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Politics & Governance

How Countries in Africa Can Increase Food Production and Improve Agricultural Practices

Commentary14th July 2022

Sierra Leone saw a 21% increase in rice production in the 2021-2022 harvest cycle, following a 12% increase in the 2020-2021 cycle, signalling the beginning of a long-awaited transformation in the sector. TBI partnered with the Sierra Leonean government to increase rice production over four years by improving access to finance, mechanisation, strengthening the private sector, and enhancing the government’s overall technical and operational capacity.

Rice is the main staple food in Sierra Leone. Despite most farming households cultivating the crop, domestic production has consistently failed to meet demand. As a result, there has been a widening gap between rice consumption and production over the past decade. This discrepancy has mostly been filled through importing rice. It is estimated that the country spends on average US$210 million annually on rice imports, which makes a large dent in the foreign reserves of a country that also imports fuel and other essential commodities.

The problem

Sierra Leone’s agriculture is characterised by smallholders trapped in subsistence farming with some of the lowest yields in West Africa (ectare for rice). This is due to a number of reasons including limited access to quality seeds and fertilisers, low levels of mechanisation, lack of access to affordable finance, and weak agricultural advisory services. Although the Government stepped in to provide subsidies to farmers, these subsidies have had little impact on productivity. Rather, they created a sense of dependency for producers and crowded out an already weak private sector. The rice consumption gap, paired with inefficient sectoral practices, caused a large drain on the Sierra Leonean economy.

The goal

Against this backdrop, President Bio made agricultural transformation one of the key pillars of his Presidential Agenda when he was elected to office. He set out the National Agricultural Transformation Programme (NAT 2023) in 2018, a bold vision to double agricultural output by 2023. The NAT 2023 set out a holistic and ambitious agenda, targeting four priority value chains: rice, livestock, tree crops and forestry. These would be underpinned by three key enablers: policy and research, women and youth, and private sector development and mechanisation.

The change

The government of Sierra Leone established three interventions to focus on scaling rice production. They centred on moving away from government-focused delivery of agricultural services to a private sector-led approach, and included:

  • Expanding access to financing: Establishing a US$10 million agriculture credit facility for the private sector to enable access to affordable (single-digit interest) finance

  • Expanding mechanisation: Establishing mechanisation service centres in every district, run by the private sector with machinery leased by government for farmers to use

  • Improving access to quality agricultural inputs: The introduction of an e-voucher system for vulnerable farmers to purchase inputs (seeds and fertiliser) from private agribusinesses.

Together, these interventions stimulated the private sector and encouraged competition in the agricultural economy. By bringing in the private sector, the Government sought to establish a more robust public-private partnership (PPP) that would remove the burden of subsidies and be more sustainable in the long-term.

To support these interventions, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) invested in strengthening its use of technology and data systems to improve delivery and bolster its own technical and operational capacity.


The agricultural sector was one of the many areas hit by COVID-19. Restrictions in movement, supply chain disruptions, and the overall repositioning of Government attention and resources severely heightened the risk of food insecurity in the country. Early in the pandemic, President Bio declared food security a key priority in overcoming the COVID-19 emergency and as a result rapid rice production through mechanisation was identified as a key way to achieve this.

At the height of the pandemic, the Government created an emergency response programme to mitigate the effects of food shortages, and local food production was a key part of that programme. The programme, aligned with the NAT 2023 policy interventions, supported farmers through the provision of tractors to plough and cultivate land. This initial mechanisation saw significant returns – the coverage of a mere 6000 hectares led to a 12% increase in yields. This was seen as extremely encouraging and a proof of concept that increasing access to mechanisation would increase yields. The Government therefore expanded its mechanisation initiative, purchasing 410 tractors and leased them out to 15 service providers, one in each district as a form of public-private partnership.

The result

By the end of February 2022 (the end of the 2021-2022 harvest cycle), it is estimated that rice production in Sierra Leone jumped by 21% which is the beginning of a long-awaited transformation in the sector. This figure has been independently validated by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the region’s political and economic union. The phenomenal increase in yields is also observed anecdotally, where farmers have shared that they don’t have enough harvesters to gather all of the season’s crop production. Since the end of the harvest cycle, the country’s rice import volume at 59,301.64 MT for the Q1 2022, is lower than that of import volumes at the same time last year and the year before. Whilst there are several factors influencing this decrease, such as a depreciation of the currency and a reduction in importation of food aid by donor agencies, the anticipation of increased domestic rice production is likely to have reduced the demand for imported rice by local companies.

The agricultural transformation in Sierra Leone has shown that when applied correctly and with the right conditions, delivery reforms in traditional sectors can have impactful effects. By focusing on key barriers such as low mechanisation, poor access to finance, and a weak private sector, the policy shift has led to more productive utilisation of land and ultimately higher yields. This has helped lift smallholders out of subsistence farming, enhanced the viability of a commercial agricultural sector, and had a direct impact on the wellbeing of Sierra Leonean households. On a macroeconomic level, the policy shift has helped contribute to enhanced food security, reduced import dependency and technological innovation, which will benefit the wider economy.

There is enthusiasm across the Government on the emerging impact of the initiative. The Minister of Agriculture is hopeful for the future: “I want this policy shift to be a legacy that stands the test of time.” Looking forward to the potential of the programme, the Minister reflected, “If we have the requisite support and put more land under cultivation, we’ll be able to meet our own rice self-sufficiency gap…We should be able to produce enough not just to support ourselves but to export.

TBI’s role

TBI advisors, who have been embedded within the Presidency since 2008 and in agricultural institutions full-time since 2018, have played a key role in supporting the development and implementation of the NAT 2023 policy.

The Minister of Agriculture, a key counterpart, reflected that throughout the journey, TBI has been “notably visible” in its support to the Government: “TBI has been a very supportive institution to the Government as a whole. We [at the Ministry of Agriculture] have benefited tremendously from the work TBI has done with usTBI has been instrumental in guiding and helping us.” Crediting TBI’s “expertise” and “knowledgeable personnel”, the Minister noted that TBI has been involved at all points in time throughout the programme lifecycle, from design to planning, implementation and troubleshooting, ultimately empowering the Government to “be able to deliver on its mandate”. “The support from TBI has been exceptional.”

TBI has further facilitated the implementation of the initiative by engaging in direct technical and coordination support and capacity strengthening with the MAF. The embedded team has worked to build the necessary systems, skills and procedures within the Ministry geared towards delivery, such as a digital dashboard, training on data and performance management, and providing technical expertise when needed. This has contributed to a reformist mindset that has spilled over into other aspects of the agricultural transformation agenda.

What we learnt

This journey has shown that working shoulder-to-shoulder with counterparts to implement reforms can help Governments deliver policies that tangibly improve the lives of their citizens.

This success has been enabled by the following factors:

  • Mobilising support from the centre of Government: Aligning the initiative with a Presidential priority meant that there was consistent support from the centre for delivery. This endorsement gave the initiative access to more resources and political capital.

  • Adopting a whole-of-Government approach: The MAF worked closely with other relevant ministries, departments and agencies, such as the Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Sierra Leone, to deliver the programme.

  • Aligning incentives across the Government helped secure wide buy-in and resource mobilisation and increased the sense of overall government ownership. For example, the Bank of Sierra Leone was keen to develop a credit facility, and the Ministry of Finance was interested in increasing transparency with a voucher system for agricultural inputs.

  • Promoting coordination and collaboration within the ecosystem: The programme brought together relevant stakeholders such as donors and the private sector, through a series of presentations which TBI supported, to demonstrate the value of the reforms. This created an enabling environment for the delivery of the initiative.

  • Turning shocks into opportunities: The Government took advantage of the disruption from COVID-19 to galvanise support for the policy, demonstrate proof of concept and justify the prioritisation and acceleration of the initiative.

  • Embedding capacity strengthening support to ensure longer-term sustainability: Working shoulder-to-shoulder with partners like TBI has helped build and institutionalise counterpart capacity.

  • End-to-end advisory support to government – Strategy, Policy and Delivery: Advisors provided a combination of policy analysis and advocacy across the government, and direct delivery support to help the government achieve its goal.


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