Cooperatives in Liberia, especially agricultural cooperatives were understood to be a driving tool of development among rural dwellers who were mostly farmers.
The movement of agricultural corporative development, which started from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Cooperative Division, was reported to have had tremendous impact on the lives of farmers. Nevertheless, agricultural cooperatives also helped boost the country’s agriculture sector general contribution to national employment. Prior to the civil war in 1987, the agriculture sector, contributed around 32.7 percent of GDP and provided employment for about 75 percent of the country labor force, according to a document on Liberia by the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP).
CAADP provides an integrated framework of development priorities aimed at restoring agricultural growth, rural development and food security in the African region, the document highlighted.
Alassin Swaray, who currently purchases cocoa from farmers and resell to exporters, recalled that around the late 1960s and early 1970s, individual farmers had no worries about market, finance, inputs, and other fundamental enablements, that post-war farmers currently experience. Swaray, added that pre-war farmers formed distinct groups to produce one of the three cash crops during his prime years; (Cocoa, Coffee, and Rubber).
Furthermore, as agriculture market unfolded more benefits, registered agricultural cooperatives also increased from below 100 to 400, accounting for 90% of all cooperatives registered.
Also the increase in cooperatives resulted to an increase in cooperative activities which became very huge for the Ministry of Agriculture’s Cooperative Division. The remedy to the challenge at the time, resulted in the development of the Cooperative Development Agency, a special agency attached to the Ministry of Agriculture to focus squarely on cooperatives development and other cooperative operations.
Was it the market that was available that resulted to such great height of Liberia’s agriculture sector? One may think “yes”, because the market provided agricultural cooperatives with cash that they use to solve other operational problems.
Interestingly, agricultural cooperative success was just a reflection of a system setup.
Known as the “God Father” of cooperatives in Liberia, Joseph Kettor, told the Daily Observer that the country’s agriculture sector flourished through agricultural cooperatives as a result of a triangular operatives system that understood their distinct institutional role.
He disclosed that the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), Agriculture Cooperatives Development Bank (ACDB) and the Liberia Produce Marketing Cooperation (LPMC) were the three institutions that formed the triangular structure of agricultural cooperatives operations.
“Under the triangular structure of agriculture cooperatives operations, the Ministry of Agriculture played a supervisory role in terms of cooperative development, training, auditing, coordinating marketing arrangement and provision of inputs. Meanwhile, the Agriculture Cooperative Development Bank (ACDB) provided finance to farmers. But one big motivating component of the triangular structure of agriculture cooperative operations was the Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC). Farmers at the time, pulled tons of cocoa and coffee to the Free Port of Monrovia, where LPMC had its warehouses.
The triangular structure of operations made farming a lot more attractive and, as a result, land, capital, markets, inputs and machineries were not major issues among farmers at the time,” said Kettor.
Kettor worked along with a team to establish the Agriculture Cooperative Development Bank and the Cooperative Development Agency, where he later became the CDA’s first registrar.
The break down
However, the good legacy of the country’s agricultural cooperatives deteriorated in the ashes of the country’s fourteen years civil war that resulted to the closure of the ACDB and dissolution of many strong cooperatives. Moreover, the triangular structure of agricultural cooperatives operations became even weaker as a result of poor management of LPMC and the management of CDA by members of warring factions who, sources told the Daily Observer, never had the technical knowhow of running the agency.
After the civil war, CDA and LPMC were the two remaining components of the triangular system that contributed to the success of the country’s agriculture sector. But self-interest leadership style made post-war LPMC’s presence shallow, resulting to cocoa and coffee being a free enterprise venture that is now highly dominated by Indians and Lebanese. However, this year, LPMC was later changed to Liberia Commodity Regulatory Authority (LICRA).
The last unit standing
Also CDA, which now remains the only component of the triangular structure of agriculture cooperatives operations seem to be far less ineffective in its post-war activities. A reliable source, who preferred not to be named, told the Daily Observer that the agency, during the leadership of former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, suffered low budget, limited human resource and poor cooperative legislation.
Moreover, when questioned about the agency’s current operations constrains, the Acting Registrar of the Agency, Harris B. Wennie, admitted that low budget, limited human resource, poor cooperative legislations had been major challenges of the agency.
“You will get so frustrated to know that the cooperative legislation that we are still using is outdated, as far as 1936. Mind you, the days of 1936 are not the same now, things have changed. The 1996 Cooperative Law is now revised. The revision had an input of the Law Reform Commission of this country, legal input from the Ministry of Justice, Stakeholders meeting involving, Ministry of Agriculture, Finance Ministry, Central Bank, cooperative actors. Validation was done and final copy has been at the President’s desk, waiting approval, since the administration of former President Sirleaf. We were told that the bill that established the 1936 [legislation] came from the President, so this one must come from the Executive Branch of Government. And If Liberia will be on par with the others, it depends on the cooperatives law that is now on the desk of our current president,” Wennie said.
He cautioned that if less attention is given to the agency budget constrains by the ruling Coalition of Democratic Change government, the agency will have less impact across Liberia.
“Before, the CDA budget was two-fold. We had the recurrent and the development budgets. The development budget was there to help the CDA provide subsidies to cooperatives but today, regrettably, it is not there anymore. Also the staffing of the agency was 177, as we speak by budget, it is 52 by actual staffing, we are between 44. Today we are talking about registry of 620 cooperatives. If you do the math, you will realize that almost 15 cooperatives to 1 staff. ‘How effective can we be? That is really difficult,” said Wennie.
Accessibility to land, finance, inputs, machineries, storage facilities, are issues that are confronting present-day Liberia’s agricultural sector. Poor individual farmers, who currently dominate the country’s’ agriculture production scale, are the ones these issues have been confronting for years.
Also, farmers over the years, even some agricultural cooperatives, have flagged the issues of high interest, short-term loans that banks offer.
On the other hand, mechanized agriculture has arguably not begun in Liberia. In deep rural parts of Liberia, farmers still slash-and-burn areas and manually de-stump trees before they can utilize desired land.
Some farmers and portion of the population believe that the presence of mechanized farming can take Liberia to a whole new level but the acquisition of technical and mechanical skills are not taught in Liberia’s higher education institutions. Moreover, most of Liberia’s farmers lack the basic knowledge on the usage of farming inputs.
Where to go? Agricultural cooperatives or improve agricultural system?
Despite Liberia’s current agricultural constrains, Kettor is one individual who believes that replication of the pre-war agriculture operation system or a system even better than the previous, can be a milestone for President Weah’s “Pro-Poor” agenda.
“When I heard about ‘Pro-Poor’, I said to myself that this ideology is [intended] to help poor farmers. ‘But who are the poor farmers?’
“Those are underprivileged ones that cannot get on [track] all by themselves, unless they pull all of their individual resources together and become big [cooperatives]. For me, I think the government has to help the cooperatives. Set up a system where cooperatives will grow but don’t spoon-feed them because too much free thing is not good for this society and that is another problem,” said Kettor.
But individuals who have worked with post-war agricultural cooperatives cautioned that farmers have much difficulty working together due to lack of trust among themselves.
“There are many areas we have worked with previously and seen that their behavior of work changed after they received grant. Few will get together and will become owner of the business; they will begin to take money away and eventually the [cooperative] will die down,” said Peter Wilson of the United States African Development Fund in Liberia (USADF).