Back To The Soil Campaign Grows •MFDP, MoA, Other Stakeholders Brainstorm •Major Agriculture Conference In February
Macroeconomic experts have long lamented that Liberia’s development and progress will continue to lag behind so long government after another tie their strategy around, and remain dependent on, iron ore, rubber and timber amongst other traditional primary resources for foreign exchange and revenue generation. Many have concurred on one particular way out of the quagmire: agriculture production. The current administration, headed by President George Manneh Weah, is seemingly ruling out and is eschewing mere lamentations and slogans in tackling the situation, bringing innovation, creativity and thinking to the latest campaign for food production and other agricultural activities. In his last State of the Nation Address, the President implored citizens return to the soil and it seems the message resonates across with all strata of his government and the nation. Last weekend, for instance, the Ministries of Finance and Development Planning and the Ministry of Agriculture along with other stakeholders met in a daylong brainstorming session at CARI, the country’s oracle for agriculture production, as The Analyst reports.
In preparation of the National Farmers Conference scheduled for February, 2021, the Ministries of Agriculture and Finance and Development Planning over the week-end held a one-day National Dialogue on Agriculture in Gbarnga, Bong County.
Held on theme, “Enhancing and supporting Investment in Rice and Cocoa Production,” the Conference brought together farmers from mainly the cocoa and rice belt of Bong, Nimba and Lofa counties.
The meeting, according to a source, was a rapid response from Agriculture Minister Jeanine Cooper and Finance and Development Planning Minister, Samuel D. Tweah in relations to President Weah’s calls for improvement in the agriculture sector.
During his state of the Nation Address on January 25, 2021, President Weah called for a renewed focus on agriculture to ensure food security and sustainable development.
“Everyone must go back to the soil, in order to utilize agriculture as a vital tool for the revitalization of the economy,” the President told the nation. “We have the land, we have the labor, we have the labor, and we have the climate. So let us go back to the soil and eat what we grow so that we can reduce our dependence on food imports, create more jobs and increase food security.”
In his opening remarks at the one-day Gbarnga conference, the Deputy Minister for Economic Management at the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning said the meeting was intended to identify some of the many challenges facing investment in rice and cocoa.
Minister Flomo said that the government, through H.E. President George Weah, was ready to do some heavy lifting in the agriculture sector.
The Director of CARI, Dr. Sumo, said that his institution has some of the best scientists but there was no support in establishing laboratories to do soil testing and creating new seedlings.
“We are just here taking salaries. Maybe, if we don’t pay for a year, we could use that money to set up our labs. We cannot continue to wait for support from international partners to do our job” Dr. Sumo noted.
One of the speakers at the program said that the government must demonstrate its seriousness to the agriculture sector by first passing into law the National Seed Act, which has been lingering on the desk of the national legislature for more than 4 years.
For farmer who spoke at the conference said: “We, as poor farmers, cannot be running behind the lawmakers to pass an act that will help improve farming activities in the country. We do not have the money to lobby for something that will bring economic relief to the country.”
He added: “The government must play its role as a facilitator of economic growth by supporting indigenous groups in the sector and not leaving its primary responsibility to international partners.”
Mr. Mohamed Kamara, who is said to be the owner of the biggest rice mill in Foya, Lofa County, said that the government of Liberia must now “walk the talk.”
“We have been talking about agriculture for more than two decades but we are still nowhere in terms of food security,” Mr. Kamara lamented. “We are not asking our government for too much; all we want is a little push to go into mechanization. Government must set her priority straight. If you cannot feed yourself, you make yourself vulnerable to others. How can we have good soil and not be able to feed ourselves. What is wrong with us my people?”
Annual spending on the importation of rice the country’s staple averages around 200-230 million USD.
The removal of tariff on the importation of rice has flooded the market with cheap and somewhat health hazard products on the market.
One of the participants had this much to say: “Imagine what would be the actual price of a bag of rice sold on the Liberian market for US$13.00 in the producing country. We are eating rice that are either not consumed in the producing country to our own health detriment. Taking into consideration all of the factory cost, a bag of rice sold for US$13.00 could be as low as US$2.00 in the producing country. People are getting high cholesterol, pressure, hypertension, diabetes from all these strange rice on our markets.”
In spite of the proliferation of international organizations in the cocoa sector, much is left to be desired.
Revitalizing the sector will require more than just support to smallholder farmers which has been the focus of international organizations.
Mr. Suleiman Kamara, President of Vademco, a cocoa producing company, explained that if “10% of the amount spent by international partners were given to local farmers, a lot would be achieved.”
He said international NGOs are all over the country duplicating responsibilities without any coordination, spending more money on policies than providing small equipment to local farmers.
“They ride big cars in the city and refuse to even provide motorbikes to their sub-offices,” he chapped.
For its part, the Liberia Agriculture Commodities Regulatory Authority noted that the LPMC model which was similar to that of the Ghana Cocoa Board is the best approach that will provide farmers value for the crops.
Dr. Flomo said that the proliferation of foreign buyers in the sector was short-changing farmers and denying the government of the needed foreign exchange earnings.
He said: “How can you have someone come into the country, buys our cocoa, ships it, saves his money in a foreign bank. He then uses some of that same money to buy goods and ship it to Liberia and sells it and spends it on buying cocoa again?”
This is grossly unfair to the country, Mr. Flomo lamented further. “We must muster the political will to stop these things from occurring in our own back yard,” the LACRA boss noted.
The Chair of the Liberian Land Authority explained that “gone are the days when people will sit in Monrovia and issue land to concessions without any consideration for the rural land owners.”
Atty. Manobah said that the LLA is focused on issuing titles and deeds to local communities so that they can have bargaining powers.
In closing remarks, Deputy Minister for Economic Management at the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, Hon. Augustus Flomo said that the president’s commitment towards a heavy lifting in the agriculture sector cannot be over-emphasized.
He noted that the Government of Liberia remains fully committed to supporting all players in the agriculture sector for sustained economic growth.