To say that Liberia’s farmers are unable to produce enough food to supply the country would be an untrue statement. Sadly, the prevailing belief that the country imports more than it produces, certainly appears true to see the volume of imported rice entering the country every year.
However, a Daily Observer team on a recent trip to Lofa County uncovered evidence that Liberia can feed itself, and the farmers at work have the produce to prove it.
The evidence uncovered also pointed to the fact, however, that lack of government support to local farmers in one of the country’s major breadbaskets is what is preventing farmers in this part of the country from putting all their efforts and energy into farming, actions that would see Liberia being food sufficient.
It all started when, earlier this month, The Daily Observer was throwing around a few names as possible person of the year. We had been through the usual suspects – President Sirleaf, Mary Broh, Mills Jones and others – people who have made significant, positive and radical moves that have influenced the economy, society in general and the body politic. For 2015, we felt the need for significant focus on Agriculture. But who were the major players? Who was that entrepreneurial farmer, someone who was solutions oriented – a leader among his peers producing a volume of crop that inspired other famers to compete?
And with 2017 on the horizon, the two biggest farmers who have announced their candidacy for the Liberian presidency – Vice President Joseph N. Boakai and businessman Benoni Urey – also came to mind. However, we shied away from any political personalities, because agriculture need not be a political endeavor.
Probing further still, we became aware of a group of farmers in Lofa County led by a man named John Selma, who are said to have collectively produced roughly one million tons of upland and lowland rice in 2015 alone.
This had to be our guy – in fact, our group – for what we saw on the ground in Lofa was a classic example that one need not be a wealthy businessman or politician to produce the kind of volume we are reporting about. It was a classic example of the possibilities that derive from good leadership, trust, unity – and for goodness sake – hard work.
Wanting to reverse the trend of Liberia importing huge amounts of rice instead of growing its own, local farmer John Selma decided to get involved in farming.
Witnessing the daily struggles of Liberians in the country in search of food, despite the huge amounts of imports of foodstuff on a daily basis, Selma got tired of that and embarked on an effort to produce rice on a large scale in Liberia, thereby boosting local production.
In an interview with Mr. Selma and others at his farm in Kpadeh Village, Lofa County, he said he was also moved to get involved in farming to make Liberia food sufficient so as to prevent his people from struggling for food on a daily basis.
Like father, like son
Born on March 20, 1972, Selma grew up in David Selma Town, Lofa County. As a boy Selma always wanted to be like his father, after whom the town is named.
A surveyor by profession, David Selma earned the respect and admiration of many people in the county. He earned extra money helping local people in Lofa cash their government checks and gained a reputation for being trustworthy and for his goodwill.
This initial contact with “business” led young John Selma to see himself pursuing business as a career.
However, the Liberian civil war put an end to that vision, which caused Selma to stop formal schooling in the 5th grade.
Yet, with business in his blood, the enterprising Selma and his friends sold everything from cocoa to cane juice during the war, instead of getting involved in the blood letting that was characteristic of the war.
“During the war some of us went through difficulties – I lost my father and other relatives. After the war, I got involved into petty business like buying and selling tobacco, cane juice, salt, and other important items that our people needed.
Back to the soil
“The issue of getting a better job was something very difficult so I decided to get back to my father’s old business by giving out loans to farmers to improve their farming activities in 2009.
“Late 2012, I realized that I needed to get back to the soil to grow more food after noticing that the issue of food is the country’s major problem, with not much efforts being placed on putting an end to the huge importation of food.
“With this I decided to start my farming activities with a village savings loan for only farmers in the county, while at the same time encouraging them to go back to the soil with high expectations of earning a better living for them and their families through the maximum production of food that would feed the country,” said Selma.
From acres to hectares
He said that he got involved in commercial farming because it was then a new phenomenon in Liberia’s agriculture sector. Historically, he said, smallholder farmers in Liberia had been content with subsistence farming.
“This has partially been due to the difficulties in accessing money from commercial banks. Banks do not trust the farmers’ ability to repay, and in turn, farmers are not willing to take loans at the high interest rates required by the banks,” he added.
Although access to farming loans from local banks is still a big issue that is hindering the agriculture sector from maximizing its potential, Selma said that farmers across Liberia are grateful for the assistance they receive from local and international NGOs.
He said that to promote access to finance for smallholder farmers in Liberia, the Liberia Entrepreneurial Asset Development (LEAD) and the United States Agency for International Development Food and Enterprise Development (USAID FED) Program for Liberia have partnered to provide financial assistance to farming organizations.
USAID FED provides the project’s beneficiaries with training on basic financial management principals and then links them to LEAD for loans.
“We are glad to be among the nine farming organizations benefiting from the LEAD loan program in coordination with USAID FED since December 2014. We received US$10,000 which was invested in buying paddy rice from farmers and sold to the government and a local partner (Fabrar),” John Selma, lead farmer of the Zileh Farmers Association, disclosed.
Selma said that the Zileh farmers, from December 2014 to February 2015, have sold rice to both the government and to Fabrar for a total of US$98,893 from 5.25 metric tons of 50kg paddy rice.
USAID FED has assisted the Zileh farmers with the construction of irrigation structures and provided power tillers to plow the lowland rice field. The farmers were also trained on how to grow lowland rice according to improved methods.
Prior to USAID/FED’s intervention, the group continuously experienced low yield harvests due to the application of traditional farming methods, harvesting only twenty 50-kg bags of rice from their seven-hectare plot annually.
However, as a result of USAID’s intervention, the Zileh farmers experienced a dramatic increase in yield, harvesting nearly two hundred 50-kg bags from the same area under cultivation.
Selma said that USAID/FED has been supporting farmers to improve production in food value chains such as cassava, rice, goats and vegetables.
Following this intervention in the process several farmers have let go of the past and turned to this new way of life by increasing their farms from cultivating an acre or so to hectares of rice and other food value chains.
“I have been in the farming [business] for the past three years. I started with 50 farmers at the initial stage but through our tireless efforts providing farming equipment, cash and other support to them, they increased in Lofa because the farmers have now increased from 50 to over 350 farmers currently,” he said.
Selma manages more than 175 hectares of lowland and upland rice farms in Lofa County. He said that he increases his production through a barter system with subsistence farmers, where he would trade certain amenities the farmers need for their farms’ output.
Selma’s vision of going back to the soil with the hopes of improving the agriculture sector has been encouraging to farmers in Lofa. Farmers in Lofa County have in 2015 harvested more than 15,000 bags of rice, which is a true success story considering the fact that prior to his efforts, they were mostly subsistence farmers.
Big harvest, no market
Despite this level of success, however, the farmers are deeply frustrated because there is no one to purchase their rice.
With about a million tons produced this year in Lofa County alone, according to Selma, believes that Liberia can feed itself if farmers nationwide are given the fullest support in terms of finance, materials and moral support.
He explained that several farmers in the country are capable of producing more food, especially rice, the country’s staple food, as well as cassava, potatoes, vegetables and many of the other crops that grow in the country.
“We the farmers are willing to grow more food but we are not receiving the necessary support we need. Instead, the money that is supposed to be used to improve agriculture is being used [to import huge volumes] of food into the country.
The Ministry is aware of the large quantities of rice being produced around the country, Agriculture Minister Moses Zinnah told the Observer, but “it is not the role of the government to buy rice.”
Asked whether rice importers could be encouraged to purchase more local rice, Zinnah said “we want importers to buy rice from farmers,” but did not speak to any efforts being made to encourage or mandate rice importers to do so, arguing that that is a question for the Ministry of Commerce.
Commerce Minister Axel Addy told the Observer that the government has engaged rice importers, who have welcomed the idea. However, Addy said, the Ministry of Agriculture has to take the lead in either encouraging or mandating them to buy rice locally. The question then becomes, whose job is it to ensure that local farmers are able to sell their rice?
Another issue is that the few rice importers who are in fact buying from Liberian farmers are only buying at US$17 per bag, while the MOA normally buys at US$20 per bag. For this year, however, the MOA says it does not have a budget for buying rice from local farmers. So the surplus rice produced by farmers this year is wasting on their farms because they have no buyers.
Give Liberia ten more John Selmas and Liberia’s food insecurity days will be over! But after they have done the work, who will buy?