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Agriculture is the backbone of the Sierra Leonean economy, with the sector accounting for an estimated 8 percent of GDP and employing around two-thirds of the national labour force. Notwithstanding this, the sector’s vast potential is still largely untapped. Sierra Leone is endowed with approximately 5.4 million hectares of arable agricultural land, of which almost 75 percent is available for cultivation. The country boasts fertile soils and its ample rainfall averages roughly 3,800mm per year, making it one of the most humid countries in Africa. This climate supports a broad range of crops including rice, cassava and groundnuts, as well as livestock and cash crops, such as coffee, cocoa and palm oil.
While small-scale subsistence farming currently is predominant in the sector, the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL) favours Foreign Direct Investment to boost productivity through mechanised commercial agricultural development and investments across the agriculture value chain.
LEGAL AND REGULATORY LANDSCAPE
The GoSL’s policy and strategic framework for the agriculture sector focuses on providing better quality and wider access to inputs and infrastructure, and improving storage and processing facilities to increase productivity, achieve food security and expand exports.
Investors should consider a number of areas of policy and regulation that impact the structuring and commercial viability of investments in the agriculture sector. These include land and water rights, environmental regulations, labour laws, local content requirements, and licensing and permitting requirements.
There are two distinct land tenure systems in Sierra Leone. In Freetown and the Western Area, title to land can be bought and sold under a freehold system. Outside of these areas, where 90% of high quality arable agricultural land is situated, only leasehold interests in land can be bought and sold and reversionary title to the land is retained by indigenous communities, represented by local chiefs. Foreign investors are not permitted to own title deeds on land under either systems, but can lease land for a term of up 99 years.
For investors unfamiliar with customary tenure-based land systems in Africa, the involvement of local chiefs in the leasing process can be concerning and act as a deterrent to investment. The new leasing permits promote law reforms that will further harmonise the two distinct land tenure systems (which Sierra Leone’s Law Reform Commission is currently working on), facilitate access to land for responsible investment and develop a centralised land title registration system to reduce the prevalence of title disputes. The GoSL is prepared to assist foreign entities in negotiations with chiefs and landowners however the practicalities are complex. In certain cases, the GoSL may also take a head lease on provincial lands and sub-lease to agribusiness investors so as to mitigate any perceived risks of privity between customary land owners and foreign investors. The new leasing permits also contemplate the use of government-owned land in rural areas available for large-scale investment.
The leasehold rights of agribusiness investors are protected by the wide-ranging guarantees against expropriation set out in the IPA. To date, no claims appear to have been brought against the GoSL pursuant to these provisions under the IPA.
Sierra Leone is one of Africa’s most water abundant countries, with renewable water resources of around 25,000 cubic metres per capita per year. As is common in West Africa, in Sierra Leone water is considered a communal resource. Use rights are subject to recognition of the rights of others to the resource, and preservation of the water’s quality. A landholder may claim rights to a stream or other water source on his or her land. There are hurdles with respect to water use in Sierra Leone, as the country lacks a comprehensive legal framework governing its water resources.
Notwithstanding, ascertaining which relevant permits and consents are required for water extraction poses a challenge to potential investors as the country is only in the early stages of implementing the reform process envisioned by the new water law and the establishment of a central body charged with managing the country’s water resources. The National Water Resources Board is not yet complete. Once implemented, these reforms will simplify the permitting process for investors.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL ASPECTS
Before initiating any agricultural enterprise, investors are required pursuant to the relevant environmental laws to undertake an environmental social and health impact assessment, (EISHA) inform affected communities of the results of the assessment and address any community objection to a project through community consultative meetings and community sensitisation programmes.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a broad responsibility for ensuring private sector compliance with environmental regulations in Sierra Leone, including environmental, social and health impact assessment procedures.
Where projects are financed by the international lending community, stricter environmental compliance, such as compliance with the Equator Principles and the IFC Performance Standards, will be required. Although the primary environmental legislation applicable in Sierra Leone provides the environmental regulator with the power to promulgate regulations in respect of the control of effluent discharge and the release of hazardous and toxic materials, no such regulations have been enacted to date. That being said, the GoSL has held several public workshops with interested parties on the adoption of such regulations and it is envisaged that a more robust environmental protection regime should become applicable in Sierra Leone in the near future.
The Agribusiness Trade Council regulates labour relations within the sector. Labour regulation in Sierra Leone is relatively flexible and only certain aspects of working conditions for agricultural workers are regulated by law. For example, the national minimum wage mentioned here (currently Le 500,000 (US$70) per month) and official daily working hours (currently eight hours) are mandated by the GoSL. Agricultural workers have the right to join a union and enter into CBAs under Sierra Leonean labour laws. In practice, working conditions for agricultural workers are largely governed by such Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) with their employers. Productivity-based worker payment structures are widely applied and there is no legal prohibition on compulsory overtime.
About 40 percent of the Sierra Leonean formal sector labour force is unionised (including Agricultural workers, Natural Resources workers, and Health workers). The National Union of Forestry & Agricultural Workers, which forms part of the Sierra Leone Labour Congress (a prominent umbrella organisation of trade unions), has approximately 1,100 declared members. Unions have the right to strike under national trade union laws, subject to giving 21 days’ notice to the GoSL.
LOCAL CONTENT REQUIREMENTS
Sierra Leone has an investor-friendly approach to local participation. 100 percent foreign ownership is permitted in most sectors of the economy. Although Sierra Leone has adopted a national local content policy, the GoSL acknowledges that at present there is insufficient capacity in the local labour market to be able to supply goods and services to business undertakings. With the assistance of development partners such as the UN and DFID, the GoSL is building capacity in the local market.
Under the LCA, agribusiness investors are required to establish and support out-grower schemes for small-holder farmers to build the capacity of small and medium scale agriculture in rural areas in particular. The Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency (SLIEPA) guidance also indicates that agribusiness investors are expected to make social contributions to local communities as part of the negotiation of land leases. These may include community capacity building projects, infrastructure development or the royalty payments). There are no express legal requirements or consequences for a failure to make such contributions.
The case for investing in agriculture in Sierra Leone is highly compelling, in light of the vastly available quality arable land. The sector also compares favourably against its counterparts in other comparable markets on a number of commercial variables, including labour costs and leasing costs for agricultural land. Resource-related costs are minimal, for instance, Sierra Leone does not charge agribusinesses for water utilisation.
Agriculture is a strategic growth sector for the GoSL. Increasing agricultural productivity is central to the GoSL’s National Development Strategy. This is reflected in efforts made by the government of Sierra Leone, to stimulate the enabling environment for agribusiness investors through numerous sector-specific investment incentives and the availability of wide-ranging investment facilitation assistance from Ministries, Departments and Agencies. For example, tax incentives available to certain agribusinesses include a complete exemption from income tax for up to ten years from the time of investment and a 50 percent exemption from withholding taxes on dividends. Export licences are required for agricultural goods.
Key opportunities for investment include cash crops such as cocoa, coffee and palm oil, with the GoSL promoting investment in the rehabilitation and expansion of existing plantations and estates, as well as agro-processing, and further planning to establish (tax free) export processing zones in the country. There are also significant opportunities and incentives for investments in the production, processing and marketing of domestically produced rice, Sierra Leone’s staple food, as well as livestock production.
Forestry and plantation activities in particular provide opportunities for foreign investors to earn credits under the Framework Convention on Climate Change Clean Development Mechanism that can be traded on the global carbon market. The GoSL has already identified a number of further potential sites for CCS-driven investment projects.
Sierra Leone’s agriculture is constantly under threat from the lack of Infrastructural development. In many areas, and in particular the rural road network and electricity grid, will require sizeable investment in order to create a holistic enabling environment for agribusiness. An estimated 5,000km of road is required to meaningfully improve access to rural areas. However, this is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge for investors.
Supplies of fertilizers and pesticides are well below domestic requirements. Slash and burn is still been performed as the preferred land preparation model and expertise is sadly low.
Food insecurity increases during the rainy season (June to August). During this period 45 percent of the population, or 2.5 million people, will not be food sufficient. In the past the GoSL has sought to avoid food shortages and price hikes through temporary export bans on widely consumed staple foods such as rice and palm oil.
Export quality controls in Sierra Leone can be improved. Exporters are required to obtain a quality certificate from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security.