Seventy five women farmers have a chance to become Sierra Leone millionaires. Sherbro Foundation just funded a new group of 75 women to grow groundnuts (we call them peanuts) in the Women’s Vegetable Growing Project – one of our most successful projects to date.
I can still vividly remember last November when I approached Mobainda village to visit the first women’s project. Women had gathered and filled the narrow dirt road. The car stopped, so I got out to see what was happening. The women began singing and dancing around me. They had come out to honor me and escort me into their village — the traditional way of the women’s society.
No words, no speeches. They just surrounded me with their harmonized singing and drumming on hand-made drums, and slowly moved towards the village. So, I moved with them, their singing filling the air for the last quarter mile.
They were thanking me – thanking Sherbro Foundation – for helping them plant peanuts in April 2015, right as the Ebola crisis was lifting. These are women who normally live on the slimmest of margins, earning an average of less than $1 a day. They couldn’t even earn that during Ebola, when much farming stopped and markets for selling their produce closed for over four months.
“The Women’s Vegetable Project is one of the most successful projects introduced in my chiefdom,” Paramount Chief Caulker said.
It was conceived as a way to quickly help women earn income again. We started small with 30 women, supplying each with enough peanut seed for a half-acre garden and other vegetable seed like cucumbers and corn. They also got a 50Kg (100-pound) bag of rice to feed their families before their harvest.
Leave it to women to make the best use possible of resources they were given. Most women grew a bumper crop of peanuts in four short months, harvesting 6-7 bags of peanuts for each bag of seed they received.
We jokingly said we were making millionaires out of peanuts. A large bag of peanuts went for 160,000 leones. So, 7 bags are worth over a million leones. Or about US$200.
That may not sound like much, but it was three times more than the women would make in cash in a whole year of traditional rice farming, an incredibly labor intensive crop. And they still had the rest of the year to grow rice and do fishing in the Bumpeh River.
Leave it to these women to be grateful for this help. In these small, close-knit villages of 200-300 people, the women wanted to help other women do what they just did. They came up with the idea of each donating back a half-bag of groundnut seed for the next group to plant. They showed me their donated seed, left.
A local survey found 450 more women in this area of eight villages want to be part of the program. This part of Bumpeh Chiefdom was selected because it has the largest concentration of active women farmers. They were the most severely affected when Ebola abruptly curtailed their normal farming.
Executive Director Rosaline Kaimbay, right, of CCET, our partner organization, distributes seed and supplies to the May 2016 group of women farmers, holding white drying tarps they received on their heads. We bought any seed locally available, saving transport cost for both buyer and sellers.
So, the program is expanding to 150 women per year in two groups of 75 women each in the spring and fall. The program is meant to be a stopgap measure to help women farmers get back on their feet after Ebola. It will continue for three years and cover all 450 interested women. The women draw lots to select who will be in each group.
The 2014-15 farming year was exceptionally hard with Ebola. The first group of women peanut farmers unfortunately didn’t become self-sufficient with just one peanut crop in 2015. They were forced to eat a large part of their first peanut harvest to avoid hunger. But this allowed them to save some of the previous year’s rice as seed to grow their next rice crop. We’re giving these first 30 women partial support again in the current project to ensure they can make enough profit in 2016 to go from there.
This year we are also giving each woman a large tarpaulin to safely dry their harvest of groundnuts (or peppers) and avoid losses due to rotting.
I’m already looking forward to my next visit when I can join the women and again celebrate their success. I learned the song the women sang for me last November loosely translated said: “If you wake up in the morning and just work hard, you will succeed.”
And succeed these hard-working women did. In only five months after my first long-distance phone call that conceived the project, the women were harvesting a bumper crop. Their success became our success. And now we’re expanding to help more women succeed.
Arlene Golembiewski, Executive Director