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The quest to end Sierra Leone's 'hunger season'

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Media captionThe ambitious new plan to overhaul Sierra Leone's agriculture sector.

"As a child growing up, we memorised something which I still recall."

Herbert Mc'leod pauses, leans forward on his hilltop porch in central Freetown, and counts on his fingers.

"Exports of Sierra Leone are ginger, piassava, pepper, cocoa, coffee, oil palm…"

The economist trails off and adds, in an undertone: "All of this, no more."

Image caption Every fortnight Lion Mountains employees collect rice from local farmers

Mr Mc'leod, a UN development veteran who now works for the International Growth Centre, learnt the list as a child in the 1950s, when Sierra Leone was edging towards independence after more than 150 years of British colonial rule and relishing the prospect of self-sufficiency in food production.

This was by no means an outlandish ambition - as one of the most fertile countries on the continent, Sierra Leone boasts perfect conditions for growing rice, maize and other staples, and for a couple of decades, it was the biggest exporter of rice in West Africa.

But now, the country spends between $200m and $300m (£150m and £225m) each year importing rice to feed its people, a habit that Mr Mc'leod would like to see broken.

Image caption Much of Lion Mountains' land remains unfarmed this year, due to lack of funding

"In the past five years we have spent a lot of money on small-scale agriculture," he says.

"I strongly believe that if you really want to increase production you have to go big, you have to industrialise agriculture, and I don't think we have that experience."

Some 250km to the south east, in Sierra Leone's second biggest city, Bo, one authority on African agriculture is trying to do just that.

Mike Gericke, a former Zimbabwean farmer, has cultivated crops in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Gabon and Zambia, to name but a few, and moved to Sierra Leone in October 2014, as the country was in the grips of the Ebola epidemic.

Image copyright Tommy Trenchard
Image caption Mike Gericke has spent over four decades farming in Africa

"People thought I was crazy," he explains, surveying the 500 hectares for which he is now responsible. "I'd get introduced as someone who stayed while everyone else was running away."

Mike came to Bo to run Lion Mountains, a company that plans to become the largest commercial rice farm in the country. But attracting investors to an area still without basic infrastructure, and reeling from the effects of the Ebola outbreak, is proving difficult. Planting that was supposed to start in July has been put off for a year - because of a lack of money.

Not that this has dampened Mike's infectious enthusiasm. As he drives through the lush local landscapes in his Lion Mountains-branded 4x4, he talks about what he sees as the tragedy of Sierra Leone's under-exploited arable land, and the simple solutions that could improve the area's farming.

Image caption In local villages, Lion Mountains' teams are surrounded by those looking to sell their rice

"This is laterite," Mike explains, scooping a handful of red earth from the roadside, not far from local subsistence farms. "It's very porous, and not ideal for growing a shallow rooted crop like rice."

Most rural communities in the area farm on very small plots of land, without adequate moisture or fertiliser, and using inferior seeds. Worse, Mike adds, they often use damaging techniques like "slash-and-burn", clearing forest to plant new crops.

Indeed, while farming employs about 65-70% of the population, it fails to feed the country for a full year. From May to December, food aid is needed to supplement local produce, during what's known as "hunger season".

Which is why, while he waits for next year to farm Lion Mountains' own land, Mike is focusing on helping subsistence farmers become more efficient - by building a mill.

Image caption Lucy says selling her rice helps pay for her children's school fees

Traditionally, local farmers try to sell three-quarters of their crop. But the rice is stored for long periods of time, during which it is damaged by vermin and rain.

The rice they eat themselves is then milled by hand - back-breaking work that can take hours.

Lion Mountains' mill buys rice from the surrounding villages, processes it, stores it, and then sells it locally - in sealed plastic bags with easy-to-understand measurements. It's the only commercial mill in the area, and right from the get-go Mike's team was overwhelmed by the demand.

Image caption Children in Dambala subsist mainly on produce from local farms

Just a few miles down the road, in the village of Dambala - one of about 100 communities that supply rice to the mill - the impact on locals is easy to see. Dozens flock to greet the Lion Mountain van, dragging huge sacks of rice they hope to sell to the mill.

"We use the money to improve our lives," says Lucy, who grows rice for her family.

"It has gone towards paying the school fees for our children," she adds, surrounded by toddlers tugging on her dress.

"Some houses have even been re-roofed after a storm."

Image caption Some of Lion Mountains' land has been handed over to locals

Buying rice from locals is one thing, but selling it back to them during hunger season, when poorer quality imports are cheaper, is an ongoing struggle.

Ultimately, however, Mike and Lion Mountains hope to reduce the need for imports into Sierra Leone by producing enough rice to feed the population all year round, and eventually to export globally.

Image caption The rice in Mike's mill is refined and sold in plastic packets, measured by cups

But not everyone supports this enterprise.

Anuradha Mittal, executive director of policy think-tank The Oakland Institute, is sceptical about the benefits of commercial farming for countries like Sierra Leone.

Ms Mittal warns against what she calls "poorwashing", the process by which large commercial interests hide behind the assistance they provide to locals.

"The cause of hunger is not the lack of commercial farming," she explains. "The cause of hunger is poverty."

Even in a country such as the US, with modern agricultural techniques and industrial farming, Ms Mittal argues, 50 million are hungry.

Image caption As the only commercial mill in the area, Mike's operation can barely keep up with demand

"If your goal is really to improve livelihoods of people - investing in smallholder farmers is the solution," adds Ms Mittal.

"According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, five acres of arable land is enough to sustain a family in Africa.

"Imagine giving away 100,000 hectares of land to a foreign investor in the country that might, at best, hire 1,000 people. If you do the maths, the same land area can sustain nearly 20,000 people."

For Mike, helping smallholder farms is a cause that can co-exist with commercial interests. Instead of letting Lion Mountains' leased acres lie fallow, he has turned the ploughed land over to the 100 families from nearby Senehun, giving them seed and advising them on their crops.

Image caption Rice farmers in the Bo district sell their produce to the mill
Image caption Lion Mountains plans to sell local rice through a network of wooden kiosks

But ultimately, this sixty-something son of the African soil is convinced that big business will be the key.

"Mining comes and goes," he says.

"I believe the only way to lift Sierra Leone up is through commercial agriculture, showing young people it's a respectable career, instead of selling Sim cards by the side of the road."

Follow Joe Miller on Twitter @JoeMillerJr

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