I was excited to get the first pictures of the Women’s Vegetable Growing Project that’s just started in Bumpeh Chiefdom. Thirty women farmers are being empowered to grow groundnuts (peanuts) and vegetables that will quickly generate income in post-Ebola Sierra Leone.
The project, designed and led by our local partner, the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET), will jump start women’s efforts to get back on their feet after Ebola. “Vulnerable” women were selected who are experienced farmers and low income, most single heads of household. I could recognize some faces among village participants receiving their seed and fertilizer in the distribution ceremony photo.
I still have trouble contemplating people living so close to the edge, they can’t afford $50 to maintain a business that’s their very livelihood. The Ebola crisis slashed small-holder farmer incomes – already tiny – in half. Women farmers were especially hard hit. They tend vegetable gardens requiring less back breaking manual labor, but resulting in smaller incomes. The Ebola epidemic then put the chiefdom under isolation orders, preventing farmers from taking crops to city markets where they can sell more and get higher prices.
Inception The Vegetable project had its inception during a phone call with Bumpeh Chiefdom Paramount Chief Caulker in early March about getting projects back on track. Ebola had sharply declined, but the full economic impact of the epidemic was now clear. I told Chief I couldn’t in good conscience myself, or ask Sherbro Foundation donors to return to our computer literacy project right now when I knew people were hungry. That could wait.
The best way to help short term in his agriculture based chiefdom, Chief Caulker said, was to sponsor a vegetable growing project. You can grow a lot of vegetables like peppers in a small area and harvest in 3-4 months, fetching good prices. Farmers can quickly earn enough to feed their families, and then save seed and money to buy fertilizer themselves for the fall growing season.
The project would have to be started right away to be able to harvest when the heavy monsoon rains peak in August. CCET would run the project, but half its members were not yet in Rotifunk. They’re community teachers who volunteer to run CCET projects. They would return the first of April with the formidable task of first re-opening school closed for nine months by the Ebola epidemic.
I’ve seldom met a more dedicated and community-minded group than the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation. They keep focused on their vision of empowering the most vulnerable in Bumpeh Chiefdom to become self-sufficient, and they just get to work. Within a month, school reopened and was in full swing, and women in small villages were planting vegetable gardens.
“Felt need assessment” CCET first talked directly with project participants to identify the most viable income generating crops right now. Peppers will earn more, the women said, but only in the dry season when supply is low.
It’s better now with the start of the rainy season, they said, to plant fast growing groundnuts, corn, okra, cucumbers and some pepper. These will bring higher market value in July-August, the peak hunger period when farmers have not yet harvested, and school is starting. Parents face the most economic stress then, striving to feed their farm family, and to pay their children’s school fees in September.
Target Participants Thirty women were selected: 25 from rural villages and five groups of two each from Rotifunk Township. Village women experienced in vegetable production and who are single parents with many children were given priority. In Rotifunk, women in the CCET–run adult education program who are single parents and interested in learning vegetable cultivation were identified.
Getting started CCET bought recently harvested, high quality seed that is more potent and can sprout easily. It’s common to find imported seed in Sierra Leone past its expiration date, with poor yield. To further motivate participants, each got a 25 Kg (~ 55 lb) bag of rice to help feed their family now.
Clearing a field manually is really hard work. It’s typical in slash-and-burn agriculture to fell the biggest trees, and burn the rest of a field for planting. I’ve watched women farming in Sierra Leone before. But sitting in the comfort my home looking at these pictures of bare foot women breaking ground in a hard, burned-out field with little hand-made hoes pulls at my heart strings. They’re determined to provide for their children and get on with their lives. And they somehow do, by sheer will – and hard labor.
Sustainability To make the project sustainable and continue providing support to other women, participants signed a memorandum of understanding. They will each give back a bushel of harvested ground nut equivalent to 50kg, and a cup each of corn, okra and cucumber seed to be redistributed to the other groups of vulnerable women in successive seasons. It also reinforces the women working together and supporting each other as a community.
CCET has already identified project improvements for the next planting season. They want to keep as much income as possible within the community. Instead of buying imported bags of rice for participants, they will arrange to buy rice from local rice farmers. Likewise, they will procure as much groundnut and vegetable seed as possible from local growers.
I can’t wait to see the next pictures. With the rain starting and growing advice from CCET project managers, these women should be weeding fields green with groundnuts and tall with okra soon.
The need to get Sierra Leone farmers producing again after Ebola is great. The Women’s Vegetable Growing Program is one we definitely need to expand. If you’d like to help, please go to Donate.