A year after Ebola devastated swaths of Sierra Leone, killing more than 10,000 people in the region, life in the West African nation is slowly returning to normal. While the deadly pathogen has not been completely eradicated, the number of new cases has slowed to a trickle, and when the country's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, visited Washington this week, he said it was time to turn the focus beyond Ebola.
That means rebuilding the economy of what was already one of the poorest nations in the world, and encouraging farmers afraid to get out because of Ebola to return to their fields.
Thirteen years after civil war devastated the country, basic infrastructure and services are still lacking in many parts of Sierra Leone. This means transporting food throughout the country is prohibitively expensive and staple foods are out-priced for many of the roughly 60 percent of the population that lives in poverty. In particular, basic vegetables such as carrots and tomatoes are in short supply in the country for most of the year as they are only grown in a few regions with a limited season. You can’t eat your vegetables if you can’t afford to buy them, which is one of the reasons why Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world.
One answer may lie in an innovative program created by Pennsylvania State University’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (PSU-HESE) program and World Hope International to bring greenhouses to rural farming cooperatives in Sierra Leone, giving communities better food security and opportunities for nutrition.
“Nutrition affects a person’s life from the moment of conception,” says Lawrence Haddad, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and co-chairman of the Global Nutrition Report. “Without proper nutrition, a person is less likely to thrive throughout their life.” The first thousand days of a person’s life are particularly important in human development. When a child doesn’t receive enough nutrition early in life, their growth becomes stunted. Not only does their physical growth lag behind, but they also experience lower IQ scores, greater chances of illness and lower life expectancies.
These physical and cognitive deficits can never be corrected. Even if a person gains access to better nutrition later in life, the damage has already been done. Multiple studies have shown that when a person’s growth is stunted, they are more likely to have lower education rates and lower income in adulthood, increasing the chances that a person will remain in poverty throughout their life.
Last November, the International Food Policy Research Institute released the first-ever Global Nutrition Report that sought to analyze the state of nutrition within each of the 193 countries it surveyed. The results were surprising. It found that malnutrition is a problem affecting every country in the world, although in different ways. While a wealthy country like the U.S. has access to calorie-rich foods, it often lacks nutrition and leads to higher rates of obesity.
For developing countries like Sierra Leone, malnutrition is often related to food insecurity. A 2010 household survey sponsored by UNICEF found that 44 percent of children under the age of 5 in Sierra Leone had stunted growth, a drastic statistic with serious implications for the country’s future economic development. In many ways, poor nutrition, which is largely poverty-driven, becomes a cycle that is difficult to break without concerted efforts to correct the problem at the start.
The Ebola epidemic made the importance of local food security even more evident. Travel bans isolated many communities throughout the country and sent food prices skyrocketing. Some villages had to rely solely on the food they produced themselves. As the height of the outbreak hit during the planting season, many families had even less food than usual as the government banned gathering in large groups for farming and fewer seeds were planted. Finding ways to boost food production on a more regular basis with less labor is key to building resilience within local communities and better food security for all, experts say.
Using greenhouses to boost growth
When it comes to farming, there are two main things that need to be done to improve nutrition. First, communities must have access to nutritionally rich foods. Second, people need higher incomes so they can supplement the food they grow with more diverse food sources. Doing so helps bridge the gap between harvests and alleviates the difficulties that come with the “lean season.”
Enter the PSU-HESE and World Hope International greenhouse project. The idea of greenhouses is not new to African countries. But the plastic wrapped tunnels are often out of reach for the subsistence farmers who make up the bulk of the agricultural market, says PSU-HESE’s program director Khanjan Mehta. Visiting other African countries, he discovered that greenhouses often cost in the range of $3,500 to $4,500, well outside the range of the average small-scale farmer. But by using locally sourced materials and scaling down the size of the greenhouses to make them more affordable, he says the project offers subsistence farmers the ability to grow vegetables year-round, improving access to vegetables and the ability to increase their income.
Working with local farming cooperatives, the project has built six pilot greenhouses and is already seeing results. “We were only familiar with slash and burn principles that involve a lot of energy with very low yield,” says Albert Kanu, the director of agriculture for World Hope International in Sierra Leone. “This type of farming is different from the greenhouse as the latter require minimal labor with high yields.” Beyond the higher yields, the estimated three harvests a year the greenhouses provide is a significant improvement over the once a year harvest most communities experience today.
Greenhouses and agricultural programs alone cannot fix Sierra Leone’s malnutrition rates. As important as food security and access to affordable food is, these elements are only part of the equation in addressing widespread malnutrition. More direct approaches such as limiting disease outbreaks, diversifying diets and pre-natal supplements are also needed in these communities. But these types of programs remain largely underfunded and ignored by international donors, Haddad said. Until all these elements are addressed, nutrition and stunted growth will likely remain an issue for the most vulnerable.
But by working with rural women’s groups, the project also hopes to empower those with the best ability to influence nutrition overall. Even though women often face social and financial limits, they are still the ones typically responsible for food security within the household, Haddad said. Giving them the tools to boost food production and more produce to sell at the market translates into more resources that can then be invested back into the family, particularly with meeting the needs of children.
“Even though this is just a pilot phase, based on this first circle of production the project has the high potential to contributing to both improving the nutritional levels of people as well as contribute to food security,” said Kanu. “We foresee every household owning one greenhouse. It has the potential to link farmers directly to market consumers.”
A new model for development
Beyond the tools it gives farmers, the program provides a new model for agricultural aid. According to World Hope International’s director of business development Jonathan Schafer, rather than act as traditional aid the project actually serves as an incubator for a future local business that will manufacture and install greenhouses across the country. The pilot greenhouses are part of the research and development stage of the project, to assess the needs of farmers and find the best business model to fulfill these needs.
Although Ebola significantly slowed down the setup of the greenhouses over the past year, the program hopes to install another 20 greenhouses in 2015 that will help gauge how well the technology works in different regions and what improvements can be made to help serve specific farming communities.
“We are at the cusp of greatly expanding the project because we have tried the technology and have found that it works really well,” said Mehta by phone. “We’ve found that we can take our greenhouse technology and really change the way people in Sierra Leone practice agriculture and access vegetables.”
Kim Curtis is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter: @curtiskj