WATERLOO – Fatmata Kandeh, a slender young woman, smiles as she pushes a wheelbarrow full of sprouting tree seedlings across a field in Waterloo, a town just east of the capital, Freetown. As an unemployed single mother raising two children in one of the least developed countries in the world, Fatmata is pleased with her short-term job planting trees in a badly deforested neighbourhood.
Nearby, a young man digs a small hole in the earth and plants a cashew tree sapling, covering the base with a protective layer of dry grass. Ali Mustapha Koroma is also happy to be working. “I don’t have a job,” he explains. “Sometimes I can borrow my brother’s pushcart and make a little money shifting loads in town.” But work as a casual labourer in Waterloo’s marketplace is sporadic and poorly paid. Ali depends on his brother to provide food for his young family.
In post-conflict Sierra Leone, where infrastructure and farmlands were destroyed or abandoned during the decade-long civil war, youth unemployment and poverty is widespread, particularly in urban centres.
When the market price of rice and other staple foods shot up in late 2008, many jobless youth were hit hard. An estimated 200,000 Sierra Leoneans were pushed below the poverty line. Prices have started to come down since the crisis, but many of the poorest are still reeling from the sustained period of high prices.
Fatmata says it was a difficult time. Suddenly, the few dollars she made from selling soap weren’t enough to buy rice at the market. Fatmata had to buy cassava, a cheaper root vegetable, instead of rice, and she could no longer afford a full litre of cooking oil.
Ali says his and his brother’s families often ate just one meal a day during that period, and even now he still struggles to provide enough food for them.
Without regular incomes to help mitigate the financial shock, many people like Fatmata and Ali have had to cut back on the quantity and quality of the food they eat, with worrying consequences for their health and nutrition.
With European Union funding, WFP was able to respond to the need of Sierra Leoneans by providing an urban safety-net intervention to reduce the negative effects of the crisis. Over 16 months beginning in March 2010, 22,000 vulnerable people across Freetown and its periphery will benefit from WFP’s first Cash-for-Work programme in Sierra Leone, which will enable cash-strapped families to buy food at local markets.
Cash-for-Work projects engage the most vulnerable youth in short-term projects such as road maintenance, drain clearing, composting, tree-planting and waste management. In exchange for their work, participants receive cash to buy food for their families. Their labour also contributes to local community development.
Fatmata and Ali are part of a Cash-for-Work group planting quick-growth trees, like acacia, and cash-crop trees, like cashew and pineapple, to help counteract the extreme deforestation in their hometown, Waterloo.
“Things are much better now,” Ali says. “I like this work, and at the end of the month, I will get something for it.”
Ali plans to give part of his wage to his brother’s wife, who prepares food for the whole family, while saving the rest. Fatmata also plans to put some of the cash towards food. She will also buy school supplies for her two children, who attend primary school.
“The two children rely completely on me,” she says. “They come to me for everything.”