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West Africa Rising: Sierra Leone looks to 'smallholders' to solve agricultural woes

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West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Even as it works to attract big-money investments from multinational mining and oil companies, Sierra Leone – a poor West African nation still recovering from a decade of civil war – is turning its attention to a much less flashy group of economic actors: 'smallholder' farmers.

Drawing on funds from a broad swath of donors, the country’s government is shepherding a multi-year $400 million project that aims to boost the productivity and incomes of its smallholders, subsistence growers who eke out a living on plots that average a mere four acres.

“Agriculture supports over 70 percent of the population in this country… but the people aren’t doing it at any profitable level,” says Sheikh Massaquoi, a lecturer in agricultural economics at Sierra Leone’s Njala University. The problem, he says, comes down to the fact that “the capital is lacking and the technology is lacking.”

Those are two things the government hopes to fix. Drawing on funds from the World Bank, the EU, the African Development Bank, and other donors, the “smallholder commercialization program” will dole out $403 million before the end of 2014.

Among other things, that money will smooth rutted rural roads ($68 million); expand small-scale irrigation schemes ($51 million); offer farmers affordable loans ($27 million); and build “agricultural business centers” – places where farmers can go to buy seeds, rent equipment, and store and market their harvested crops ($36 million).

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