Agricultural Cooperatives: Surviving in post-war Liberia

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Without proper structure, farming cooperatives in Liberia run as boot-strap enterprises, with little access to the financial and technical support that would help them to grow. (Photo: Gun Eriksson Skoog)

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.

The present                                                           

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).

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Joseph Boikai did not see the profitability of Agricultural Cooperatives for 12 years.

    The George Weah administration will have to evaluate the return on public capital and will also have to ensure that Liberians are properly trained with the appropriate levels of competence to make the agricultural sector viable again.

    A feasibility study on the viability of Agricultural Cooperatives in the current climate of depressed prices for cocoa and coffee and rubber does not bode well for the sector. How will the new Liberian cooperatives make a profit? Will they now be involved in making processed agricultural products like cocoa powder, cocoa butter, cocoa liqueur , chocolates etc for local consumption before export so as to create jobs and increase the value of Agricultural products? Or is it the same old plan of selling dried cocoa beans?

  2. Shame on you George Harris for writing an article highlighting the development of agricultural cooperatives in Liberia without mentioning at least one, I mean zilch of those cooperatives that were the flagships of the CDA in the era mentioned. Are you that dull or just simply lazy to have gone beyond “Mr. Kettor said this , and he said the other?”

    Whoever told you LPMC and the CDA started underperforming during the Johnson-Sirleaf administration told you a big LIE. For instance, LPMC had laid off half of its work force at all its outstations way before the war. And that was as a result of the down turn in operation/production for the CADPs, (county agriculture development agencies) another major component of agriculture development left out of your attempt at journalistic punditry. The CADPs were the engines behind or propelling the farmers and LPMC. As soon as those “engines” shut down, it crippled the farmers which consequently shut down LPMC.

    The death blow in the whole process was done by the managers of the cooperative societies. They receive the farmers’ produce and did not pay them for those produce. They would tell the farmers that LPMC took their produce but will pay them later after selling the commodities. This happened to be true initially, that LPMC had to sell before paying the farmers. The crookedness set in when LPMC would paid the cooperatives later for those produce and they in turn continued to lie to the farmers that LPMC had still not given them monies for the produce.

    Those poor farmers may be illiterate but obviously not stupid. They were able to ca on to that crookedness in no time how the cooperatives managers were duping them of their hard earned money. That had its toll, if not dampened the confidence of farmers for that line of work, so they sought alternative means to sell their produce even if it meant smuggling them to Guinea, Ivory Coast or Sierra Leone. These and many more cheating and lies occurred long before the Ellen administration ever came to power. So learn to research these topics just a little more in the future before writing on them than the usual he said, she said.

  3. Correction in last paragraph above:

    Those poor farmers may be illiterate but obviously not stupid. They were able to catch on to that crookedness in no time, on how the cooperatives managers were duping them of their hard earned money. That had its toll, as it dampened the confidence of farmers for that line of work all together. So they sought alternative means to sell their produce even if it meant smuggling them out to Guinea, Ivory Coast or Sierra Leone. These and many more cheating and lies occurred long before the Ellen administration ever came to power. So learn to research these topics just a little more in the future before writing on them with the usual he said, she said.

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