“When we bring these fruits from the farm, we better come to spend the day sitting by them to ‘banjo’ (auction) them to travelers heading to Monrovia, or else we become the losers in all the long year’s work we did,” a fruit seller said in her frustration at the Gbarnga main gate.
Bong County in central Liberia is where a lot of fruits, vegetables and maize (corn) are grown. However, it appears that farmers are not yielding much commercial benefit from their produce due to lack of storage, especially refrigerated storage that will preserve the unsold fruits and vegetables that don’t get sold immediately.
In the month of June, pineapples are harvested — ripe and ready for consumption — and are brought along with watermelons on the road for travelers to purchase.
“Now pineapples and watermelon are plenty on the farm, and we pick them to come quick on the road to sell so we can get small money to buy our children clothes and pay school fees. But not everything we bring here people can buy, and there is nowhere to keep them so we can sell the next day. We have to carry them home and what we are able to eat, we eat it. The ones that will stay, they get rotten and we throw them away or just give them to people to eat for free,” lamented another seller.
This is the experience of farmers and sellers in many parts of rural Liberia where their fresh produce, such as fruits, vegetables and tubers (cassava, eddoes and potatoes) are harvested and sold on the highway, but no storage facility to preserve the unsold stock.
Beginning from Beyila near Nimba County to Gbarnga one can see fruits, vegetables, corn, and tubers along the road sold for cheap prices because farmers want them to be bought faster as they may perish after a few days in exposed areas.
A pile of five small pineapples can be sold there for about LD$50, while two of large ones could go for LD$100. In Monrovia, where demand is considerably greater, the prices would be at least three times as much.
Considering the pressure on farmers to sell quickly to prevent their commodities remaining unsold, watermelon and pineapple are sliced into big pieces for LD$5.00.
“This is the only way the pineapples and watermelon can finish soon for us to get little money. When we leave the whole fruit to sell, people may not buy enough and we will be the losers,” a young girl selling for her mother said as passengers on an MTA bus rushed to buy her sliced pineapples.
Crossing the gate from Ganta, another girl sells big pieces of watermelon.
“How much a piece costs?” she is asked.
“L$5.00,” she responds. “What? Not L$10?”
“Because we want it to go so all cannot spoil in our hands,” the girl says.
As for corn, seven heads are sold for L$50 in some cases and five for $50 for the bigger, more attractive heads.
At the same time, retailers buy them from farmers and roast them for sale on the roadside, during which time a big roasted head is broken into two and each sold for L$5. The whole head is sold for L$10 or L$15 depending on the sizes.
There are, in addition, a series of other challenges facing farmers and business people wishing to engage in food business.
Bad road conditions have remained a serious challenge fruit and vegetable farmers, who find it very difficult getting their commodities to the market on their heads.
Middlemen, on the other hand, are most of the time afraid to buy the goods in huge quantities because of lack of refrigerated storage to keep them from rotting.
This leads to serious losses, discouraging farmers from making large farms, whose harvest they would not be able to sell.
Until now, as Liberia approaches her 168th independence anniversary, there is still not a single cannery in the country where farmers can sell their fruits and veggies for processing to keep them from spoiling.
One Liberian who lived in Kenya in the 1970s once welcomed a top Liberian official to Nairobi who was in transit to India. The Liberian resident took him on a tour of Nairobi’s major supermarkets and explained to him that most of the commodities on the shelves were produced in Kenya. These included scores of canned fruits, vegetables, eggs, chicken, fresh meats of all kinds, ham, bacon, sausages, etc.
The Liberian resident also took this Liberian official to see the architectural diversity in Nairobi, including the skyscrapers donning the city’s skyline.
When this top official returned home, he told President Tolbert, in the presence of several top officials at the Executive Mansion that this particular Liberian, whom the transiting official named, “is so anti-Liberian, it’s not funny!”
But there was stone silence in the room. The probable reason, most of the people in that room, including the President himself, knew this individual, the Nairobi resident, to be an outspoken Liberian patriot.
But this is an indication of how hard it is to bring about positive change in Liberia.
It was narrated in an earlier Observer editorial that a man named George S. Best wrote to President Tubman shortly following his inauguration in 1944, suggesting that he introduce canneries in Liberia to prevent our fruits and vegetables from spoiling. The President never replied Mr. Best. Tubman remained in power for 27 years.
It has been 70 years since Tubman’s first inauguration and Liberia still does not have a cannery.