With weeks to elections, all 20 presidential candidates have been talking about food. As global economic forces have driven food prices up a staggering four in every five Liberians are struggling just to feed themselves according to the World Bank. Voters have high expectations that the next president will deliver change.
By Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh with New Narratives
Though Liberia has seen small increases in crop yields in the last three years it has been slow to develop its agriculture sector. That matters – more than three in every five Liberians depend on agriculture to survive. And economists see the sector as having the big potential to boost the economy.
While Liberia has industrial farming in palm oil, cocoa, and rubber, the focus of food discussions is rice. It makes up 20 percent of what the average Liberian eats. Yet the country produces just a third of what it consumes. Liberia imports 300,000 tons of rice a year at a cost of $200 million – more than one-quarter of the government’s annual budget. Limited technology, inefficient farming practices, low investment, and terrible roads hamper production. The erratic rainfall and higher temperatures brought by climate change are making things worse.
Rising rice prices make politicians nervous. Rice price hikes started Liberia’s descent into civil conflict in 1979. Last year as prices rose to $US17 for a 25-kilogram bag the government spent $US11 million to subsidize prices – double what it devoted to the entire agriculture sector.
“The increase in imported rice prices continues to fuel food insecurity, poverty, and vulnerabilities in Liberia,” warnedGweh Gaye Tarwo, Liberia Country Economist, in a report in July. “Domestic rice production would need to triple to satisfy local demand, but increasing production would require significant investments in the rice sector as well as policy actions.”
President George Weah
President George Weah came to power mantra of his Pro-Poor Agenda for Development and Prosperity (PAPD) in 2018. Two of the key promises of Weah’s plan were that by 2023 the total working population in agriculture, fisheries, and forestry sectors would increase from 508,000 to 1 million. Women would make up more than half. There would also be an increase in agriculture and fisheries contribution to the economy (measured in GDP) from 26 percent to 35 percent.
One of the major initiatives driving this transformation is the Smallholder Agriculture Transformation and Agribusiness Revitalization Project (STAR-P), implemented with millions of dollars in funding from international partners such as the European Union and World Bank. This project aimed to modernize Liberia’s agriculture sector by providing smallholder farmers with better access to resources, technology, and markets. Farmers were to receive training on modern farming techniques, access to improved seeds, fertilizers, and machinery, and be connected to markets within Liberia and internationally.
It is difficult to gauge the government’s progress. The Liberia’s last annual report in 2022 showed that agriculture had risen to at least 31 percent of GDP. The Mid-term Review and Recalibration of the PAPD published in November 2021 cited Covid lockdowns for many of the project’s challenges. It dialed back many ambitious targets. Agriculture’s share of the economy, for example, was reduced from 38 percent to 29 percent. A target of 75 percent of “women farmers adopting new technology” was changed to 75 percent of “farmers accessing extension services and the level of productivity”.
FPA/New Narratives sent numerous emails and calls over three weeks to Ministry of Agriculture communications officers, Minister Jeanine Milly Cooper, and her chief of staff asking for information about the government’s performance. None were answered before press time.
Lewis Konoe, communications director for the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority, responded to queries two weeks ago by text message, “the Director of the Policy, Planning, and Investment Department said he is seeking permission from top management before he provides what you’re requesting. It will take some time.” The information was not provided by press time.
Farmers here in Nyehn, Todee District in Montserrado County said they had not seen any government support. McAnthony Mulbah is part of a farmer corporative of 30 farmers here. He grows cucumber, cabbage, okra, and peppers, but he says the last three farming seasons have been very challenging due to climate change.
“Now we cannot tell when to plant or not plant because of the rains…the sun, and everything has become extreme,” he said. “You will not plant on time and you will not harvest on time. And you know everything we do is about the market. The sun will kill almost all of the plants before you even get to harvest. I am indebted now as I speak to you in terms of agro-chemicals like fertilizer and pesticides of around $US490.”
Mulbah said fertilizer prices have doubled in the last three years to $US70. “I don’t know of any farmer within our corporative here in Nyehn that is getting support from the government. We have a cooperative here. We work together so if there’s any support for such, I will be able to tell you.”
Some experts in the sector are also disappointed. Dr. Teakon Williams, agriculture expert with the Africa Development Bank and United Nations Development Program said most of the things in the PAPD about agriculture “were not followed.” But he did say there had been success in the fisheries sector thanks to donor support which has seen improvements in regulation of artisanal fisheries and modernization of fish raising.
While Government spending on agriculture has increased from $US5 million to $US6 million, it is still less than 1 percent of the total budget. That is far less than is necessary according to James Moore, an agriculture specialist and consultant working with the Ministry of Agriculture. The Sirleaf government committed to spending 10 percent in 2016 when it signed the 2016 Malabo Declaration a pan-African flagship program of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development or NEPAD. To become sufficient in agriculture Liberia needs “willpower” said Moore and this can only happen by Liberia honoring its international commitments to implement the Malabo Declaration.
“We need consistency in the approach,” Moore said. “If we are going for an agriculture that is driven by the private sector then that’s where we should go and change of government should not change.”
Alexander Cummings, Collaborating Political Parties
The Collaborating Political Parties has pledged that if Cummings is elected the agriculture sector would be a priority. “Liberian can and must feed itself,” said Cummings in an interview with FPA/NN. “We will put the resources, we will put the expertise and it will not just be lip service to farming because agriculture will be the basis for the future growth of the Liberian economy.”
Cummings, a former chief administrative officer of global corporate giant Coca-Cola company, running with vice presidential candidate, Charlyne Brumskine, promised special finance facilities and capacity development programs to energize the rural economy and the businesses that support farmers, and a boost to job growth along the agriculture value chain. He promised to modernize the sector making production more efficient and increasing farmers’ profits. He committed that in two years, their government would double Liberia’s domestic rice production and reduce the price by 25 percent.
“CPP’s vision for the next six years includes achieving food security – Liberia will be able to feed its citizens while decreasing dependence on imports. Feeding ourselves is key to national security and the future of our country,” Cummings said.
Tiawon Gongloe’s, Liberian People Party (LPP)
Cllr. Taiwan Gongloe, a human rights lawyer and former chief prosecutor, who’s making his first appearance in the presidential race, with running mate Dr. Urey Yarkpawolo, said he will also prioritize agriculture. In an interview, Weah Karpeh, LPP’s director of communications, promised quick action aimed at increasing food production and reducing the dependence on importation. The LPP spokesman told FPA/NN that the key among their priorities would be to take the money the government currently spends subsidizing the price of imported rice to purchase machines – tractors, and harvesters – to help Liberians mechanize rice production. Equipment would be loaned to farmers and payments would be made not in cash but in rice.
The army will also be pressed into service, a sign of the national security threat the party sees in food insecurity.
“Our agriculture battalion has been laying and sleeping, doing nothing to help bring about food security,” said Karpeh. “So when Gongloe is president with Dr. Yarkpawolo, they are going to put the Armed Forces to work. Armed forces will be doing one hundred acres, then in each county, the cooperative will be doing the same thing, so rice is going to be everywhere.”
Joseph Boakai, the Unity Party
The United Party, led by former vice president Joseph Boakai and vice presidential candidate Jeremiah Koung, also puts a heavy focus on agriculture which it said, “plays a critical role not just in the national food economy but also serves as the main driver of economic development and employment.”
The party’s manifesto titled “Refocus and Rebrand to Rescue Liberia” said agriculture is a main source of food security and poverty reduction. “We will utilize our great agriculture potential to lift our people out of poverty and develop our country,” said Boakai, who served as Agriculture Minister from 1983 to 1985 under the leadership of coup leader Samuel Doe, in a statement. Boakai, like Cummings and Gongloe, commits to modernizing agricultural production with machinery hubs in Lofa, Nimba, and Bong counties. He promised a national irrigation program to develop 5,000 hectares of lowland rice production each year.
Boakai said his administration will give support to farmers to increase the production of rice, strengthen the development of Liberia’s rice processing industry, and invest in strengthening the agriculture extension and advisory services to improve farmers’ access to adequate production and marketing information.
Dr. Williams, the agriculture expert, said he is wary of politician’s promises of quick fixes. Citing Cummings’ plan to double rice production within two years said the time the time frame is unrealistic.
“If someone is really serious about talking about rice productivity to be self-sufficient they need to use the number of years that will be more realistic – 10 years, 15 years,” he said. “It’s a whole process of shifting your national budget toward agriculture and it took other countries many years to get there.”
Williams wanted to hear more from candidates on improving Liberia’s roads.
“Unless we can get those fixed, people will produce but they will not sell especially during the rainy season. For example, if you cultivate a large storage of rice, you don’t have enough storage facilities and when you keep the rice there it spoils, even if you want to bring the rice to the market, the roads are bad. So the whole valued chain needs to be strengthened.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Climate Justice Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.