Koinadugu’s vegetable women farmers suffer 2 Billion Leone loss

Koinadugu’s vegetable women farmers’ cooperative is struggling to repay a loan of over two hundred and fifty million Leones to Union Trust Bank, reports Sall Tee Jay. The co-op borrowed money to buy seeds and fertilizer for growing vegetables, which perished as a result of Ebola quarantine measures that restricted movement of people and transport and halted trade.

Haja Sundu Marrah, chairwoman for the Koinadugu Women Agricultural Organization, said the Ebola outbreak is making it difficult to harvest and sell their produce. Between August and September last year they suffered a loss of over two billion Leones on carrots, tomatoes, beans, lettuce, pepper, cabbage, radish, cucumbers, onions, and other vegetables.


"We the women of Koinadugu District are frustrated with the blockade (which) prevented us from transporting our produce to market. Vegetables perished on board vehicles at the checkpoint. We are currently battling to pay a loan of over two hundred and fifty million Leones we took from the Union Trust Bank. We are therefore calling on government to look into our concern,” she said.


In an address to the nation late Thursday, President Koroma said there will no longer be any district or chiefdom level restrictions on movement. Travel bans were removed Friday while restrictions were eased on Saturday trading hours in the capital Freetown. Sierra Leone had restricted travel for around half of its six million people, sealing off six of its 14 districts and numerous chiefdoms in response to an outbreak which has killed more than 3,000 Sierra Leoneans.


According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation report, the United Nations warned Ebola-linked farm losses could threaten rural banking in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia with the potential to disrupt agriculture in 2015 as farmers won't have access to credit to buy seeds and fertilizer.


Several million farmers across Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are struggling to repay small loans of between $100 and $500 as border closures, movement restrictions and fears from consumers have left many agriculturalists insolvent, the report said.


If farmers are unable to repay borrowed money, a local banking crisis could sweep affected-countries causing small rural lenders to default and wreaking havoc on future food production even after the health emergency subsides.
"A lending freeze-up is a possibility," Abdoul Barry, country manager for Guinea with the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Exact numbers on how many growers are expected to default, or on how much food production has dropped due to the crisis, are not available, as conducting research during an epidemic is nearly impossible, UN officials said.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture accounts for 57 percent of Sierra Leone’s GDP. Disruptions from the outbreak during the planting season in 2014 diminished yields for staple crops during the harvest season, between October and December.


In Koinadugu, women take the lead in agriculture. The district produces a sizable majority of many Sierra Leonean vegetables.


Ndaya Beltchika, IFAD's program manager for Sierra Leone and Liberia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in December that communities with large numbers of reported Ebola cases could face long-term stigmatization, leaving local farmers unable to sell their products, even if they can gain access to credit, she warned.

The risk of a banking collapse, starting with farmers who can't pay their debts and ending with the collapse of lending institutions causing a credit crunch, is possible, she said.


The International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s fund for the poorest, brought opportunities to Koinadugu, according to a 2010 World Bank report "Empowering Farmers in Sierra Leone’s Koinadugu District"


Two IDA-funded projects, the Rural and Private Sector Development Project and the Cash for Work component of the Youth Employment Project, revived the district’s farmers.
Members of Koinadugu’sVegetable Women Farmers’ Cooperative are largely war widows and bread-winning single mothers, the 2010 report said. 

In the past, these women were unable to properly store their harvest and would sell their vegetables at low price out of fear they would perish. With support from IDA’s Rural and Private Sector Development Project, they are now building a vegetable preservation cold storage facility.
Haja Sondu Marrah heads the cooperative and explained that the women are dependent on earning money from vegetables sales to send their children to school and pay medical bills.
“Now that we are constructing our own cold storage facility to preserve the carrots, tomatoes, beans, lettuce, pepper, cabbage, radish, cucumbers, onions, etc. that we grow, our bargaining position is definitely going to get stronger. We will now make the right profits that our efforts deserve,” Marrah said.
The Rural and Private Sector Development Project reaches farmers throughout the Koinadugu district like Samuel Sesay who leads the association of disabled farmers.
“The project is liberating us from the disadvantaged situation when we used to sell our harvested grains at give-away prices during times of abundance because we had no place to dry them, no means to mill them and nowhere to store them,” Sesay said. “Now we are building our own drying floor, grain store and rice milling facility with the help of IDA. This will enable us sell to buyers at real market prices during times of high demand.”
In Koinadugu, Nenneh Umu Mackie benefits from IDA’s Cash for Work project aimed at employing youth. Mackie heads an association of over 1,500 youth farmers and said the program for provided positive opportunities for self-employment.
"We couldn't have imagined what else we would have resorted to if we had not been supported to get self-employed to grow and sell our own crops as a result of the cash-for-work project funded by IDA through the National Commission for Social Action. The alternative to our current employment could have likely been violence and crime,” Mackie said.

The World Bank invested US$4 million in the Cash for Work Project and recently contributed an additional $10 million of its Youth Employment Project (YES) to Cash for Work.

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