Liberia: Commerce Ministry Drops Quota on Importation of Rice and Frozen Foods amid Coronavirus

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According to Commerce Minister, Prof. Wilson Tarpeh, the regulation is not new and his administration is only resurrecting it

Monrovia – Murmurs of a looming shortage of rice and frozen foods brought on by fears of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, are being complicated by reports that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry has applied a quota to reduce the importation for major rice and frozen foods imports in Liberia.

Some Liberian importers speaking to FrontPageAfrica Wednesday expressed disappointment over the move seen as a setback to the George Weah-led administration’s earlier pledge toward establishing an open market to level the playing field for import of basic commodities.

Some local businesses complained Wednesday that the move restricting the importation of rice during a major health epidemic puts the country’s national security at risk.

Contacted Wednesday, Commerce Minister Professor Wilson Tarpeh defended the move, saying it is a practice that was in place before but has now been resurrected. 

Said Prof Tarpeh: “Rice importation is licensed to registered businesses who meet certain predetermined,  and published minimum requirements. One of these is the capacity to maintain buffer stock equal to 25 (Twenty-five) percent of their respective quota allocation. This allocation is then subjected to performance-based review annually and adjusted depending on the performance review.
The process is intended to ensure an uninterrupted supply of the grain at affordable price and build a strategic reserve to  guarantee availability even during periods of challenges.”

But some businesses disagree, arguing that the quota system on rice importation gives Liberian importers the opportunity to benefit from the trade. 

The quota system has been a subject of much controversy in the past, especially during the Interim Government of Charles Gyude Bryant when George Haddad’s Bridgeway Corporation was widely believed to have been given 75 percent of the rice import market, and the remaining 25 percent to two other companies.

Today, that number has been shared amongst several importers.

In 2019, rice imports quantity for Liberia was nearly 300,000 tonnes. Though Liberia rice imports quantity fluctuated substantially in recent years.

The impact of the government’s decision to slice the quota could be felt in the coming days as some importers expect ships bringing in rice to ease fears of a looming shortage on the Liberian market.

 “Rice importation is licensed to registered businesses who meet certain predetermined,  and published minimum requirements. One of these is the capacity to maintain buffer stock equal to 25 (Twenty-five) percent of their respective quota allocation. This allocation is then subjected to performance-based review annually and adjusted depending on the performance review. The process is intended to ensure uninterrupted supply of the grain at affordable price and build a strategic reserve to  guarantee availability even during periods of challenges.”

– Prof. Wilson Tarpeh, Minister of Commerce and Industry

Rice, Liberia’s staple food is long been a controversial, topical issue.  In April 1979, then minister of agriculture, Florence Chenoweth, proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from $22 per 100-pound bag to $26. The Progressive Alliance of Liberia called for a peaceful demonstration in Monrovia to protest the proposed price increase.

Since then Liberians have been wary of the issue with many fearing any increase in the price of rice spelling trouble for the poverty levels and those languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The decision by the Commerce Ministry to drop the quota is also being fueled by suggestions that the recently-imported Chinese Long Grain Rice is being rejected by local consumers with some indications that the lower quota was meant to appease some Chinese importers.

Critics say, importation of cheap rice while appealing to some, has long term implications. 

Liberia currently imports 99% of its needs with major imports including  Petroleum Products
Rice, Building Materials, Vehicles, Pharmaceutical Products, Machineries Electronics, Spare Parts, Electrical Appliances and Stationeries

Ironically, many of the major import trading partners, like Liberia have been hit by the Coronavirus pandemic: Ivory Coast, Japan, People’s Republic of China, India, the United States of America, Turkey, and the European Union, the United States of America.  

Recently, the Liberia Maritime Authority issued the MARINE ADVISORY: 03/2020  informing interested parties on how to deal with the outbreak after reports of the virus on several ships were reported.

The circular notes that only those cleared by the port authorities should be allowed on board and limit visitor access to the vessel and to the crew as much as possible.

The coronavirus epidemic is upending the carefully calibrated logistics of global shipping, as plunging exports from China and other countries hit by the virus disrupt the trade of American goods, especially farm products such as fruit and meat destined for Asia.

Congestion at Chinese ports and interrupted sailings have squeezed space on China-bound vessels and created an imbalance of the 40-foot long refrigerated containers used to ship fruit, meats and other perishables on three-week voyages across the Pacific, with many stuck on the China side.

This is why many say dropping the quota now could spell country, especially for a post-war, transitioning democratic nation, heavily reliant on imports to survive.

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