Rice is a staple food for Sierra Leoneans – and the local production deficit threatens food security in the country. Imports are expensive due to the local currency's continuous depreciation. High quality and more nutritious local rice is always in high demand, but domestic rice production is low. Promoting it is key to fighting food insecurity, encouraging economic growth, and increasing income in rural areas. Mountain Lion Agriculture (MLAG) is one of the few enterprises that understands and helps address the challenges smallholders face and provides them access to the markets.
Although, before the civil war, Sierra Leone was one of Africa's best-performing rice suppliers; since then, crop production has never recovered its scale. Most rice growers are subsistence farmers: smallholders with barely five hectares of land, planting for their own consumption. They lack access to high-quality inputs like seeds and fertilizers as well as access to equipment to reduce manual labor. Most of the time, these farmers have to seek other sources of income or rely on non-farm family members' support.
Agricultural productivity is further challenged by degraded soils, droughts, and floods due to climate change and a general lack of adequate water management. All of these combined leads to low productivity overall.
Engaging in agribusiness is quite risky as well. "The cost of doing business in a frontier market like Sierra Leone is higher, and we compete against imported food that is subsidized and not taxed when it arrives in the country. So attention to margins and cost-efficiency is critical. Similarly, having a higher-quality product that will stand out in the local market against imports is essential. Seasonality and erratic weather add to the difficulty," sums up the agribusiness challenges by one of the company's founders Jason Dudek.
Adopting a farmer-centric approach, Mountain Lion started with extensive research. The study's primary purpose was to identify the challenges that smallholders face. Continuous research over the years allowed partners to refine their interventions and develop a step-by-step program to integrate new farmers into their network.
Recognizing the need for technologies and climate smart-agricultural practices to scale the production, the Mountain Lion has established a top-notch research farm to test new inputs or new farming methods. They convert this research into a practical, accessible training program for smallholders which increases their profitability while sequestering carbon and mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Mountain Lion has trained over 3 thousand farmers in carbon building methods that protect rice from drought and flooding and maintain soil health.
Yet these highly effective value-chain interventions for farmers were costly - without access to finance, Mountain Lion could not afford to buy more rice paddy or reach more farmers. With all the risks involved in agribusiness, only social-minded investors like Cordaid Investment Management (CIM) could step in to support the enterprise. CIM's loans in 2017 and 2020 supported the expansion of Mountain Lion's out-grower network, allowed them to buy more paddy from farmers, and increased utilization of their 5-tons per hour rice milling capacity.
"CIM's flexibility and responsiveness to the constant challenges we face have been an enormous help. This dynamic is made possible by incredible local staff that understands our business and the local context. Our partnership allowed us to double our production and reach thousands more smallholders this year", says Jason. As a result, more farmers could access the market, which offered rural households much-needed relief amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Moreover, this investment increases the economic and social resilience of vulnerable rural populations, especially women. Most of Mountain Lion's rice suppliers are women, and as a result of a bigger outreach, more women were able to access the market. Quite naturally, Mountain Lion has received a prestigious award for contributing to women's empowerment in the country from Zonta, a reputed Women's Organization in Sierra Leone.
Mountain Lion plans to grow its out-grower scheme significantly - up to 9000 farmers. "We want to grow together with our suppliers, as is our Company motto. Our farmers are being trained in climate-smart agriculture, which has proven to be very effective in the past years, and our financial and equipment support. We want to keep growing our network and expect the individual smallholders we work with to increase their resilience, productivity, and income. As for our Company, we want to saturate the local Sierra Leonean market and then expand regionally, with our brand becoming the most valuable and sought-after rice in the West African region," concludes Jason.