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Ebola Hits West Africa Hard
Wednesday, October 15, 2014 5:08PM CDT

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

DES MOINES (DTN) -- While the United States finds itself coming to grips with a handful of Ebola cases, agricultural ministers in West Africa say the virus is ripping through their countries not only through infection, but also further exacerbating hunger and wrecking any plans to revitalize the region's farm production.

The agricultural ministers of Liberia and Sierra Leone addressed a packed crowd of journalists at the World Food Prize symposium on Wednesday. Former Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, head of the World Food Prize, noted that throughout his time leading the organization, he has always welcomed receiving extra press attention. "This is the one time when I wish we weren't," Quinn said.

Ebola has largely hit the countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, but also has spread to neighboring countries as well. Besides the more than 4,400 deaths that Ebola has caused in West Africa, the region is beginning to face a major food crisis because of abandoned farms, isolation of villages and cutting off of regional trade. It's a growing challenge because the region relies heavily on smallholder farmers who make up two-thirds to 80% of the population in some of those countries.

"Agriculture is the mainstay of our economy," said Joseph Sam Sesay, the minister of agriculture for Sierra Leone. "If agriculture is down, the economy is down."

The World Food Program and World Bank are already working on ways to try to cope with a humanitarian crisis that could have even broader impacts than the virus itself.

Florence Chenoweth left a position at the University of Wisconsin to take over as Liberia's agricultural minister, a position she once held in the 1970s before Liberia went through a period of civil war that was almost constant from 1980 until 2006. She then returned to Liberia to try to rebuild an agricultural and rural economy that was in ruins. Ebola has once again set back the nation, she said.

"Everything, whether it's going to church or talking about this event or that, it all comes down to Ebola," Chenoweth said.

Agricultural areas hit by the disease have seen roughly 40% of their farms abandoned, said Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Chenoweth concurred with that assessment. Chenoweth cited incidents in which whole towns have been nearly wiped out because of cultural traditions involving large community funerals.

"All of those farms are abandoned," she said. "We are trapped now."

Liberia had about $7 billion of agricultural investment that has been halted in recent months. Sierra Leone has seen a similar situation. "All of those agricultural investors have, of course, left," Chenoweth said. "They are continuing to pay their workers, but there is no activity."

Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma had been expected to attend the World Food Prize event but will now speak to the group through a webcast. Nearly 9,000 people have been infected with Ebola in West Africa with more than 4,400 deaths. The World Health Organization projected Tuesday the epidemic could grow exponentially in the coming weeks.

Sierra Leone also dealt with civil war until 2002, but the country had recently seen a rapidly growing economy before Ebola ended much of that growth, Sesay said. In Sierra Leona, roughly two-thirds of the population is farmers and about 55% of the people are considered poor. "With Ebola, that has exacerbated the situation," Sesay said. He added, "Some families and some farmers have been wiped, literally, wiped away."

Moreover, Ebola hit hard in areas of Sierra Leone where cocoa and coffee -- the country's chief agricultural exports -- are grown. Farmers in Guinea generally sell their potatoes in neighboring Senegal, but that trade has been effectively shut off as well. Nwanze said that leaves consumers in Senegal paying high prices for potatoes while farmers in Guinea deal with a glut.

"The impact on regional trade is going to be very, very severe and the impact on food," Nwanze said.

Nwanze noted Nigeria and other countries have been able to control Ebola. Moreover, residents in countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia are finally realizing they have a much greater chance of beating the virus if they seek medical help.

At least some U.S. congressmen and public opinion polls nationally have suggested shutting off travel from West African countries hit by the virus. Sesay said that would only exacerbate the situation and there would not be any guarantees that people carrying the disease wouldn't enter the U.S. through other routes. He made an appeal to support Sierra Leone.

"The issue of isolation would not be a solution," he said.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN


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