Liberia: ‘Rice Available for few Days,’ Says Ministry of Commerce

Minister Mawine G. Diggs 

.... As the government pins hope on the next supply, which is expected in-country anytime soon to make the country’s staple food more accessible to all.

The Ministry of Commerce and Industry claims that the country has enough supply of rice, lasting up to the arrival of an expected 22,000 metric tons of rice in the coming days. 

The Ministry’s clarification comes as the country is experiencing a surprise hike in the price of rice, making it unaffordable for many. The situation has been caused by limited accessibility of rice on the Liberian market, leading to distributors struggling to lay hands on supply from major rice importers at their warehouses.

“We want to assure the public that the current stock of rice in the country can serve the market up to the arrival of the next vessel, which is expected in the coming days,” the Minister of Commerce Mawine G. Diggs said in a press statement yesterday. “As a result, we call on the public to remain calm and refrain from panic buying and retailers to desist from hoarding of the commodity. 

“Beginning mid-October to early November of this year, subsequent supplies of rice totaling over 150,000 metric tons will be in the country which will supply the market up to the early part of next year. This is in addition to the 22,000 metric tons expected in the coming days. We therefore encourage businesses to continue to carry out unrestricted sale of rice, void of price hiking and profiteering at the expense of the ordinary people,” Diggs said. 

However, the minister's statement that there is enough rice in the country runs contrary to the evidence on the ground, which shows that the price of a bag of rice has risen from US$13 to US$15, to more than US$25 in Montserrado County.  It is even more expensive in rural Liberia, causing hunger and malnutrition among millions, while the country's most vulnerable do not have the luxury of time.

In Liberia, poverty remains widespread, with 50.9 percent of the population living below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank Poverty & Equity Brief on Liberia. About 2.3 million Liberians were unable to meet their basic food and nonfood needs, with poverty being higher in rural areas, home to 71.7 percent of the poor compared to 68 percent of the total population.  

The share of the population living below the international extreme poverty line (US$2.15 per person per day in 2017 PPP) was 34.6 percent in 2022, exacerbating poverty in many households that are vulnerable to food insecurity, according to the report.

In Ganta, Nimba, for example, Janet Gbeadeh, a mother of five, struggles with stagnant earnings and dwindling sales as a snail seller. She had to reduce the amount of rice per daily meal for her family, as cups of rice skyrocketed beyond her control. 

“It is really bad, but we have no choice." I can no longer cook the amount of rice I used two weeks ago.  I can’t simply afford it,”  Gbeadeh, who, like many Liberians, lives in poverty, told the Daily Observer on October 2.  “I have had to cut down on meat and fish just to get the rice we need for cooking. There is an urgent need for the government to ensure price stability before the situation becomes deplorable.” 

Gbeadeh’s personal austerity measures are not unique to herself. Many across Liberia are compelled to observe similar measures at a time when the World Bank, in its  third Economic Update on Liberia, disclosed that food inflation, particularly for rice, has risen to 5.2 percent.

The current soaring price is not strange.  In 2021, when the global price of rice fell by 7.8 percent, the average price of a 25 kg bag of imported rice in Montserrado counties soared by 26 percent to US$19 in 2021, up from US$15 in 2020, according to the World Bank.

The rice crisis is also exacerbated by the fact that the country’s leading rice importers have been pointing to the rise in the global price of rice and the high tax at the Freeport of Monrovia as justification for the need to increase the price of the commodity above the government's preferred US$13.00.  

They claim that the government has downplayed their request, so they are left with no option but to import less, pressuring the government to agree to their demand.

Meanwhile, Diggs has attributed the rise in the price of long-grain parboiled rice, which most Liberians eat, to the high regional pricing above the price in Liberia, putting “pressure on the buffer stock in Liberia.” 

The price discrepancy, Diggs said, then gives retailers the incentive to hoard rice to sell across the border for the sake of profiteering. However the Ministry, along with the national security apparatus, will not hesitate to take actions where necessary against anyone caught in violation, while closely monitoring activities in the market to ensure that rice and other essential commodities remain available and affordable.

Meanwhile, Diggs has added that over the last two fiscal years, the government has subsidized rice imports at US$5.5 million in the Special 2021 budget and US$11 million in the current 2022 budget, as part of a plan to halt importers’ decision to add US$2.00 to the price of rice. 

This has resulted in the disbursement of US$14 million to importers. However, the issue of safe notice by the National Port Authority has been for importers to fast track the inbound shipment of rice.

“The Government of Liberia over the last five years has worked with rice importers to keep the price of rice affordable for the Liberian people. Over a year ago, importers requested the Government to abandon this policy and add $US2.00 to the price since they were selling at a loss.”

“However, the Government chose to remain committed to its regulated price of rice, and subsequently in September of 2021 the Government of Liberia began a program to partially subsidize the high cost associated with the importation of rice due to increase in freight and other global supply chain issues,” she said. “To date, about US$14 million has been given to importers. Although there have been delays in the incoming consignments due to the vessel restrictions resulting from the SAFE NOTICE issued by the National Port Authority on August  10, sufficient rice has been supplied to retailers to serve the general public.”