MOA Criticized For Recent Assistance to Farmers

Agriculture Minister Jeanine M. Cooper.

The Ministry of Agriculture's (MOA) recent intervention to assist smallholder farmers and other members of the value chain, has come under serious criticism. 

According to the sectoral heads who spoke to Daily Observer, they were not involved in the selection processes and distribution of farming materials to the beneficiaries. The sectoral heads, which comprise the National Rice Federation of Liberia (NRFL), the National Cassava Sector Coordinating Committee (NCSCC) and the National Agro Inputs Dealers Association (NAIDAL), are recognized farmers organizations within the agricultural sector of Liberia. 

With support from the government and partners in the past years, those sectoral organizations have worked with thousands farmers and some processors in the areas of capacity building. However, barely four years under President George M. Weah’s administration not much  has been done to empower sectoral value chain organizations to enable them to coordinate the sector.

It can be recalled that the MOA recently distributed different kinds of farm equipment and machinery to farmers and processors through its Smallholder Agriculture Transformation and Agribusiness Revitalization Project (STAR-P). The heads of the organizations have argued that for sustainable access to farming inputs and the issue of transparency within the sector, it is important that the Ministry collaborate with them in rendering assistance.

STAR-P, a World Bank-supported project under the Ministry of Agriculture that seeks to increase farmers’ productivity and commercialization, assisted dozens of farmers and processors. The initiative, according to officials of the project, is meant to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the lives of farmers and agribusinesses.

Mohammed Kamara, president of the NRFL, said though his organization welcomed assistance to farmers, it should be done in collaboration with the stakeholders. “We are direct representatives of the farmers in the rice value chain. Therefore we should be consulted,” Kamara explained.  

He said the MOA's failure to collaborate makes it very difficult for his organization to work with those beneficiaries who were assisted. “We need to know those farmers and processors who were assisted by the Ministry to keep a record of them. How they were vetted by the Ministry to benefit from the equipment is something that we are not aware of,” Kamara stated.

Kamara also said the Ministry not involving sectoral heads in the selection of beneficiaries within the rice sector indicates a lack of recognition of the role of the Rice Federation.

“Our roles as leaders of the rice value chain should be respected because we are direct representatives of the farmers,’ he said. “The support provided to the farmers and processors comes from donors. The donors might one day ask us who are your members who were assisted and how has such impacted the sector,” Kamara added.

The Rice Federation President emphasized that the government needs to do more to empower farmers and processors if the country is to increase the production of rice. Previously, Kamara has complained that the government failed to allot more money in the National budget for the rice sector to assist its members.

“The country needs huge investment in the next 5-years to boost rice production,” he once told this newspaper.  Liberia still spends US$200 million annually on rice importation. According to Kamara, if only the government invests more into domestic production, rice imports could be reduced.

“More attention should be given to the rice sector to make us feed the nation. We can’t always depend on importation to ensure the supply of rice on the market,”

Joseph Morris, President of the National Cassava Sector Coordinating Committee (NCSCC) said that he had engaged the Agriculture Minister Jeanine Milly Cooper on the issue.

“I once engaged the Minister about this situation. However, she said it is something that she considers not so serious but will make sure to involve sectoral heads next time.

For his part, the National Coordinator of the National Agro inputs Dealer Association (NADAL), Makie Saah Kamara, said that it would be good enough that for every input delivery, the Ministry invites agro dealers’ presence.

“There is a need for farmers to be linked with agro inputs dealers, especially during events where inputs are distributed. Farmers are still faced with challenges of diseases and pests control and they need serious help from us,” Kamara explained.

Meanwhile, an official response from the Ministry has clarified that the two organizations (NRFL and NCSCC) are directly linked to farmers and it will be a conflict of interest for beneficiaries who are vetted to be part of a vetting process. 

“One cannot be beneficiary at the same time be the one vetted. Moreover, at no time ever in the history of the MOA or the standard practices at the ministry for these groups to participate or had participated in such vetting processes. At no time, these two organizations that have been closely interacting with the Ministry had ever expressed interest – through writing to form a vetting process,” the Ministry clarified.

The Ministry further said that they have been working with the organizations to ensure coordination of their programs and activities so they can be aligned with the Government’s agricultural development programs.

“Individual members of the organizations – including their heads with private firms – have continued to benefit from recent support by the Ministry. 

Regarding the vetting processes, the Ministry said it set up a five-member technical team that vetted applicants who expressed interest in the equipment.  “The processes were rigorous and the recipients demonstrated ownerships of farms, locations, the size and the food crops grown on them which were cross-checked by the MOA’s field staffs,” the Ministry clarified.