The Minister made this pronouncement in Kambia district after conducting a needs assessment of all agricultural facilities and sites across the country.
How these lofty ambitions would materialize remains to be seen.
But the poignant reality is after decades of independence when the country is expected to increase its exports, Sierra Leone is still importing about two hundred million Dollars $200,000,000 million Dollars worth of rice each year; perennially defeating the lingering belief of food self-sufficiency.
The National Medium-Term Development Plan (NMTDP) launched by President Bio in January 2019 states that 48.8% of households were food insecure in Sierra Leone.
That is, they consume limited and insufficient food to maintain a healthy and active life.
Global Hunger Index continues to rank Sierra Leone as the 3rd hungriest country in the world, with “the percentage of the population that is under nourished estimated at 38.5%”.
Given the immense natural and mineral resources available in the country, many would agree that Sierra Leone has no business becoming one of the hungriest nations in the world.
China and India with more than 1 billion population can boast of feeding their people and at the same time export their surplus to 3rd world countries.
So the state of affairs inevitably begs the question, what is really wrong with Sierra Leone, a country of about 7 million people?
By Mohamed Juma Jalloh