Imagine a country where a water-loving crop like rice enjoys bountiful rainfall, fertile soil, and ecosystem suitable for growing it in abundance. This country is Liberia. Yet, Liberia spends millions of dollars each year to import rice. This import oriented food policy contributes to loss of foreign exchange, unemployment and lack of food self-sufficiency. In effect, Liberia subsidizes farmers in other countries, contributing to rising income and better living conditions for farmers in rice exporting countries like India and Thailand.
To change this situation, MedLife Liberia works with local farmers to create a sustainable pathway to increase rice production. If Liberia can make use of its available massive swampland to grow lowland rice, the country’s dependency on rice imports could be minimized and food security could be assured.
In a few years, the sector could provide massive employment for thousands of Liberia’s idle youth and improve rural income and livelihood. MedLife’s experience over the last few years suggests that improving agricultural productivity is the road to better schooling and healthcare. Farmers will continue to be reluctant to send their children to school as long as the price they pay is the risk of hunger due to low productivity. MedLife believes that we can overcome this food first logic by introducing improved rice farming techniques to produce surplus, where the children’s hands are needed on the farm to produce just sufficient food to feed the family.
That was the conclusion reached following a two-year experiment by a MedLife team that invested in lowland rice production in Totota, Garmu, Palala, Taylors Town, Fola and Green Hill Quarry with the support of UNDP GEF Small Grant Program. The program has shown increased promise of a better future for sustainable lowland rice production.
Dr. Khalifa Bility, former deputy minister for planning, research, and development, is convinced that Liberia could feed herself only when adequate investment is made in soil, seeds, tools and machines and lots of common sense policies to support farmers in a process that could bring results in months and not in years.
But in a country where commitment to work is challenging and people tend to take advantage of a situation instead of using dignity in labor as the end of their hard work, Dr. Bility said he has come up with a performance-based contract system that motivates workers to justify their income.
“And after two years I have finally found a system to get increased production,” he said, after a tour of his farms in Totota, Bong County last Friday.
The seed variety planted in lowland rice cultivation, he said, is ready to harvest in three months. “And after the harvest, two months later, you will realize that another harvest will take place after one month,” he added.
He said he has established five zones with each zone containing four farms, and each farm contains twenty-three plots, that equal one hectare.
Though he operates from Monrovia, Bility has five core workers who ensure that they employ contractors, including women and young men, to prepare the land for planting.
Presently, with support from the UNDP GEF grant and the Chinese Embassy, he has purchased power tillers, rice mill, a rice thrasher and a rice harvester, and is planning to introduce additional farming implements that would graduate into appropriate mechanized farming in the near future.
Alfred Miller, a machine operator, is the supervisor of the project. He informed the Daily Observer that the project provides employment for more than 100 Liberians.
“We feed them once a day. They work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or even more because the system rewards those who stay longer on the job to complete their day’s work on the farm,” Miller said.
Each worker is paid L$200 or more per day, and they are harvesting lowland rice planted three months ago; it would take them 5 days to complete the job.
“So after harvesting,” he said, “we restart the process and Liberia is blessed with rains that come even in the dry season.” In fact, Dr. Bility, following a visit to Southeast Asia (India, Malaysia, etc), borrowed a drainage system that ensures there is water on the farm at all times.
“Rice is a water product,” Dr. Bility said, “and so I borrowed the system that we have introduced to provide water all year round.”
He said his system is rooted in the spirit of self-help to generate income. However, the use of the machines is communal because most farmers cannot afford to purchase a power tiller on their own. This is why the system is called Fixed Price Communal Commercial Farming in the various communities in Bong County he is operating his farms.
“We make sure to identify suitable lowland and then we get the community’s help to clear or brush the land and remove all tree trunks from the soil,” he said. “There is additional work to be done, including the developing rice nursery for transplanting, weeding, as well as fertilizer and water management.”
Dr. Bility said the experiment received less than 20% external help from the UNDP and he has borne all expenses.
His system is organized in such a way that even birds that make their presence during the growing stage after planting are kept out of the farms.
His objective, he said, is to bring his products to the Liberian market and to help reduce government’s rice imports, which is in the hundreds of millions, to zero so that the money could circulate in the country.
Dr. Bility said after two years, he is succeeding, because “you can predict the behavior of people by knowing their interest.”
The quality of the rice from his farms, he said, is the same as those that are imported from other countries. He admitted that it will not hurt the Liberian government to provide support to ensure that food security is sustained in the country.