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It is a great pleasure for me to be here today to commission a rice mill donated by our friends, the People's Republic of China. The Chinese Government has been providing agricultural assistance to this country for over three decades now. Their efforts are easily visible in more than 4000 hectares of developed inland valley swamps throughout the length and breadth of this country, the Makali Agriculture Station with their fish ponds, the Lumley Agriculture station where there is a thriving Poultry Project and the Ogoo Farm Development project where farmers are benefiting from the cultivation of not only rice but also exotic and traditional vegetables. For this we shall remain ever grateful to the Chinese Government and the people of China. These facilities have substantially supported our burning desire to achieve food security in this country. In addition we are presently discussing with the Chinese government some project proposals that will have a profound impact on our policy for food security by the year 2007.

My presence here today is a clear manifestation of my commitment to my pledge to ensure that by 2007 no Sierra Leonean will go to bed hungry. I am pleased to note that the people of Bo District have positively responded to my call for the involvement of everybody to ensure that my pledge becomes a reality. Information available to me indicates that since the declaration of the end of the war and my pronouncement to fight hunger and poverty, the people of Bo, under the wise leadership of Paramount Chief Kamanda-Bongay, have more than doubled their agricultural production.

In 2003, Bo District increased their rice production by 100%, from about 22,000 metric tons in 2002 to 44,000 metric tons in 2004, representing 10% of the total national production. Similar increases have been observed in the other agricultural crops. To the Paramount Chiefs, Sub Chiefs and farmers of Bo District, I want to congratulate you for your efforts. As a comparison it will interest you to note that the national increase in production of rice was less than 10% from 2002 to 2003.

Because of your commitment to food security, my Government has thought it prudent to ensure that your efforts do not go unnoticed. We are aware that post-harvest losses in rice production can go up to about 30 percent of potential production and that traditional rice milling alone contributes to about 8 percent of such losses. It is also known that the use of rice mills can reduce these losses to less than 3 percent. If we translate this to absolute figures we are saying that you can save nearly 10 cups of milled rice for every bag of milled rice you produce. For many homes this is more than a day's meal. For this we must feel gratified that we are starting the gradual transition from traditional milling of rice to improved mechanized milling.

It must also not be forgotten that most of the rice milling is traditionally done by women who we all know are already overburdened with farm and household work. The use of rice mills will relieve our wives and girl children from the arduous work of pounding. The labour so relieved can then be more profitably utilized in farm and other income-generating activities, or even be utilized to go to school in order to raise the educational standard among our female population.

Government is striving to do everything possible to ensure that my pledge of food security becomes a reality. To this end, we will continue to support mechanization efforts that will increase areas under cultivation and reduce the demand on human labour. There is no way we can feed ourselves and attain food security if we depend entirely on hand and hoe agriculture. For this purpose we are encouraging our friends and partners to establish an agricultural machinery plant in this country in the not too distant future. A company from the People's Republic of China has indicated interest in constructing a factory in Freetown to produce tractors and other agricultural machinery to serve the West African market. In this regard, government hopes to take advantage of the huge trade and other possibilities within Ecowas Member States as a ready market for tractors and other agricultural implements produced in Sierra Leone.

It is my fervent hope that when that factory begins its operations, not only will agricultural machines be available on the local market, but the factory will create new jobs and thereby stimulate other economic activities. To complement this and ensure that farmers are able to own and have access to these machines, government is in the process of finalizing plans for the setting up of a hire-purchase scheme. The modalities of this scheme are being discussed with the major banks in Freetown.

I am also aware that the provision of credit facilities can encourage and boost farming. The Bank of Sierra Leone has established rural banks in certain places and will continue to do so in other parts of the country. The banks will be encouraged to give out loans for agricultural purposes at reasonable interest rates.

I want to take this opportunity to call on all donor agencies, multilateral organisations and friends of this country to support the significant initiative of the Chinese Government in the Bo District. Agro-processing facilities are not limited to the provision of rice mills alone. Bo District farmers also need oil palm presses, cassava graters, drying floors and stores. They also need support in the provision of basic inputs such as planting materials, fertilizers, pesticides and basic farm tools to complement the efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security.

Before I conclude let me say something about the recent escalation of the prices of our basic foodstuff, rice and palm oil. My Government has, with the positive support of people like Paramount Chief Kamanda-Bongay, taken action to ensure that the prices of basic food items do not soar above the means of the ordinary man. In the short term, a temporary ban has been put in place on the export of food items from this country and Government has been holding discussions with major importers of food items to ensure that the prices of these commodities are not unduly increased. Because of certain measures taken by government in this regard, you will have experienced that in recent weeks the prices of rice and palm oil have decreased.

We should realize that for far too long we have been pursuing policies that create problems for us. We talk about unemployment and yet for many, many years past governments have popularised the importation of our staple food. By importing our staple food from overseas we are, in effect, exporting job opportunities to foreign countries. By importing rice from these countries we are deliberately increasing the price of our staple food because a consignment of imported rice to Sierra Leone would normally take at least one and a half months on the high seas and freight charges constitute a substantial part of the cost of rice. By growing rice locally and thereby eliminating freight charges, there will be a drastic decrease in the cost of rice.

With this in view I have instructed that (1) all seed rice bought by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security for distribution to farmers must be bought directly from Sierra Leonean farmers, thereby eliminating middlemen and creating a market for our farmers and by extension for the people of Sierra Leone; (2) that all rice bought at public expense for our security forces and other institutions such as hospitals, must be bought from the regions where those institutions and the troops are located. This will not only cause savings on transport but will also create a guaranteed market for local farmers in the regions concerned.

If we all cooperate in this, no one will ever complain about the cost of rice, and contrary to pessimists, our target of attaining food security by 2007 will be met. It would have been not only a dream but a reality.

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to now formally commission this rice mill. It is my hope that the people of Bo District and the neighbouring districts will make maximum use of it.

I thank you all.