Clarifies issue relating to import tariff on rice
The newly confirmed minister of Agriculture, Jeanine Cooper, has disclosed the development of agribusiness, encouraging more youths for agriculture activities and the provision of loans for smallholder farmers to expand production among other things as priorities for her administration within the next few months.
She said prioritizing these areas will help change the narratives and perceptions about agriculture in the country.
“As I mentioned during my confirmation that agriculture in Liberia is still being practiced at subsistence level with limited success stories, we intend to work in changing such narratives and perceptions. This means that we must attract more youths in the sector and empower smallholder farmers, mainly cooperatives, to produce more so that they can see agriculture as a business to improve their incomes,” she said.
She made the disclosure to the Daily Observer recently in Monrovia in an exclusive interview.
Madam Cooper was nominated by President George Weah in January 2020, after series of vetting process to replace former Agriculture Minister, Dr. Mogana Flomo, who was relieved of his post in June 2019. She was subsequently confirmed by the Senate on February 5, 2020, during a hearing session.
Prior to her appointment, she served as founder and chief executive officer of Fabrar Liberia, the country’s largest rice processing company, based in Kakata, Margibi County.
Her company Fabrar is involved in purchasing paddy rice from farmers, processing it for both the domestic and export markets.
Many Liberian farmers still produce crops at low scale due to the lack of capacity. Minister Cooper believes that, in order for farmers to expand the level of production for commercial purpose, they must be subsidized to enable them cultivate large areas of land.
“We shall work with partners and the Government in the next few months to subsidize farmers, mainly cooperatives, to make agriculture a business. The commercial possibilities in which agriculture can drive development is high on my agenda, especially where we are in the planting season for rice.
She also stated that she is engaging other partners to assist with machineries to alleviate the constraint of labor in the rice sector.
“We want to help our farmers, mainly cooperatives, with land-clearing using machines. The availability of improved seed is also our major concern to get farmers plant on time,” she said.
Youth Empowerment in Agriculture
Minister Cooper stressed the need to revamp programs that are intended to build the skills of young people in the agriculture sector.
“We are working with our international partners and other ministries and agencies to revamp training centers for youth involvement in farming. This will require that we provide the necessary funding to access equipment to make agriculture attractive for the youths,” she said.
She said that when the youths are empowered in agriculture it will reduce the level of unemployment facing the country’s young people.
Liberia has had a lot of youth programs over the years, but these have lacked sustainability. Agricultural training facilities, such as the Tumutu Agricultural Program in Bong County, the Clay Agriculture Training Center in Bomi and Songai Agriculture Training Center in Montserrado, are not functional due to lack of funding, something the new minister might think to revamp. Other institutions like the Booker Washington Institute, Grand Bassa Community College, Nimba Community College and the Lofa Community College, once initiated as Centers of Excellence in Agriculture by the USAID Food and Enterprise Development Program (FED), which phased out in 2016, could also be strengthened under Minister Cooper’s administration, with support from partners.
Most commercial banks in Liberia are not willing to promote credits for smallholder farmers due to risks involved. But the new Agriculture Minister stated that she is engaging the commercial banks in the country to see reason to provide loans for farmers in all areas of agriculture.
“Within the next few months, we will be working with the banks to provide some soft and long term loans for our farmers across the value chains at reasonable interest rates,” she said.
According to her, farmers, especially those engaged in rice production, will need loans to enable them expand production.
“We have been speaking with partners to open up the line of credit at commercial banks for agricultural loans — soft and longer terms — that partners can underwrite some of the risks and with low interest that farmers can be able to pay. We are hoping to do this with the commercial banks in the next few days to set up a window as soon as possible,” Minister Cooper explained.
“It is mainly cooperatives that will need such assistance to help them move forward. This is a huge task but we hope that in the next six months we can find tangible results of the interventions,” she added.
Madam Cooper further stated that she is considering seriously the improvement of the National Standards Laboratory and other food testing centers to provide opportunity for Liberian farmers to improve income generation through exports. However, she stressed the need for the Private sector to drive the initiative.
“It is important for the Private Sector to run the laboratory and the Government serve as the regulatory body. This is because where there is no funding, such program spearheaded by the Government may soon collapse, leaving our farmers deprived,” she asserted.
According to her, when the Standards Lab is fully equipped, farmers will have better opportunities in that, they can improve their incomes from the sale of produce through exports.
“This is what we are wishing to realize, especially those in the rice sector. With the opportunity for research and testing of farm produce, lives will immensely improve in the farming sector,” she said.
The Suspension of Import Tariff on Rice
Meanwhile, Minister Cooper has clarified that Executive Order 98, which suspends tariff on rice, will in no wise affect rice production, as being speculated by some local processors.
President George Weah recently suspended tariff on rice so as to stabilize the price of rice on the local markets.
But some processors have been complaining to the Daily Observer that the move by the President will affect local production.
However, Minister Cooper said the country’s rice sector lacks the capacity to supply the market and compete with rice importers. According to her, there is a need for rice producers and processors to obtain subsidies from the Government to expand their level of cultivation. This, she believes, will help reduce pave the way for the reduction of rice imports.
“We want the Government to provide the needed support for rice farmers and processors so that we can start to concentrate on Government’s procurement of rice for employees, hospitals and institutions,” she said.
She said such strategy, when enhanced, will help the country not to entirely rely on rice import because farmers can have some level of capacity to supply the market.