Sierra Leone economy hit by Ebola travel ban

Traders and farmers struggle to cope as restrictions on travel prevent them from doing business and attending to crops.

Kailahun, Sierra Leone – The Friday market has been suspended in the eastern city of Kailahun for over a month. It is the most important market day of the week.

Farmers and traders used to travel from all over the remote jungle district to buy and sell, pass on information, gossip and share. Ebola is strangling this crucial exchange.

“Business is really poor, for three months now … they’ve put us in prisons, we are not allowed to go anywhere,” Gbessay Ngobeh, leader of the traders’ union for Kailahun, told Al Jazeera.

Ngobeh described the travel restrictions and banning of public gatherings imposed across Ebola-struck zones since the start of the deadly outbreak in March.

Banks, schools and smaller markets have been closed in Kailahun for several months already in an effort to limit further disease transmission.

People struggle to travel between towns without government-issued passes. Soldiers man checkpoints along the highways monitoring who is moving where. People are afraid as 2,400 people have already died of Ebola in West Africa and health organisations warn that the spread of the virus is accelerating.

“I used to buy from Freetown,” said Mohamed Bangura, one of few remaining traders with a stall on Kailahun market; he sells clothing.

“Now I can’t go, so I have to buy in Kenema and Kenema is now very expensive.”

Bangura said he is taking loans to keep his business afloat, but does not know how he will pay these back.

Income slashed

A mother selling small piles of chillies said that before Ebola, she could earn 50,000SLL (approximately $US11) per day. She has a family of seven to feed and is now lucky if she makes 10,000SLL.

“From this market in Kailahun, 70 of our traders have died [from Ebola]. We are crying out for you people [the international community]” said Ngobeh.

Up to 80 percent of the population in this district are farmers, who depend on agriculture.

They have not managed to grow enough to feed themselves this year and retain a percentage to cover themselves next season, according to Patrick Massaquoi, communications officer for Red Cross Society Sierra Leone.

Ismail Foday, chief of Daabu town in Kailahun, grows rice, cacao, cassava and beans on the lush hillside beside his chiefdom. His family have done so for generations.

“This is a bad year. We call it a natural war on life,” he told Al Jazeera.

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Ordinarily, Foday’s workers plant rice in March. Foday employs teams of 30 to 40 men and women to plant, weed and tend to the crops. He can cultivate 15 to 16 plots of rice a year.

This year he managed four and a half plots. Ebola broke out in March and nobody could gather to work the fields.

“How are we going to live for the next season? The rice should have been rising all over here.”

In late September it will be time to harvest. Boys now man the fields from dawn until dusk scaring away rodents and birds.

A government lockdown starting September 18 will require people country-wide to stay in their homes for three days.

“If there is no human presence for three days, the rodents and birds will eat everything … it’s as if I am helpless,” said Foday.

Hunger fears

The World Food Programme (WFP) is deploying food convoys to quarantine zones in Kailahun and Kenema, two of the worst Ebola-hit districts in the country.

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They have already registered around 23,000 people in need of food support, according to Gon Myers, country director WFP Sierra Leone. Convoys have started delivering.

One convoy left the depot in Kenema last Thursday with 68 metric tonnes of emergency supplies, bound for Koindu, a town on the eastern border with Guinea.

Koindu is believed to be where Ebola first entered Sierra Leone, with travellers crossing in from Guinea.

The town is heavily dependent on outside imports. Travel restrictions are cutting off the supply flow, according to Augustine Amara, project manager for psychosocial support in Kailahun.

“Communities want to see more WFP,” Myers told Al Jazeera in Kenema.

“They can’t go to markets, they can’t do the jobs they did before. Their whole livelihood has been interrupted by Ebola.”

The WFP distribution packages include rice, cereals, pulses, vegetable oil and salt, according to Myers.

But it is not enough. Funding is trickling in and WFP Kenema believe they have enough to feed their target population for 30 days.

According to Myers, the departure of many NGOs and expats has meant they now miss the partners they had to help on the ground before Ebola.

“With Ebola, there is nowhere to run and the countries you would run to don’t want you … people think if you stay you die.”

Back in Daabu town, Foday looks out over his land. The crop is young, not enough and planted too late.

“I see Ebola as a dictator, a dictator without a human face,” he said. “After Ebola the next catastrophe will be hunger.”

Source: Al Jazeera