..... Chenoweth career breakthrough came in 1977 when she was appointed as Liberia’s — and Africa’s — first female Minister of Agriculture by then-President William R. Tolbert Jr. The appointment was not just a historic milestone for Liberia but for the entire continent, as it shattered gender barriers and opened doors for women to hold influential positions in male-dominated fields.
Florence Chenoweth, a trailblazing Liberian woman who shattered the glass ceiling to become Africa’s first female Minister of Agriculture has died.
Chenoweth, whose legacy paved the way for future generations of women, passed away on June 26 at the age of 78 after a battle with Alzheimer's disease.
Chenoweth, who fled Liberia in 1980 as a result of a military coup d’état, was a staunch champion of gender equality in agriculture throughout her extensive career, which encompasses high-level positions at the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization. She became the FAO’s first Country Representative in South Africa and in 2001, she was put in charge of FAO liaison with the United Nations in New York, a post she filled until 2007.
“Chenoweth was a passionate advocate for women's empowerment and for food security in Africa,” the Ministry of Agriculture said in a release. “She was a strong believer in the power of agriculture to lift people out of poverty and build a more sustainable future.”
“The Ministry of Agriculture misses her immense contributions to the transformation of Liberia’s food security and agricultural expansion programs targeting smallholder farmers,” it added.
Hailing from Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount County, Chenoweth was born in a fishing community, where she witnessed the challenges faced by local farmers and the critical importance of sustainable food production.
Driven by a desire to make a difference, she pursued her education with unwavering determination and in 1967, earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture from the University of Liberia. A few years later, in 1970, she earned a master's degree in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Her career breakthrough came in 1977 when she was appointed as Liberia’s — and Africa’s — first female Minister of Agriculture by then-President William R. Tolbert Jr. The appointment was not just a historic milestone for Liberia but for the entire continent, as it shattered gender barriers and opened doors for women to hold influential positions in male-dominated fields.
As Minister of Agriculture, Chenoweth implemented a wide range of innovative policies and programs aimed at improving food security and rural development. She emphasized sustainable agricultural practices, provided training and resources to small-scale farmers, and encouraged the use of modern technology in farming operations.
Under Chenoweth's leadership, Liberia experienced significant advancements in the agriculture sector. She spearheaded initiatives to increase crop productivity, promote diversified farming systems, and enhance post-harvest handling and storage techniques.
However, her legacy in transforming the Liberian agriculture sector took a hit during the April 14 rice riots and never recover. The riots, which left around 40 people dead and US$35 million in property damage came Tolbert, on the advice of Chenoweth, propose an increase in the price of rice, which was a major drain on foreign reserves.
Chenoweth's rationale for advocating the price hike was based on the belief that it would incentivize local rice farmers to boost production, thereby fostering self-sufficiency.
However, opposition leaders, spearheaded by Gabriel Baccus Mathews, who orchestrated the riots, contended that the proposed increase would primarily benefit President Tolbert, as he himself was a rice farmer.
Historians attribute the rice riots as a pivotal factor that ultimately culminated in a military coup d'état a year later. In 1980, President Samuel Doe seized power, with the rice riots serving as a catalyst for this transformative event. Tragically, Tolbert lost his life during the coup on April 12, and ten days later, 13 members of the administration, including the deputy minister of agriculture, were executed.
Chenoweth had to escape for her life and went on to have a long career at the World Bank and the FAO. In 2008, she began her second term as Liberia’s agriculture minister, holding the post until resigning in 2015.
In January 2013, Chenoweth faced a one-month suspension from her office by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf due to her involvement in a scandal related to the corrupt issuance of forestry permits.
While there were no allegations of personal gain, Chenoweth was accused of neglecting her responsibility to exercise adequate oversight and due diligence in the permit issuance process.
During her administration, Chenoweth spearheaded the implementation of a transformative initiative known as the "Back to the Soil" campaign, specifically designed to empower female farmers in rural areas.
“While serving as Minister, she is credited for the Ministry’s current slogan: GROW WHAT YOU EAT; EAT WHAT YOU GROW and embarked on vigorous capacity building programs where dozens of ministry staff were sent for their respective graduate and post studies,” the Ministry of Agriculture added.
Chenoweth is survived by her son Devon Solomon (Shoana), grandchildren, along with a host of close friends and relatives in Liberia and abroad friends, and colleagues, who will remember her for her indomitable spirit, extraordinary achievements, and unwavering dedication to making the world a better place.
Her contributions to Liberia and Africa will forever be etched in the annals of history, and her work will continue to shape agricultural practices and empower women in the pursuit of food security.
The nation mourns the loss of a true trailblazer, but her legacy will endure as a beacon of hope and progress.