By Oswell Kahonde and T. Keyzom Massally
Oswell T. Kahonde
Regional Lead - Africa
When it comes to access to financial services, smallholder farmers in Sierra Leone face similar challenges as the 475 million smallholder farmers across the globe. They live far from brick-and-mortar branches and their risk profile often excludes them from formal financial services. Digital financial services (DFS) can play an important role in overcoming this problem.
A workshop recently held in Freetown and hosted by the Government of Sierra Leone in partnership with the Better Than Cash Alliance and MM4P brought together key leaders from the public and private sectors, under the title ‘Building an Inclusive Digital Payments Ecosystem to deliver Transformative Financial Services to Smallholder Farmers in Sierra Leone’.
“Smallholder farmers represent nearly 70 percent of our workforce” emphasized in his key note speech the Minister of Finance, Momodu Karbo. “It is for this 70 percent that advances in technology — and digital finance in particular — could drive a new era of more equitable gains in agricultural livelihoods”.
The strong commitment of the Government to transform the agricultural sector by harnessing the potential of DFS was emphasized in the opening speech of the Minister of Agriculture Prof. Monty Jones, who announced his Ministry will lead, in partnership with the Bank of Sierra Leone, the development of a focused Digital Financial Inclusion Strategy for Smallholder Farmers and set up a national Agricultural DFS Sub-Working group. The Strategy will contribute to delivery of the broader National Strategy for Financial Inclusion 2017-2020.
The workshop benefitted from the presence of smallholder farmers who spoke of the challenges they face daily. Foday Sillah, a farmer from the northern district of Koinadog, underscored the importance of access to finance for his community: “Smallholder farmers are the main suppliers of food in this country. But due to lack of access to finance, extension services and marketing support, we are unable to sustain our yields. That is why we now have to import rice from other countries”. The Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone, Dr Patrick Saidu Conteh, spoke of DFS and its “potential to reduce the country’s food annual import bill by half”.
Participants also called for better mobile networks and infrastructure for increasing access to markets and doing away with unfavorable subsidies. They also acknowledged the urgent need to strengthen consumer protection laws to promote greater confidence in DFS. Women, who make up the majority of the smallholder farmers, face even greater challenges and the need to revise land ownership and title laws to ensure greater access to funding was stressed as well. The Agriculture Minister, Prof. Jones, challenged digital financial services providers to design better solutions by understanding the needs, preferences, aspirations and behaviors of smallholder farmers.
For Sierra Leone, a country recovering from the threat of Ebola and recent devastating floods, and with half of its population of 7 million considered food insecure, digital financial solutions (DFS) can make a difference. Developing an inclusive digital payments ecosystem, which was the agreed outcome of the workshop by the Government and the private sector, will certainly provide the rails to transform the agriculture sector of Sierra Leone.