The women of the Tawuya farmers’ group in the Kambia district of northern Sierra Leone like to sing while they work. Harvesting sweet potato leaves as the sun sets on a Tuesday, their choir touts the merits of working with the World Food Programme. WFP recently introduced its ‘home-made’ school feeding model here, in which groups of local farmers are asked to grow crops for children’s meals.
“WFP has created a way for us women to earn money on a regular basis,” says Adama, one of the group members. “Money is hard to come by in Tawuya,” she adds – and she should know that as a mother of seven. “We come three times a week to pick potato leaves or eggplant, or peppers and cucumbers. What the schools order, we supply, and then we get paid on Fridays.
Farmers provide the very school that their children attend and where they work as cooks. This year, WFP trained 70 women here to prepare tastier, healthier and safer meals, for example by applying the right amount of oil and salt without overcooking the leaves.
I watch the women quickly fill two buckets with mounds of chopped leaves cooked with a touch of palm oil, groundnut paste, pieces of dried fish, salt, onions and fresh pepper. The dish is served daily with a cereal and legumes. Providing this daily meal incentivizes parents to send their children to school in one of the most food insecure areas of the country.
Indeed, it is difficult to find money anywhere in Sierra Leone, one of the least developed countries in the world, which has just emerged from ten years of civil war and an epidemic of Ebola which caused 4,000 deaths.
In June, Sierra Leone stood out in the region with its largest increase in food prices, at 62%, and the fastest decline in the value of the local currency, in the last five years.
These developments, exacerbated by the Ukrainian crisis, have eroded the purchasing power of Sierra Leonean consumers, raising concerns about the quality of life of the population.
And women are less likely to prosper than men.
To boost local agriculture and improve child nutrition through school feeding, the government of Sierra Leone recently launched a school feeding policy emphasizing the local model. WFP supported the development of this policy, and then launched this pilot project, to guide and advise the government on what homegrown school feeding might look like.
WFP helps farmer groups produce more food while connecting them to a reliable market, schools. WFP’s approach encourages the community to fully participate and take ownership of the program so that it can be sustained.
Here, schools invite parents to contribute everything from vegetables to firewood to supplement the staple foods they provide, such as beans, rice and wheat.
But because many lack the funds to buy vegetables, WFP is providing schools with dedicated money to ensure they appear on children’s plates.
Tawuya women are therefore more able to meet some of their needs than they were before the start of the local program. Plus, they now have more food at home, says Adama.
In addition to providing them with high-yielding seeds, fertilizers and farming tools, WFP taught the group how to make compost to organically nourish the land. Sierra Leone’s soils are generally acidic and unsuitable for growing crops such as rice, which is a staple food, and which farmer groups also supply to schools.
“We have sweet potatoes, eggplant, okra, maize and rice in the nursery there,” Adama explains. “Also, we have a big cassava garden some distance from where we can harvest more leaves.”
Nyayh Sankoh, a member of the group, says: “The school is working well for us mothers and we are happy.
The small-scale farmers deliver their daily harvest of potato leaves to the principal of the KDC primary school. The vegetables are used in the local school feeding program which provides a hot meal every day to the students of the school.
The women sing again as they hurry home before it gets dark, pacing the thickets, palm forest and patches of marsh. They harvest only at dusk. They keep their harvest on the roof overnight so that it will be fresh when they deliver it to the school from the district committee early in the morning.
Come Friday, the pay isn’t very high when split among the 24 members of the band – usually each earns less than the equivalent of US$8. However, say the women, it has changed their lives.
WFP is implementing the local program in collaboration with the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the government in 17 of the approximately 1,000 schools it supports with school feeding. This is a pilot project intended to inform the government, whose new school feeding policy emphasizes a transition to the local model.