Members of Otago's Poverty, Inequality and Development research cluster have been awarded a British Government research grant to help in the reconstruction of Sierra Leone. Ranked as the poorest country in the world, Sierra Leone is struggling to recover from the disintegration of democracy and civil war that forced a massive dislocation of people during the 1990s.

Before the war ended in 2001, hundreds of thousands of people fled armed rebels and sought the safety of United Nations' refugee camps around Freetown, the capital city.

Tomatoes and aubergineBut while some refugees are gradually returning to rural areas, a new phenomenon has emerged in Freetown, where the population has mushroomed from less than 500,000 before the war to an estimated 1.5 million people (almost one quarter of the country's total population). Urban agriculture is flourishing, with desperate urbandwellers growing crops to feed their families and selling surpluses in the markets in a spontaneous act of survival.

Professor Tony Binns, who holds the Ron Lister Chair in Geography, has an international reputation for his expertise in Third World development and has close links with Sierra Leone. He undertook his PhD research there more than 30 years ago on the relationship between diamond mining and rural development.

Now, through Britain's Department for International Development, and in collaboration with the Universities of Sierra Leone, Manchester and Gloucestershire, he and his team have been awarded a $NZ240,000 grant for a three-year project to shed some light on urban agriculture and the role it is playing in the country's economic revival.

"We would argue - and I think we will prove - that it is providing a very significant survival mechanism," Binns says. "These people are desperately poor. Over half of Sierra Leone's population lives on less than $US1 per day, the average life expectancy is only 42 years and more than a quarter of children will die before the age of five."

Most of the transportation and agricultural marketing infrastructure in the rural areas was completely destroyed during the war, making it almost impossible to transport food from the rural areas into Freetown's urban market. "Without urban agriculture, these people would struggle to live."

"These people are desperately poor ... without urban agriculture, they would struggle to live."

The first part of the project, which began in January 2008, is to find out exactly where this urban farming is taking place - no mean feat as all maps were destroyed in the civil war.

"The refugees planted their crops on vacant land wherever they could, but this tends to have been near watercourses," Binns says. However, this in itself raises a number of issues such as land ownership and water quality, issues that need to be addressed.

The research team will then evaluate the nature and extent of the urban agriculture - what crops are being grown, and how this is contributing to food security and income generation, particularly in households headed by women and those affected by HIV/AIDS. Environmental sustainability will also be examined.

Binns says the Freetown local authorities know very little about how widespread urban agriculture is and the difference it is making to people's livelihoods. The researchers propose that it should be permitted and encouraged, and aim to liaise with national and city authorities to consider strategies that will both enable and support this practice at a crucial point in Sierra Leone's postconflict reconstruction.


  • Department for International Development, UK
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