Planting potato vines in raised rows. Using new tools to turn the soil. Planting peppers in a nursery, shaded by palm fronds, before transplanting them. Spreading quality fertilizer.
These are not new or revolutionary techniques. However, they have the ability to make a huge impact on a farmer’s yields. My name is Emma Middleton and my partner, Marlene Paradee, and I went to Sierra Leone for three weeks this August to implement our project, After Ebola: Sustainable Agriculture in Sierra Leone using these techniques and more. Our goal was to set up an agricultural project in the wake of the Ebola crisis, when many farmers were unable to tend to their fields and the economic growth forecast for Sierra Leone was dismal. We worked with five groups, each made up of 20 women and up to 5 men in order to promote women’s empowerment. Four of the groups came from a small village of approximately 525 people called Mano, in Jaiama-Bongore Chiefdom, and the last group came from the neighboring village of Folu. Working in conjunction with a Sierra Leonian NGO called Village Care Initiatives, we were able to transform acres of donated land into functioning farms, with each group working together on their own plot. When we got there, the groups had just started clearing the land. By the time we left, they had planted long rows of potato vines and large swathes of groundnut (also known as peanut) on their land, with plans to transplant the peppers, finish planting the groundnut, and start planting okra in the near future.
Women from the Folu group planting potato vines, by Emma Middleton
We had conceived of this idea way back in the fall of 2014, after attending a talk by Sierra Leonian healthcare worker Ezekiel Conteh. He described not only the devastation caused by the disease itself, but also the economic havoc it had and would wreak. The economic growth forecast in 2014 was at 11.3% until the outbreak hit and it ended at 7.1%. In 2015, the economy contracted by 21%. Although around 70% of Sierra Leonians work in the agricultural sector, the country still spends upwards of $200 million yearly importing rice to supplement what its people make themselves. We saw the agricultural sector’s shortcomings firsthand while in Mano during the ‘hunger season,’ when crops are not yet ready to be harvested and the money made during the last harvest season has nearly run out.
Our project aimed to provide seeds, tools, and guidance to the groups in order to not only get the job done, but also to insure that it would be sustainable in the long term. Village Care Initiatives brought in a Sierra Leonian agricultural expert, Mr. Kamanda, to show the groups exactly how to best plant the seeds, use the tools we had purchased, form raised rows to plant the potato vines, and more. The villagers had been planting crops at the wrong time, reducing yields; selling off too much of their crops, meaning that they would either have to repurchase them during the rainy season or starve; and not saving any seeds for the next planting season, meaning that they had to purchase more each year. Mr. Kamanda learned of this and immediately drafted plans to insure that the villagers, especially those working in our groups, would use more sustainable practices in the future.
The project did come with a price tag, however. Though we received a $10,000 grant through the Clinton Global Initiative University and pledged by the university, in the end it was decided that the school would pay for our flights, visas, and medical expenses, leaving us to fundraise the entire $10,000 projected cost for the project. We had done bake sales throughout 2015, sitting outside the library or Marlene’s house, to raise money. We had run an online fundraiser. However, we soon found ourselves with three weeks to go before our departure date, and only $873.75 raised.
Women from another of the groups planting groundnut in newly turned soil, by Emma Middleton
Together, we did anything we could think of to raise the funds before our departure date. I was put to work painting a deck and set up donation jars at my work and church; a new online fundraiser was set up and both of us sent the link, along with a flyer explaining our project, to anyone we could think of. Amazingly, everyone around us stepped up to the plate. We ended up raising enough to pay for not only the original, budgeted project expenses, but also eight 50kg bags of rice to serve as ‘food for work’ for the community, to pay and thank them for how much work they have and continue to put in to this project. We were absolutely blown away by the number of people who listened to what we had to say and saw the worth in our cause.
The number one thing that development and aid workers should ask when leaving a project site is, in my opinion, what they are leaving behind. We have an agreement with Village Care Initiatives whereby they will check up on the project monthly for the next year in order to be sure of its success and to discuss any problems that may arise. We are also exploring the possibility of coming back to Mano, our new ‘second home,’ as many of the people there called it, in order to expand the project into rice farming in the ample swamps around the village. We have received requests to expand the project from neighboring villages. Most importantly, however, we have left behind a sustainable project, one that is highly likely to continue to benefit not only these women and men, but also their families and their village as a whole, for years to come. The commitment and dedication they showed us in the short time we were working with them was astounding, from eating lunch on the field to be able to finish work faster to working on days they were not assigned to, simply because more work needed to be done. We are constantly amazed at how well this project has been received by the community, and we cannot wait to continue working with them and seeing the fruits of their labor for the months to come.