The Ebola outbreak was declared on March 22, 2014 in the West African nation of Guinea, almost 40 years after the discovery of Ebola in 1976. As no effective treatment existed for the disease, it eventually spread to nearby Sierra Leone and Liberia, with a small number of cases in Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
In Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the outbreak devastated entire families, overwhelmed health care systems and even threatened the social order. Governments imposed curfews and quarantine measures to contain the spread of the disease and shut borders with neighboring countries. On September 18, 2014, the UN Security Council declared the epidemic “a threat to international peace and security.”
Sierra Leone, where nearly 4,000 people died of Ebola, was declared free of the disease by the World Health Organization in November 2015, though a new case was confirmed in January 2016. The outbreak in Guinea, where there were 2,500 deaths, ended in December 2015 and the following month Liberia was declared free of Ebola transmission after nearly 5,000 people lost their lives.
The economies of the three countries were on a relatively promising trajectory before Ebola struck. In Liberia, for example, annual GDP growth (according to World Bank figures) averaged close to 7 percent between 2004 and 2013, driven mainly by iron ore and rubber exports. Sierra Leone had managed to reduce its poverty headcount from 70 percent in 2003 to 52 percent just before the outbreak. But the crisis laid bare the deficiencies in what were some of the weakest agricultural systems in the world.
Both Sierra Leone and Liberia were recovering from civil wars which devastated their agricultural sectors. During Liberia’s civil war, which lasted for most of the period between 1989 and 2003, total value added from agriculture and fisheries fell by 52 percent, while coffee production plunged 91 percent and rice production 76 percent. Many farms were also abandoned, leading to a shortage of skilled labor. Today, agriculture accounts for around 35 percent of Liberia’s GDP and the sector is the main source of income for two-thirds of the population.
According to Simeon Ehui, a manager at the World Bank’s global agriculture practice, the vulnerabilities in the food production systems of all three countries before the outbreak were similar – agricultural research systems were weak, crop yields were low, and farmers had limited or no access to technological innovations and inputs.
Poor infrastructure also restricted farmers’ access to markets, particularly in rural areas with few or no roads. During the rainy season, remote communities faced isolation, affecting their ability to access nutritious food.
The countries were also very reliant on food imports, making them vulnerable to market fluctuations. Liberia depends on imports to supply more than 60 percent of its rice consumption requirements, as well as to meet demand for vegetables, pulses, chicken and meat. This dependency increases Liberians’ vulnerability to food insecurity. Even before the Ebola outbreak, one in five households were food insecure and 36 percent of children under five were stunted, according to a survey by the World Food Program. On average, Liberians spent 53 percent of their income on food, putting them at risk when prices rose, the survey found.
The disease strikes
The Ebola epidemic exacerbated the weaknesses in each country’s agricultural sector, endangering the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and increasing food insecurity. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that 630,000 people in Liberia—nearly 15 percent of the population—were severely food insecure in November 2014. In Guinea, the figure was 970,000 and in Sierra Leone 450,000, representing 8 per cent and 7 percent of their populations respectively. Surveys carried out in Liberia found that up to two-thirds of households in some counties had experienced a decline in income and most families reported eating fewer meals per day and reducing the size of their meals. There were also reports of farmers consuming the seeds they had been preserving for the next planting season and households selling or slaughtering their livestock.
Disruptions to trade led to an increase in commodity prices. In Liberia, restrictions on movement meant that weekly markets were closed and trucks transporting food were banned from travelling during curfew hours. In October 2014, the United Nations estimated that the price of basic commodities in Liberia was 17 percent higher than before the Ebola outbreak.
Farming activity, usually conducted in groups, also declined dramatically due to fears of contagion.
“When Ebola erupted, people needed to protect their lives,” says Ehui. “Governments were issuing directives in terms of how to behave to minimize human-to-human interaction. What this meant was that a lot of farmers stopped going to the fields because of the fear of being infected along the way.”
In Liberia, groups of smallholder farmers often travel to work on one another’s land in a system known as kuu, but at the height of the crisis in August 2014, it was estimated that the size of these groups had dropped from as many as 50 members to between five and ten individuals.
Agricultural production suffered as a result, though the biggest losses were at the regional level. By the end of 2014, overall crop production fell by 8 percent in Liberia, 5 percent in Sierra Leone and 3 percent in Guinea, according to the FAO.
Rice production decreased by 8 percent in Sierra Leone, where the crop accounts for 80 percent of cereal production, but in the country’s Kailahun district, one of the hardest hit by Ebola, the decline was up to 17 percent. In Liberia, where rice is also a staple crop, production was 12 percent lower, though some counties experienced a 20 percent drop. Because cassava is much less labor and input intensive, the impact on its production at the national level was more moderate, falling between 1.2 percent and 5 percent in the three countries.
Rebuilding the seed system
As the epidemic spread, the World Bank, along with the FAO and the West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF) conducted a study to assess the impact of the crisis and the immediate needs of the population, leading to an unprecedented operation in April 2015 to distribute 10,500 tonnes of certified seed to farming households in the affected countries.
The organizations, working with the U.S. Agency for International Development, AfricaRice and the Government of Japan, sourced rice, maize and cowpea seed from Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Niger, and Senegal, according to Abdoulaye Toure, the World Bank’s lead agriculture economist, who led the team that devised the program. Meanwhile, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) negotiated with governments to lift border restrictions and allow lorries transporting the seeds into Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, The operation, the first of its kind in West Africa, cost $17 million in total and the World Bank estimates that by the end of the 2016 rainy season, 500,000 people will have benefited. It also expects 2 million metric tonnes of cereal (rice and corn) as output at the end of the program after the harvest in 2016.
During the crisis the FAO helped the members of farmer associations and women’s savings and loan associations improve their livelihoods through a combination of cash transfers and support for agricultural production, says Vincent Martin, the organization’s response coordinator for Ebola. The FAO also worked with health ministries and other partners on contact tracing and sensitization initiatives aimed at stopping the spread of the disease, using its network of extension services.
The path to recovery
Although economic growth in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea has yet to recover from the crisis, there are signs of progress in the agricultural sector. In Sierra Leone, there was a 34 percent increase in rice production in 2015-16, compared to the previous year, and a 24 percent increase in cassava production. In Liberia, rice production in 2015 was 11 percent higher than the previous year.
The various organizations working in the three countries are now focused on continuing the work that had been interrupted by the crisis, including strengthening infrastructure and research systems and helping farmers gain access to markets and to capital. Before the outbreak, the World Bank had begun a program to train scientists and extension workers and rebuild the seed system but those efforts were halted for two years.
“We’re going backward again,” says Ehui. “There are a lot of challenges now to help rebuild that system. The whole infrastructure needs to be supported.”
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a UN agency focusing on rural development, is providing technical training to smallholder farmers in Liberia and helping them rebuild assets such as seeds and livestock. It is also building storage and processing facilities and feeder roads that will link farmers to markets. This will enable them to form farmer associations, pool their production and eventually market higher volumes, says Ndaya Beltchika, country program manager for Liberia and Sierra Leone. In addition, IFAD is supporting rural finance institutions in Sierra Leone that provide loans and remittance services to farmers.
The governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone have singled out agriculture as their top priority in their medium term plans for post-Ebola recovery, notes Beltchika. For Liberia, cocoa is considered a priority because of its potential as a foreign exchange earner, while Sierra Leone is aiming to reduce its reliance on food imports.
“With the reduction of growth, they have difficulties mobilizing enough foreign exchange to continue purchasing rice on the international market,” says Beltchicka. “They would like to increase investment in the production of rice as well as other food crops.”
Recovering from a major epidemic is a formidable challenge for any country, not least some of the poorest nations in the world. Still, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone are all making progress, and as they continue to do so, they may even be able to create agricultural sectors that are more resilient.