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No more fresh vegetables?

Woman and child carrying fruit, Sierra Leone

Food shortages are expected in Sierra Leone, due to the ban on cross-border trade.

At the end of last month, the three countries in the Mano River Union – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – passed a resolution to ban cross-border trade in food products. It all started when the government of Sierra Leone banned the export of, first, timber and then local produce like rice, cassava and palm oil to maintain internal food sufficiency. Guinea and Liberia reciprocated with their own bans.

While this may seem like a good protectionist idea on paper, it’s going to be hard to implement. The borders between the three countries are porous; close economic and cultural ties had prompted the creation of the Mano River Union in the first place in 1973. Now it seems that all three governments are backtracking on the original intent of the organization.

In Sierra Leone, many border towns are almost inaccessible by road from within. In terms of governance, places along the border, like Madina Wula in the far north, feel more part of Guinea. They are able to communicate in the languages of both countries and use both currencies for transactions. In the rice-producing regions of the east, it’s been common practice to sell the produce to Liberian traders instead of incurring the high costs of transporting it within the country. If small farmers and traders can no longer do that, it translates into huge potential losses.

While Sierra Leone produces coffee, rice, cassava, pepper and palm oil, many of its other vegetable needs are met from neighbouring countries. For instance, potatoes, onions, carrots and fresh fruit are some of the items that come in from Guinea, and already shortages have been reported in Sierra Leone. Putting an end to this supply will mean price increases. It will also create a further dependence on imports from countries like India, China and Holland, instead of promoting cross-border trade. The government of Sierra Leone, on the other hand, seems to believe that this move will actually halt the prices soaring in the country.

The one certainty is that this move will increase corruption at the borders. News portal Freetown Daily News reported that scores of people are stranded at the borders with perishable goods. This places them at the mercy of unscrupulous customs officials. Again, because of the distances, the National Revenue Authority is not able to properly audit each and every border customs station.

At the end of the day, the small-time farmer will bear the brunt of this, as they won’t be able to sell their stock before it rots. Most small farmers have no way to preserve their produce. Yes, it’s a good idea on paper, but only if supported by a clear logistics plan for storage and movement of goods around the country. Progress on this front has been painfully slow.

Photo by Annabel Symington under a CC Licence.

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