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Most farmers in Sierra Leone’s capital city are women but there’s very little written about them or their needs – something Otago Polytechnic lecturer Hana Cadzow travelled there to address.

Freetown is a city of just over a million people in a country which was gripped by civil war from 1991-2002, where the average life expectancy is just 57 years old.

During the war, many families migrated into the city for safety – but with few jobs and no welfare system, people had to grow food to sustain themselves.

“Nowadays, most Freetown farmers are women growing vegetables for their own families and to sell at markets,” Cadzow explains. “They’re also the main caregivers of children, and responsible for funding needs such as schooling and doctors’ visits. Often with the male income, those things aren’t prioritised – and many of the women are widows so theirs is the sole income.”

The women grow rice and leafy greens such as cassava and crin crin. They also grow salad vegetables for the expat community, including lettuce, capsicum and tomatoes.

“There is no machinery so all the work is done by hand,” Cadzow says. “Many of the women don’t even have watering cans and have to ferry water in bowls, so it’s really labour intensive.”

While many farmers complain of sore joints and backs, the access to fresh food has been positive for them. “They would often tell me how healthy they were as a result of eating their leafy greens!” she laughs.

The land they tend is marginal swampland unsuitable for building on and specifically set aside by the government for farming. But the Wetland Policy that formalises this is poorly managed and enforced so there are often disputes over boundaries. The government has started organising farmers into farming associations in a bid to reduce these disagreements, but the initiative has had mixed results.

“Sometimes groups have together saved money, purchased equipment and shared profits. But in other instances there are barriers to success,” Cadzow explains. “For example, those who can’t read or write cannot set up or access bank accounts, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.”

Her Master’s thesis recommends improvements, including a more deliberate and considered approach to assembling associations; better enforcing of the Wetland Policy so the farmers have clearer rights; and for maps of local farm boundaries to be kept at police stations so land disputes can be quickly resolved.

“I would also like to see a microfinance scheme allowing the farmers to take out small, interest-free loans as many of the women have great ideas about how to improve their businesses,” she says. “And they need better access to banks so they can accumulate savings and gain credit.”

Despite the immense challenges they face, the women are making a relatively good living from their toil. “It’s enough and a little bit extra for most, which is pleasing,” Cadzow confirms. “Most are able to send their children to school right the way through, which will make a big difference to the next generation in Sierra Leone.”

Cadzow, H. (2016) Empowering Freetown's Women Farmers. New Zealand Geographical Conference, Dunedin.

Cadzow, H., & Binns, T. (2016). Are groups a good thing? Evaluating group associations among vegetable farmers in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Development in Practice, 26(4), 406-419.

Cadzow, H., & Binns, T. (2016). Empowering Freetown’s women farmers. Applied Geography. 71, 1-11.