Simple, yet highly effective model of agriculture
The grass procurement project under Sunbird Bioenergy Sierra Leone (SBSL) was the first project Vana Sierra Leone (SL) has undertaken. Since there was a huge requirement of grass at the SBSL at their factory to achieve their target of 120GWh, Vana SL took over the project for a period of six months and targeted to supply around 60,000 tonnes of grass. Through this project Vana SL intended to provide seasonal employment and uplift the lives of the community, to support additional source of livelihood/income and improve standard of living, and to empower and encourage entrepreneurial skills amongst the community and provide better platform for inclusive participation.
Before executing the grass procurement project the Vana team visited Sierra Leone to conduct a feasibility study. Vana gathered information about previous year’s project. The team collected the important data from within and outside the estate simultaneously visiting and interacting with the local communities which are potential target areas. The team identified 22 prospective contractors who can mobilize workers and have the capability to take further responsibilities. In addition, the team carried out a pilot run for three days with three contractors to understand the basic dynamics of the operation. Mr. Andy Gee, Transitional Director SBSL, had a meeting with prospective private grass suppliers in the presence of Vana team and discussed various terms and conditions of delivering the grass at the state and laid out roles and responsibilities of all the stakeholders based on the pilot run.
After the pilot project the objectives of the grass project were laid out as: a) To supply 60,000 tons of private grass to sunbird at 20 % moisture at USD 45 per ton from 1st December 2017 till the end of project. b) To provide employment opportunities and platforms across all section of the communities especially increasing participation rate of women workers to 33%.
Vana team returned to Sierra leone in November to takeover the project. By then already 22 contractors were supplying grass to the factory. Despite the lack of a legal contract amongst the parties – Vana SL, SBSL, and contractors – Vana SL decisively started working with the contractors and their workers to continue the grass supply to the factory. From 3 contractors in October, by the end of January there were 89 contractors actively supplying grass through Vana. While there were 105 total registered contractors. Vana SL saw a tremendous growth in terms of number of contractors and associated workers working for the project.
Even though the registered contractors are positively increasing there is a slight fall of quantity in grass supply after December due to stagnation on the issue of signing a contract. The total grass, delivered to the factory was 18,823.58 tons. The total tonnage delivered to the factory over the months seems to have not reached the expected targets with respect to the increased in number of contractors. This can be best explained by the lack of financial support by SBSL leading to exhaustion of resources to continue with the momentum of the operation.
Community Engagement – Community interaction is of paramount importance for Vana. The purpose to visit villages and communities is to understand their socio – economic conditions and to explore the complexities embedded in the society. This in turn helps us to propose a plan that is inclusive and community centric. Therefore, Vana team initiated a rigorous field visit right from the beginning to create awareness about the biomass project. This presents the team an opportunity to mobilized prospective contractors and at the same time exchanging mutual confidence between the team and the local people.
Labour Workforce – Vana, through its project intends on providing a platform to the farmers who otherwise have hardly had any opportunities to enhance their livelihood activities. Recognizing this opportunity, the team was determined to bring about a change in perception about labour force especially women. Therefore, Vana mandated all the contractors to achieve 33% women of the total- workforce and not to engage any child labour. The team had visited the operational areas of 43 contractors and found that 7 contractors had engaged at least 33% women in their total workforce. Altogether, it was found that women constitute almost 10% or 468 workers out of the 4702 workforces while there was no child labour.
Boosting Rural Economy – With this project total amount of USD 847,061.10 was pumped into the local economy, which otherwise has hardly any opportunity for employment to generate incomes. The project area is concentrated in the villages where most of their occupation revolves around agriculture and daily wagers. This makes a significant case in this context because the contractors to Vana are representatives of the villagers. The contractors employed villagers to cut, bind and load the biomass which is then transported to the Sunbird’s factory. This as a result opens opportunity for the everyone in the village to seize the opportunity and leverage their skill and resources. Each workers were paid Le 20,000 and supervisors Le 30,000 per day. The wage was same for all workers irrespective of age and gender.
Seasonal Employment – The grass grows in the wild. Therefore, every year, it was burnt up during the dry seasons of November to April to make way for farming. Due to the abundance of grass found in the area, people could hardly notice the importance of such resources. Given this fact, the project was a huge achievement towards assigning an economic value on the natural resources. Since this project was introduced during the lean season after the harvest season, villagers were able to effectively participate. This was reflected in the number of contractors registered with Vana, as well as workers registered under each contractor’s. It is found that 4702 workers altogether participated in the project from 133 villages.
Pushing Boundaries – Contractors were mandated to open a bank account with any local banks by Vana so that payments are done through bank transactions. To make things easier for the contractors, Vana decidedly introduced the contractors to the United Bank for Africa (UBA) for opening bank accounts. Almost every contractor had possessed their personal bank account by the initiation of the second payment that was made in January. This is a huge achievement for Vana as we encourage paperless and IT enabled services in our line of business for hassle free and efficient management. In addition to providing opportunity for all the villagers, the project also presents and encourages individuals to be enterprising. We witness villagers partnering and mobilizing resources to achieve common goals. For instance, a truck owner provides trucks to the village contractor for transporting the grass whereas, he mobilized workers to cut the grass.
Inefficiency in the Factory – There are challenges inside the factory in terms of time efficiency, accuracy of weighbridge and moisture detection. The number of excavator that is used to offload the grass couldn’t meet the frequency of trucks that are coming in during peak hours.
Payment Issues – During the pre – project study carried out by the Vana team in the month of September and October, based on the previous year project, it was identified that payment was the single most significant issues that will determine the success rate of the project. Also during the project also there was delay for the payment.
Fires – Fires are prevalent in the region during the dry season that starts from December and lasts till April. During this period, the grass becomes dry which makes it extremely flammable. It is also the time when people burn the grass as part of land clearance for farming. Due to the vast presence of grass in the area, a little spark of fire can spread and create huge wildfires.
Women’s Participation – Vana had requested each contractor to have at least 33% women workers in the total workforce. However, we found that many have failed to do so. Since there was no proper contract signed between Vana and Sunbird, Vana could not stay strict on employing 33% of women workers.
Field Visits – Vana had as many as 86 active contractors by the end of January. It was a challenging task to visit this huge number located at different operational areas and villages under each contractor. Limited time and resources were the other problems faced by Vana to visit the sites, since the operational areas lie around a radius of 75 kms around the factory site.
Medium of Communication – Sierra Leone lacks proper mobile connectivity. Along with that most of the people are not familiar with the modern way of communication through instant messengers over internet. The team has created an instant messenger group for the contractors for channelling communication more quickly. But the smartphones are limited to only few contractors. Call charge rates and mobile network availability also a major hurdles Vana faced in Sierra Leone.
Research on High-yielding Cassava for Smallholder Farmers
In December 2016, a team of 4 from Carmiel Agrotech Sdn Bhd (CASB) undertook a research project with Vana in the provinces of Rayong and Nakhon in Thailand, and visited the Rayong Field Crops research Centre (RFCRC) to study Thailand’s high yielding cassava varieties to be replicated and propagated in Sierra Leone for smallholder farmers working with Sunbird Bioenergy Sierra Leone(SBSL).SBSL was in its transition from using sugarcane as a feedstock for bio-ethanol to using cassava. However, the cassava yields for smallholder farmers in Sierra Leone is found to be less than 25 tonnes/ha, whereas in Thailand they are as high as 90 tonnes/ha despite having similar agroclimatic conditions.
SBSL owns over 9000 Ha. Of land in the Tonkolili District in Sierra Leone. It currently cultivates sugarcane to be used as feedstock in producing bio-ethanol. Due to low yields and high maintenance costs, SBSL is not profitable using sugarcane as a feedstock and aims to move to cassava. The move to cassava will cost SBSL USD 55 million in capital costs. Vana will be managing the cassava out grower program for SBSL. CASB has been approached by SBSL and Vana to do a feasibility study on the varieties currently available in Sierra leone and varieties that would be better as feedstock.
Results of the Research
- Current sugarcane to ethanol conversion rate in the factory in Mabilafu is 1 tonne or sugarcane to .08 tonnes of ethanol. It is proposed that switching to cassava will improve this conversion rate.
- CASB suggests that a dynamic cassava outgrower program will help in achieving the target of 120,000 tonnes of bio-ethanol.
- Additionally, the starch and pulp from the cassava can be used to generate electricity at the rate if 22.28 mW/hr. post home consumption, the same of the excess electricity can generate and additional an income of USD 15 million.
- To move to cassava, SBSL needs to build a scarification from end addition which will cost 55 million and take 8 months.
- Cassava, being a local staple is relatively easier for the local farmers to cultivate as opposed to sugarcane. However, the yields of the local varieties are very low. Since cassava is grown mostly for human consumption and not for extracting ethanol, the varieties have very low starch content.
- For the extraction of ethanol, the starch content needed in the cassava is 24-30% and the yield per acre should be between 60-80 tonnes. Varieties that can give these results are available in Thailand, Indonesia, India and Nigeria.
- Thailand and Sierra Leone lie along the same latitudes and recieve the similar rainfall distribution although Rayong recieves more rainfall all around the year than Makeni. To counter this, CASB and Vana suggest using drip irriagation for the cultivation of Cassava.
- In Rayong, among the local farmers with nil or low irrigation and fertlizer inputs, the cassava yields have been found to be 30 tonnes per hectare with a starch content of 25-30%. With adequate irrigation and fertilizers, a high official in RFCRC claims that yields can improve to 90 tonnes per hectare.
- To minimise failure in germination, Vana and CASB propose tissue culture for cassava as opposed to the traditional method of transplantation.
- A huge factor for the move to cassava is the inability to store sugarcane for prolonged periods of time. Post-harvest, sugarcane needs to be processed as soon as possible but cassava, after chipping and drying can be stored for upto 4 years.
CASB and Vana suggested the use of Rayong-9 variety of cassava for cultivation inside the estate as well as for the cassava outgrower programme in Makeni.
As proposed by the agronomists, SBSL agreed to transition from sugarcane to cassava for the feedstock in their bioethanol plant. The seed material for the smallholder farmers and the estate will initially be provided by Vana‘s partner Terravana Seeds. Importing seed material from Thailand is not a viable option for SBSL in the long run. CASB has proposed a tissue culture laboratory in Sierra Leone to import Rayong-9 germplasm and propagate invitro to produce high-yielding seed material. This seed material will be supplied to Vana‘s farmers for cultivation. The CASB team also studied the cultivation methods adopted in Thailand, the tools and equiment which help in efficient planting, weeding and harvesting. Vana plans to make these available to farmers in Sierra Leone through its partners.
CASB is in the process of setting up a tissue culture lab in SBSL‘s estate. Vana plans to recruit smallholder farmers for cultivation. A detailed training program for the farmers is being developed at the Vana Research and Innovation Centre (VRIC), Malaysia.