New Internationalist

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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  1. #1 Kane 09 Apr 11

    I'm not sure that banning cross border trade will solve so much. While food shortage due to exports may be an issue, the way forward is surely to encourage and research greater food productivity techniques - on small scales. So people can grow their own food, more effeciently. Along with logistics and storage as you mention.

  2. #3 Sulakshana 11 Apr 11

    You're right Kane. And logistics and industry is the way forward. For instance during mango season it's common to see piles of mangoes rotting on the streets in the provinces just because they can't be stored or preserved. Banning cross border trade will only make it harder for the farmers who live along the borders

  3. #4 Ian 12 Apr 11

    It's such a waste when countries like Australia allow food to spoil, but for countries in a region where food security seems so weak it seems naive or stupid to legislate like this.

    I'm not convinced it would even seem like a good idea on paper; the intent of the legislation might be good, but the plan on paper must look improbable even to those who have legislated it.

    While there is probably need for some controls in order to encourage local food security, the idea that food would be wasted just over the border in favour of importing from China or Holland seems a sad example of just how distorted the world has become.

  4. #5 Vonny 12 Apr 11

    Food

    These people have to grow what they lack and depend on noone if possible. Is there any one who can send them seeds non gmo Yvonne

  5. #6 Sulakshana 18 Apr 11

    Thanks for your comments. This being a critical year before the elections, it's important for the government to appear as if they're promoting food security. It's funny that before the civil war Sierra Leone used to export rice and now imports it.

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About the author

Sulakshana Gupta a New Internationalist contributor

Sulakshana Gupta is a journalist currently based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She manages media development projects for the BBC World Service Trust focusing on governance and human rights and in her spare time travels around the world. The opinions expressed in this blog are her own and do not reflect the views of her employer.

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