Sierra Leone’s 11-year conflict devastated the country politically, economically and socially. The outcomes were overwhelming: high levels of corruption, a lack of social services, unemployment, a fragile economy and a weak private sector, to name a few. Women suffered disproportionately from the conflict, but now they have the opportunity to lead the country’s recovery.
Why women? Women are key drivers of economic growth in emerging-market countries. The important roles they play in agriculture and other industries coupled with their responsibilities as household and community members mean that development interventions that specifically target women result in multiple gains. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent. This could reduce the number of hungry people worldwide by up to 17 percent.
As Sierra Leone transitions from peace-keeping to peace-building, and from relief to growth and sustainable development, ACDI/VOCA, a nonprofit economic development organization, is supporting it through a project that builds farmer and agribusiness capacity at all stages, from seed to market. The overall approach of this USAID-funded program is to improve food security and accelerate economic growth, while building democratic institutions and helping smallholder farms operate as businesses. This means improving all steps of agriculture—farming, processing, marketing, exporting, etc.—through a value-chain approach.
“One of the lessons learned over time is that programs which address development in a holistic manner have a much better chance for success,” the U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone, June Carter Perry, said upon the program’s launch in 2008.
Targeting Women’s Cooperatives
ACDI/VOCA’s program aims to work with all stakeholders in the 250 targeted communities,but a special focus isthe role of women. For example, the program worked with a women farmers’ cooperative, the largest vegetable producer in Sierra Leone, providing business development training and an innovation grant.
“Groups such as this cooperative play a very important role in closing gender gaps and empowering women,” said ACDI/VOCA’s Global Gender Advisor, Lindsey Jones. “Among other benefits, women are able to access resources and expensive equipment collectively that they cannot access individually because they are less likely than men to own property and valuable assets.”
Through the grant from ACDI/VOCA, the cooperative bought a rice hulling machine, upgraded their warehouse and repaired their only vehicle, a clunky six-ton truck that was donated by the Ministry of Agriculture right after the civil war.
Small infrastructure investments can have big effects: these upgrades helped the cooperative supply 25 tons of locally grown and milled rice to the World Food Program (WFP). The sale was the first conducted in Sierra Leone under the WFP’s new program to purchase food for its school feeding program directly from local smallholders instead of importing it. Selling to the WFP was no small feat; it meant collecting rice from several hundred smallholders and processing it to international standards with sometimes dilapidated infrastructure. Meeting these requirements ultimately improved the quality of the farmers’production and solidified market linkages.
An ACDI/VOCA Volunteer Conducts Gender Training
ACDI/VOCA’s volunteer program, which sends qualified American professionals overseas to provide short-term technical assistance in support of systemic, long-term projects, has played a key role in this project. To evaluate gender integration, ACDI/VOCA sent volunteer Nancy Walker, who holds a Ph.D. in agriculture and extension education, to Sierra Leone twice, first to examine the program and then to conduct staff training on gender issues.
Walker’s research resulted in several key findings:1) linking women to even simple farming implements such as long-handled cultivation hoe, hula hoe, wheel hoe and wheelbarrow could reduce their workloads, which is important because women in Sierra Leone are already overburdened with multiple productive and household responsibilities; 2) integrating solar drying technology to farming programs could help women add value to surplus seasonal fruits and vegetables, bringing in extra income without requiring much extra work; and 3) appointing female staff and youth specialists would help the program reach key demographics. Dr. Walker contributed a gender training manual that has since been used in other countries.
Two-thirds of the population in Sierra Leone work as subsistence farmers like these cooperative members. The agriculture industry is growing, but the country is still a net importer of food. With targeted assistance and investment, particularly involving women producers, this can change. It is significant that the above women’s cooperative is based in Koinadugu, considered the “breadbasket” of Sierra Leone before the war. With ACDI/VOCA’s help, it is a now-reviving area feeding the nation once again.
Since 1971 and across 40 countries, ACDI/VOCA volunteers have completed 10,850 assignments in agribusiness development, farmer training, and cooperative development
For more info on ACDI/VOCA’s volunteer program go to: www.acdivoca.org/volunteer