Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Sahr Yillia, an activist working to improve food security and an advocate for youth and the disabled. Yillia is currently completing a fellowship at the University of York in the United Kingdom and working with the non-profit organization The Hunger Project. He took some time to speak with Food Tank about his work with youth and organic farming in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
FT: Why is it important for youth, people with disabilities, and other minority groups to be involved in sustainable agriculture?
I take a rights-based, bottom-up approach. The disabled are a vulnerable group. “Nothing for us nothing without us.” If we are advocating for social development, then there is every need for them to be informed. Disadvantaged groups can make suggestions based upon their unique knowledge–it is better that anyone involved has access to discuss issues that matter to them. I am part of that community so that is why I am passionate about it. I have been partially visually impaired since age seven, and have experienced discrimination in my community. This gave me the courage to advocate for rights based issues, especially at community levels.
FT: While participating in Braille Without Borders in 2009, you started a nonprofit for children in Liberia and Sierra Leone, called Child Rescue Mission. What was your motivation behind this project?
At Braille Without Borders I won an award for creating a project, which was the Child Rescue Mission. The number of street kids in Liberia and Sierra Leone moved me. The concept was to understand why young people are on the street without social protection, and to figure out what could be done. I went to Sierra Leone right away and organized a Christmas party, found the children’s hiding places and tried to engage them by sitting down and chatting naturally, without stigma. I was able to eventually identify some of their parents, we talked to members of the community to discuss unification–bringing the kids back into the community–I wanted to prove that with the opportunity, kids will get off the street. Twenty children were successfully reunited with their families. I went to Freetown and linked up with a lady to assist with establishing a community school for low-income kids. We started with forty-three and now have seventy or eighty. It is a small facility and there is a waiting list. I think creating two shifts at school could solve that problem. Eventually we may invite parents to volunteer, and also teach them basic business management, branding, etc. in the evenings.
FT: Is there a food access component to the school program?
We started an organic agriculture pilot project, as part of our youth partnership. On three acres of land we grow rice, cassava, and peanuts. This project was so successful that the community twenty additional acres of land was recently donated. Children in these communities go to school with empty stomachs, lack food in their homes and therefore lack concentration and perform poorly. We use part of the farmed food for a light school feeding program–we are able to give them a snack when they arrive, and then again during break and recess. The rest of the food goes to the disabled and the elderly. It is not a lot but proves the need for this program. What it also proves is the possibility for a shift from inorganic to organic farming. We have a lot of natural nutrients; there is no need for fertilizer or other inorganic materials. We use local materials in the farms, develop compost manure, trained locals in the construction of compost bins, and taught the community about waste management. I recently received a request to submit a proposal for off-grid energy solutions. Going forward we are thinking about how to best preserve food, building storage facilities, and using technology to increase local producers’ access to markets.
FT: In Liberia and elsewhere in Africa, what do you believe is one of the most important challenges for sustainability in food and agriculture?
Liberia is a post-war country; its biggest challenge now is extreme poverty, especially for rural farmers. Sixty to seventy-five percent of food consumed in Liberia is imported. People are living on less than USD$1 a day, and if most rice is imported, prices escalate and access to food is threatened. Poor roads hinder food access as well. We lack storage facilities and the necessary materials for food processing. These things will help local producers to get their products circulated throughout the country. Before the armed conflict, Northwestern Liberia was fifty-five percent responsible for the local produce for all of Liberia. Since the war the support from the government has been lacking: what little food gets produced is not well preserved, and everything that is produced is eaten. It is a struggle to get ahold of seeds to plant. We are teaching them how to manage this as well.
FT: What is your hope for the future of Liberia, and elsewhere in Africa, in terms of food and agriculture sustainability? What would you like to see twenty years from now?
I would like to see local farmers empowered. I would like to see a large-scale shift from inorganic to organic, and from subsistence to mechanical farming. Vast lands are being wasted, but I hope we can eventually produce enough food and stop our dependence on imports. I would also like to see the environment protected; organic farming will conserve the environment, produce healthy food, and help with malnutrition.
FT: What do you need going forward?
We want to partner with individuals, groups, and institutions to work together and hear different ideas and innovations. Regardless of our color or geographic locations, with a collective effort we can change the lives of minorities and their communities, and we can sustain food and discuss food security, a mechanism that is lacking in these places. We appreciate traditional methods but we need to change if we are to move forward. Producers need a market that will encourage them–local farmers are talented and their efforts are not being recognized. The government in Liberia is doing a good job of encouraging young people. My family is made up of local farmers, I learned these skills young and want to pass them on. Young, passionate people are pushing us forward.