As part of the thrust to intensify the "Grow what You Eat" campaign, a good number of products, namely; cassava beers, flour, chips, super-gari, among others, are now locally produced. On April 5, 2017, I witnessed an exhibition of locally processed cassava products at the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), Monrovia, Liberia.
Such processing initiative is not only cheaper, but also increases the availability of dietary products of the country. In addition, employment opportunities for residents and the diversification in food consumption are also enhanced.
As you may be aware, a significant percent of the country's population depends wholly and surely on rice consumption. Even with that, consumption is mostly done once a day, and a good number of the people hardly afford this "eating for eating sake" as it is locally referred to, rather than for good nutritional practice. This situation has led to increased malnutrition and other associated diseases, among the already struggling population.
According to a number of researches, for examples; CFSNS, 2013; MOA, 2009 and Broudic, 2008 reported that the situation is largely attributable to the high level of food importation. As much as at least 60% of the country's population depends on subsistence agriculture, over 80% of the food we consume is imported (CBL, 2015).
Consequently, we spend almost three quarters of our income annually on food consumption which is mainly imported. This situation has not only reduced dietary practices in the country, but increased income poverty in the country.
While the prices of imported food continue to rise on the Liberian markets, less, if not no attention is given to domestic rice production, which would plausibly empower local entrepreneurs and employ a huge percentage of the citizens in the sector.
Consider this a practical scenario; while it is established that cassava is a better substitute to rice in Liberia, cassava production at commercial level is hardly practiced in the country. Contrarily, Investors are attracted to the service and extractive sectors in our country. Hence, the agriculture/food production sector is the least performing in the country.
The lack of interest in the sector has led to an exponential "negative effects" on the population, especially the over 80% of the people living below the national poverty line ($1.25). Also, there is a high level of disincentive to local farmers. This implies, that few of our smallholder farmers involved with food production hardly profit from it due to high input cost.
Instead of empowering local entrepreneurs to reduce the current economic burdens through localization (by implementing the Liberianization policy), the government of Liberia is keen on providing subsidises to business gurus to increase the volumes of imported food. This, in their ill-informed wisdom, will increase food availability to consumers. They do this in disregards to the disincentives that follow.
Amid the difficulties, our government has increased taxes on imported commodities (except for agricultural products and inputs) as a means of generating revenue to finance government expenditure. Even with this still, where is the welfare of the citizens?
The aforementioned decision has worsened the already existing difficult situation created by the "always corrupt system". Sadly, our government is unable to know that the decision affects mostly the locals. Consequently, local entrepreneurs have striked in demand of taxes reduction. Now, a very important question one may ask would be, 'will their voices be heard'?
If one attempts to provide an answer to this question, the only available option would be, "no" their voices have not and do not even seem to be heard any time soon by relevant authorities.
However, in an attempt to showcase their claims, the leader of the group was recently reported of planning another strike action which led to his subsequent arrest and imprisonment by the Liberia National Police. Even with such unfair and unjustifiable penalty, the strike continues and seems very far from being cancelled.
Knowing that neither the government policy nor the strike action is a better one, we need to go back to the drawing tables and rethink our decisions. Our current actions would lead us to nowhere, other than to what maybe called 'from trouble to more trouble'. We should Instead concentrate our efforts on solidifying our existing fragile peace, rather than spending our valuable time on threatening it.
I am worried, and I am sure you too should have a reason to worry over such unprecedented situation. Indisputably, if this issue of "tax rate" is not amicably addressed now, we would not love the consequences. Already, there exists a high level of violence across the country.
If this situation is allowed to couple with the unemployment and going to bed on empty stomach conditions of our citizens, it would trigger an uncompromising environment, where every little thing would mean nothing else, but to annoy.
You may agree with me, that a county that fails to feed itself is at high risk of political instability. That is why violence never ceases in our society. There is always popular uprising across the country.
We can begin to remedy this by ensuring that the support to agriculture should not only be on papers and in studios one, but a field oriented one. A significant amount of our national budget must be committed to agricultural production. Research and innovations should be promoted to enhance domestic production. With an aggressive economic policy, local production of commodities will never be ignored.
For Liberia as a developing country to ignore this viable sector, speaks to the fact that we do not mean business. Take for instance; the service industry performs better than the agriculture sector amid vast land. How is this possible, if not the lack of interest in domestication?
Local food sources can provide as good as, or even better nutritional value than some of the imported foods. It would also be an excellent replacement for some imported drinks now on the local markets; say the cassava beer for example.
Do you agree now that we need to diversify our food consumption as well? I am sure, your answer is "yes". Remember that a balanced diet requires a multiplicity of food. We are endowed with rich soil and good agriculture whether, hence can host many crops. We must start to grow more of food crops that are scared, but can and should be made readily available, irrespective of seasons.
Eddoes, a unique crop to Liberia, are typical examples. Since we are to eat a variety of food to attain a balanced diet, this would be a fitted solution to the enhancement and achievement of good nutritional requirements. Efforts from everyone (institutions, stakeholders and families) are needed to support local production.
While financial institutions are crumbled, farmers are still able to eat, provide for their families, and feed the nation. Is this not a clear indication of the importance of the agriculture sector? Yes, it is. To become more efficient and lead the charge for the consumption of more local products, we need to increase training for farmers through capacity building programs and invest in new technology. Also, to achieve all of these, a key weapon referred to as research must be highly involved.
We are farmers, we love the soil, and we live by the soil.
Abraham Billy is from Lofa County, Kolahun District. He holds a Master of Science (MSc.) Degree in Agricultural Natural Resource Economics from Makerere University, Kampala; a Postgraduate Diploma in Program/Project Monitoring and Evaluation from Uganda Management Institute, Kampala, and a Bachelor of Science (BSc.) Degree in Economics and Demography from University of Liberia.