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* Centres part of $400 mln plan to support farming
* Sectoral policies aim to boost 500,000 livelihoods
By Simon Akam
MASIAKA, Sierra Leone, 19 Nov (Reuters) - Sierra Leone opened a rat-free, mechanised "agricultural business centre" on Friday for struggling farmers to process and store their crops as part of a $400 million plan to boost the sector in the West African state.
Sierra Leone's climate and geography allow the cultivation of crops including rice, cassava and oil palm, and three and a half million people out of a total population of six million depend on smallholder farming to survive.
But the vast majority live below the poverty line and lose 40-60 percent of their yields because of poor conditions after harvest, meaning the country has to import staples like rice.
"Previously there is no storage so rats would infest our produce," said Isatu Kamara, a farmer in the town of Masiaka some 55 km (30 miles) from the capital Freetown.
"Now I will bring my produce here and it will be safer."
The Masiaka "ABC" is a cement-floored, corrugated iron-roofed building with machinery for rice milling and cassava grating. Alongside pest-free crop storage and processing it will also disburse subsidised farm products, notably fertiliser.
The government, which estimates that agriculture accounts for around 46 percent of Sierra Leone's national output, is establishing 150 such centres this year, and plans to have 650 in operation across the county by 2014.
President Ernest Bai Koroma's government is looking to lift 80,000 farming families totalling half a million people out of poverty with measures including the provision of equipment, training and improved access to markets.
"We were quick to realise that the traditional method of the hoe and cutlass will never move our people on from poverty," said Farm Minister Joseph Sam Sesay.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a local hero because of the British troop intervention a decade ago that helped end Sierra Leone's civil war, underlined the potential to the country of boosting its farming sector.
"Sierra Leone is potentially a major agricultural exporter and yet it's still got to get to self-sufficiency," he said as he opened the centre.
However, while donors such as the European Union and the International Fund for Agricultural Development have provided or pledged funds, officials said there was still a major shortfall in financing for the project.
"In effect we have a real gap of $183 million," said national programme coordinator Prince Kamara. (Editing by Mark John and Anthony Barker)