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Report: Ebola - Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone’s anti-Ebola measures are a ticking time bomb for farmers

Photo: Daniel Finnan

Subsistence and smallholder farmers are being hit hard by measures put in place by the Sierra Leonean government to curb the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. Food insecurity is on the rise in the Northern Province as a result of checkpoints, limits on public gatherings and the suspension of farmers markets.

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“You alone cannot do what two, three, four people can do,” says farmer John Tullah from Rogbassa village in Bombali district, who grows cassava and sweet potatoes. He says his production has been reduced because he can no longer bring in labourers to help cultivate his land.

About 100 people live in Rogbassa village which lies just off the main road from Makeni, the capital of Bombali district. Tullah says his smallholding was also hit by the confirmation of Ebola in Sierra Leone coinciding with the harvest season from May to July which meant that many of his crops were left in the fields to rot.

It is a similar story in Mathula village, also in Bombali district, with limitations on people gathering having a knock-on effect on farming activity. Furthermore, the cancellation of farmers markets, or Luma markets as they are called, has reduced trade.

“We used to farm groundnut, cassava and rice, but now we cannot sell at the market,” says farmer Humu Tholi. “We cannot move to Magburaka to buy or sell and this is affecting us,” she adds, referring to the nearest town where markets usually take place.

More than 58 per cent of Sierra Leone’s labour force is involved in agricultural activity and more than 60 per cent of the country’s total population lives in rural areas, according to 2013 statistics published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Sierra Leone’s three-day lockdown, which took place in September, has resulted in a high level of vigilance against Ebola in many villages. In Makundu, Tonkolili district the women recount the affect on farming as well as the changes they have made to their daily lives, such as sleeping with a pillow between themselves and their husbands.

“There’s a law which forbids gathering in a group, which makes farming difficult – it’s a major problem,” says Adama Fornh, who describes the cassava, groundnut and rice that she has left to go rotten in the field.

In addition to the crops that are wasted, all the villagers in Makundu agree that having nothing in your stomach makes the physical labour harder. The clampdown on farmers markets in the provinces has meant that people are unable to supplement their diet with foodstuffs traded or exchanged with other smallholder farmers.

“People are more dependent on eating the same type of crop and these are all products with high levels of starch,” says Mohamed Magazuba, from local non-governmental organisation Mankind’s Activities for Development Accreditation Movement (MADAM).

Magazuba, who works to encourage subsistence farmers to engage in small-scale agro-business, is worried about the nutrition of Sierra Leoneans living in rural areas. He points out the contradiction between the markets that remain open in Freetown, the capital, and the fact that the provincial Luma markets have been forbidden.

None of the three villages visited have recorded cases of the Ebola virus. Nevertheless, measures put in place to contain the epidemic’s spread are having an impact. Magazuba is concerned that levels of food insecurity will increase and Sierra Leoneans living in rural areas will become even more reliant on World Food Programme assistance.

Erathin Cousin, head of WFP, previously told RFI that it would deliver food assistance to Sierra Leoneans for as long as necessary. WFP has already delivered food for 740,000 people, Cousin said at the start of November. Neither Rogbassa, Mathula nor Makundu village had received WFP aid at the time of writing.

“In the end, if Ebola doesn’t kill these people, other forms of diseases which will emerge from malnutrition will affect the lives of these people,” says Magazuba.

Report originally broadcast on 12 November 2014

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