It was Christmas Eve, but the streets of Freetown -- the capital of Sierra Leone -- were eerily silent. Families and friends did not meet for the traditional dinner to feast on Jollof Rice, a national dish that is served in all the ceremonies across the country.
In December 2014, the government of Sierra Leone banned all public celebrations to prevent the further spread of Ebola in the worst-affected country. Similarly, Guinea -- the country where the latest Ebola crisis began -- banned holiday gatherings during Christmas and New Year.
But even before this drastic step was taken, people living in the countries hit hardest by the deadly virus -- Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea -had little to cheer about. Although there was a glimmer of hope for an end in sight to the Ebola epidemic, these countries were reported to be on the brink of a major food crisis.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) revealed in December that the Ebola outbreak had left nearly half a million people in the three countries "severely food insecure": 120,000 in Sierra Leone, 170,000 in Liberia and 230,000 in Guinea.
The organizations warned that this number could double to one million by March 2015 unless urgent measures are taken to significantly enhance access to food and safeguard crop and livestock production in these countries, which have a very large rural agricultural sector.
The crisis has been further aggravated because these countries were trying to recover from a tragic past (prolonged civil war in both Liberia and Sierra Leone and military rule in Guinea), when Ebola struck.
Shock to food and agricultural sectors
FAO and WFP stated that the Ebola epidemic has caused a significant shock to the food and agriculture sectors in the affected countries, where two thirds of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihood. A number of interrelated factors, including quarantines, disruptions in transport and trade, and rising food prices are triggering the food crisis.
Experts participating in the Global Rice Market and Trade Summit organized by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Bangkok, Thailand in October 2014, remarked that there was a noticeable rise in the local rice prices in the affected countries, although the Ebola crisis is not expected to have a major impact on the global rice market.
Many farmers have abandoned their fields and harvests for fear of the disease. In Sierra Leone, for instance, it is reported that up to 40% of farms were abandoned in the worst affected areas.
Impacts on the rice sector
Rice is the most important staple in the three countries and its price and accessibility directly influence social stability. Annual per capita consumption of rice (about 100 kg) is amongst the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. However, all the three countries are net importers of rice as demand is much higher than local production.
The promotion of domestic rice production is therefore a key element in the national rice development strategy (NRDS) developed by each of these countries under the Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD) framework.
The national programs of these countries are involved in a large number of joint projects with the Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice) and have identified "Rice Sector Development Hubs," a mechanism introduced by AfricaRice across sub-Saharan Africa to concentrate R&D efforts and connect partners along the rice value chain to achieve greater impact.
Since the last few years, AfricaRice has been providing targeted support to Liberia and Sierra Leone at their request to revive their rice sectors, under the umbrella of the World Bank-funded West Africa Agricultural Productivity Program (WAAPP).
The main focus of this support is to make improved seed and technologies available to farmers, enhance rice quality and develop a critical mass of scientists, technicians, extension workers and seed producers.
However, the Ebola crisis threatens to undo the progress made in all these areas. According to FAO, the 2014 rice production is expected to reduce by 12% in Liberia, 8% in Sierra Leone and 4% in Guinea. But there are big disparities within the region: production is down by 20% in Liberia's Lofa district- which is the main rice-producing region and is considered as Liberia's breadbasket -- and by 17% in the hardest hit parts of Sierra Leone.
"The Ebola outbreak in Liberia is a complete setback to our achievements," said AfricaRice scientist Inoussa Akintayo, who is coordinating an emergency rice project in Lofa and Bong districts in Liberia supported by the World Bank.
In August 2014 for reasons of safety, AfricaRice Management decided to pull out its regional and international researchers from Liberia and Sierra Leone. "This has affected the implementation of the planned WAAPP activities," said AfricaRice scientist Bert Meertens, who is assisting the Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute in WAAPP activities.
Call for urgent action
In addition to addressing the immediate priority of Ebola control, FAO and WFP have called for urgent action to re-establish the farming system in the three countries. Measures should enable most vulnerable people to access agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers and adopt improved technology to address labor shortages.
AfricaRice is actively involved in discussing and planning strategies to make improved rice seed available to farmers with strong support from donors, such as the Government of Japan, the African Development Bank, FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank among others, as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). These activities are part of the overall effort to support the Ebola-hit countries on the road to economic recovery and growth.
Meanwhile, remembering the quiet heroism of scientists in these countries, AfricaRice economist Ali Toure who was working in Sierra Leone, remarked, "We are praying for the safety of our brave colleagues, who are continuing their work under very difficult and even dangerous situations."
By the end of 2014, nearly 8,000 deaths from Ebola had been reported in the three countries. The World Bank estimates the regional economic toll could reach US$32 billion by the end of 2015.
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