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THE HUMAN COST OF THE FOOD CRISIS: REPORT FROM SIERRA LEONE

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Rice is a staple food in Sierra Leone. Aminata Sesay, a handicapped widow and mother of five, depends on it for daily survival, as do millions of other Sierra Leoneans living in extreme poverty. Over the last nine months, the price of rice has almost tripled in many parts of the country. How are vulnerable people like Aminata coping?

From the rural villages of Tonkolili to the capital city of Freetown, the Concern team shared their concerns: food is becoming harder and harder to come by in Sierra Leone, and the nation’s poorest are facing the first stages of a serious crisis.

THE VALUE OF RICE

In Tonkolili, one of Sierra Leone’s poorest districts, Concern has been monitoring the price of food in markets. Since October 2007, the price of rice has risen 300 percent. In fact, a 50-kilogram bag of rice costs 75 percent of the average person’s monthly income in Sierra Leone. In rural areas like Tonkolili, people earn far less. The cost of food is becoming a critical problem. “Rice is so central to the diet here,” says Concern Livelihoods Coordinator Tayo Alabi, “that if you ask a person if they have eaten today and they have not had rice, they will say no. Rice is that important.

Although high food prices are the immediate worry, there is also the question of the country’s overall supply: indications are that Sierra Leone operates close to the bone in terms of the amount of food it produces every year. And then there is the weather: it’s been unusually dry this year. If food prices continue to rise, things could get really bad here.


AMADU CONTEH: DAY TO DAY SURVIVAL

Amadu Conteh is not thinking in terms of trends in prices—he is simply trying to feed his family each day. Amadu is a subsistence farmer: he lives in the small village of Mafulka with his wife and three children. He can no longer afford palm oil—the cooking staple made from the flesh of the palm fruit—so he must use the inferior oil derived from palm seed.  It is thick, has little nutritional value, and though he shakes the container vigorously, it will not flow. Amadu has one bag of rice and a few ears of maize to feed his family of five. He says, “This food will last less than a month. I try to feed my family with what I grow. When the rice I grow is finished, I take whatever money I have to buy rice. In the village - can you imagine? – it is now 700 Leones for one cup of rice. It used to be 300 or 350 Leones per cup. When my money is finished, I search for bush yams and palm cabbage -- even though they are not ripe.  If this continues, I will just have to continue to search for food - that is all I can do.”


TROUBLING SIGNS IN THE MARKET AT MASINGBI

Thursday is market day in Masingbi town. Sitting at the crossroads of four of Sierra Leone’s thirteen districts, it’s a major regional trading hub and an important link in the supply chain between Freetown, thousands of rural villages, and big commercial centers in the east. Dust and diesel exhaust fill the air as minivans rumble in and out, loaded with people from across the region.  The market is packed, but business at the food stalls is slow, and the anxiety is obvious.

Osman Sesay and his brother John are rice farmers who supplement their income by selling secondhand shoes.  Their table is piled high with colorful flip-flops, vintage sneakers, and workboots  With a family of twelve—including his 10 children, his wife, and himself—Osman needs the extra money. In December of 2007, he says he could buy a 50-kilo bag of rice for 60,000 leones. Today, it costs him 125,000. Although shoppers crowd around their stand, transactions are few and far between.

To save money, we are eating less food now than we used to. We used to cook 12 cups of rice a day for my family. Now we cook seven cups,” Osman says.

This year, due to inadequate rainfall, farmers didn’t grow enough seeds. They have less rice to eat, less rice to sell, and now they are struggling to feed their families. Many have resorted to eating the seed rice they were saving to plant.

Aminata Sesay is among the poorest of the poor in Sierra Leone—an elderly widow with 5 children and 6 grandchildren. She has no reliable source of income. She says she was forced to eat the seeds she had set aside: “I’ve prepared my land for planting, but now I have no seed left to plant . . . Life in this country is very difficult.” 

Nearby, rice trader Ali Kanu stands in front of his storeroom piled high with bags of rice—brought in not from the farms of Sierra Leone, but imported from India and China. His customers buy rice by the cup even in the best of times, and recently, his rate of business has been cut in half. Ali says, “Those who used to buy 10 cups are now buying 5-6.  I try to adjust, but things will reach a crisis stage. In August, if this trend continues, there will be chaos.”

UNCERTAINTY IN FREETOWN

In Mabella, one of Freetown’s six overcrowded urban slums, a maze of makeshift tin-roofed shelters runs down a steep hillside to the sea. Bordering Mabella is the city’s largest market, boisterous with activity in the midst of stunning poverty. There is a lot of food in the market, but the 20,000 extremely poor people who live in Mabella slum have no money to buy it, and they are going hungry.

Halimatu Jalloh, a 32-year-old mother of four, often sells rice, but not lately. She has neatly arrayed packets of sugar, small plastic bags of flour, and a few cans of tomato paste in her stall. She nervously waits for her next customer.

“[The cost of rice] is affecting my family so much.  We used to cook 6-7 cups of rice a day.  But now much less.  I don't really know what is responsible for the price increase, but if it continues, it will not be good.  There is speculation that there will be chaos, but we are praying that it will not happen. I am suffering. My family is suffering.  I do not have enough to feed my family and all of the customers are complaining, too.  I am worried: if it continues this way, I won't be able to earn money here any longer.” 

Foday Koroma lives in Grey Bush slum, on the opposite side of the city. He is a 43-year-old former petty trader with a family of five. He suffered an injury, and now cannot find work. He told Concern that his family normally eats 8 cups of rice per day, but now they are only eating 5. Foday says, “We save a small amount of our daily ration of rice for tomorrow in case we cannot find food. We eat, but we don’t get fed.”

Concern Responds: Reducing the Hunger Gap

A central fact of life for farmers in Sierra Leone—and much of Africa—is the hunger gap. That’s the period between harvests, when food from last year’s crop has run out, but the new crop is not yet in. In 229 rural villages in Tonkolili District, Concern’s livelihoods team has worked with communities to successfully reduce the hunger gap from 5 months to 2 months, helping 11,000 extremely poor people. With Concern’s maternal and child health programs focused on reducing malnutrition, as well as other initiatives like community seed banks, farmer field schools, fish farming, and the introduction of new crops such as maize, cassava, and soy, Concern is working hard to reduce the impact of the food crisis.

But huge challenges lie ahead. As Concern’s Chief Executive Tom Arnold emphasizes, “Food prices are going to remain high for the immediate future. We have to come up with a multi-faceted approach to prevent what could become a catastrophe if action is not taken quickly. The poorest of the poor are the ones who are always hardest hit in times of crisis. Millions could fall into a deep cycle of destitution if the world does not act now.  And to act, funds and political will at the global level are urgently needed.”