By Gabriel W. Coleman
I learned in secondary school many years ago, that agriculture is the mainstay of West African economies as well as other African countries that are not part of the sub-region. The reason is that then and now, agriculture has been and continues to contribute the largest percentage to the GDPs of most African countries. Unlike the mineral sector, agricultural production is perpetual if climate does not fail us.
But what is agriculture?
Agriculture is the cultivation of crops which leads to production of agricultural products. Agricultural products fall into one of four groups: foods, fuels, fibers, and raw materials. Foods are grains and cereal crops, vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy products like milk, honey, and farmed fish. Fibers, fuel, and raw materials are in the non-food category. Fuels are ethanol produced from corn, sugarcane, or sorghum, charcoal from wood and agricultural by-products like sugarcane straw and wood shavings that are burned to produce power.
Fibers come from cotton, wool, silk, hemp which is used to make rope and flax for linen, as well as bamboo to make cloth. Raw materials are agricultural materials used to make other agricultural products. For example, livestock feed (an agricultural product) is used to feed the animals who produce dairy products. Other non-food products are flowers, textiles, seeds, plants, body care products with agricultural ingredients. This definition is sufficient reason why agriculture should be considered the most important sector of any economy, particularly where the climate which is the most critical factor in farming is ideal, as in the case of Liberia.
This sector is unique because it is the only area that can create the most jobs when well developed. It is second to none in this regard. It should be clear from this illustration that development of Liberian agriculture is the key to industrializing the country, which benefits will be realized from a chain reaction that is manifested by a multiplier effect, in economic terms. Overview In one hundred and seventy (170) years of existence as a nation state, our agenda and priorities for agricultural development have yet to be properly defined and set.
The climate is favorable and the soil is generous, but we have failed to appreciate them (climate & soil). We produce less than 30% of what we eat and produce 100% of what we do not eat. In the case of natural rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), cocoa (Theobroma cacao)), etc., 100% of what is produced is exported to be processed into finished products and exported to be bought by us at high prices.
For us, agricultural productivity is very low in respect of food production mainly because production and agro-processing are not mechanized; and post-harvest handling infrastructures and resources (e.g. cold storage buildings, farm produce refrigeration equipment, personnel trained in post-harvest handling practices, etc.) are lacking.
The agriculture extension (AE) service under the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) is very weak because of inadequate logistics (i.e. vehicles and motor bikes) understaffing, and lack of experts in the various fields of agricultural science (i.e. agronomy – soil science, crop physiology, entomology, plant pathology, crop breeding, etc., swamp development for aquaculture and lowland rice production, agricultural engineering, agriculture economics, etc.).
Secondary, feeder/farm-to-market roads are deplorable throughout the country, especially during the rainy season. This situation is further exacerbated during the rainy season, because conveyance of food is hampered by roads that are impassable during this time of year. Consequently, vehicles cannot gain access to farming communities in rural areas where the food is produced. Trucks that venture there to convey agricultural commodities from there to market more often than not, get stuck in mud along the roads for days or weeks.
This results to spoilage of the agricultural produce on board, financial losses on the part of all actors in the process (i.e. farmers, middlemen, transporters, etc.), and food insecurity. The sector has not been attractive to the extent expected in terms of providing jobs for the number of people who acquired training in agriculture over the years. Salaries and employment benefits are not motivating. As a result, most of the people who were trained in the discipline found their way to other sectors of the economy.
The private sector has not been helpful in making Liberia food secure. The focus of multi-national companies continues to be tree crops whose products are exported for processing into finished products in the companies’ home countries or elsewhere, thereby creating jobs for nationals of those countries whilst millions remain jobless in the country where the dirty work is done. On the other hand, except for few local farmers in tree crops (i.e. rubber, oil palm, cocoa, coffee, etc.), indigenous entrepreneurs are lacking in commercial agriculture, mainly food production.
The indigenous private sector does not seem to have the appetite to invest in agriculture for food production on a commercial scale. Some farmers or traders in neighboring countries are taking advantage of this production gap by exporting various agricultural products like vegetables, dried hot pepper, beans, groundnuts, yam, groundnut paste, dried cassava chips, etc. to Liberia. Incentives in the form of loans are not available to small and poor Liberian farmers who would like to produce food. The lack of data that would be helpful in planning and helping government make informed decisions pertaining to development of the agriculture sector is a serious problem.
Many Liberians hold the view that agricultural production, mainly food, is the responsibility of government through the MOA. This is not so. A principal responsibility of government is to create/provide the enabling environment for normal life and the execution of productive activities in a stable and secure country for the well-being of all. The MOA is an agency of government with a specific mandate.
Under this mandate, its role is not to directly participate in agricultural production, but rather, to coordinate, direct and supervise agricultural activities in the country as well as expertly identify priority areas for support by government, friendly governments, and donor institutions.
Statutory mandate of the MOA
The mandate of the MOA is to put in place an effective organizational structure that is manned by staff capable of planning, coordinating, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating agricultural development programs.
It is to ensure that its staff and farmers are trained to cope with the challenges of developing the agriculture sector. In addition, the MOA is to ensure that agricultural challenges that impede production are investigated, lasting solutions found, and farmers are provided with supportive services and the enabling environment to produce. What is this enabling environment? In part, the enabling environment to be provided is described in the MOA’s mandate.
But more than that, other things must be done in order for the desired result to be accomplished. For example, reduced tariffs on imported agricultural goods (e.g. land clearing/land preparation equipment, farming tools, agro-chemicals, etc.), loan to farmers to enable them underwrite production and other costs, making the study of agriculture appealing by providing incentives for persons who study agriculture (e.g. scholarships for undergraduates and advanced studies in the field of agriculture, monthly stipend for agriculture students, etc.).
After 170 years of existence as an independent country, Liberian agriculture is not developed to the level reached by the agricultural sector of younger African nations. Although efforts were made in the past to raise the sector to the desired level, the field is still virgin. The most notable attempts at developing agriculture in the country were made by the William Richard Tolbert administration that lasted for nine years only. Under his leadership, three renowned agricultural development projects (ADPs) were established in Lofa, Bong, and Nimba Counties.
They were the Lofa County Agricultural Development Project (LCADP), Bong County Agricultural Development Project (BCADP), Nimba County Rural Development Project (NCRDP). The European Economic Community (EEC) was complementing what the Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation LPMC) started in the oil palm sector prior to the 1980s. The EEC ran an oil palm nursery in Grand Gedeh County in the south east to provide improved oil palm seedlings to smallholder farmers in the area.
The leading role of the LPMC in the oil palm, cocoa, and coffee sectors in the 1970s-1980s cannot go unmentioned. Then there was yet another state-owned agricultural entity, the Liberia Cocoa and Coffee Corporation (LCCC). Except for the LPMC, these institutions no longer exist. And although the LPMC is still in existence, its operational capacity has fallen far below its pre-war status. Three private institutions were outstanding in food production on a commercial scale during the Tolbert administration.
They were the African Fruit Company (AFC) in Sinoe County, Bright Farm in Kakata, producing mainly chicken products (meat & eggs) and vegetables; and Sangai Farm in Gbarnga, Bong County. This farm produced a wide variety of vegetables and poultry products for local consumption and export. Fish farming was also done at the farm which was owned by President Tolbert and his brother, Stephen Tolbert. Collectively, all the institutions mentioned had a huge impact on the country’s economy.
They provided thousands of jobs and contributed substantially to government’s revenue intake. Sadly, except the LPMC, all of these institutions no longer exist. Predicated upon the foregoing, I feel compelled to put forth the following recommendations:
1. Agriculture is a field of science. The three main branches of science namely, biology, chemistry, and physics are applied in the science of agriculture. Therefore, in order that school going youth be inspired to pursue studies in the broad field of agriculture, the nominal science program that is currently in many schools, yea our educational system, should be redefined, restructured, overhauled, and equipped so that students are sufficiently prepared to cope with the rigor of science education in college;
2. Students who choose to undertake studies in agriculture should be awarded scholarship to pursue undergraduate studies in the country;
3. The Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) should coordinate and collaborate with the University of Liberia (UL), technical vocational agricultural institutions, agriculture-related NGOs and other relevant agencies in the drawing up and enrichment of agriculture curricula at said institutions so as to turn out graduates who are adequately prepared to satisfactorily use their expertise in addressing, technical, professional, and other issues in the broad field of agriculture;
4. The MOA should solicit for, and secure graduate and post-graduate scholarships at the bi/multi-lateral levels for graduates and workers in agriculture so that an unlimited number of experts may receive advanced training in the various specialized fields of agriculture;
5. A realistic timeline should be drawn up for the implementation of agriculture projects during the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) government’s 6-years term of office. The timeline should take into account short, medium, and long-term projects. Also important, the projects should be SMART. That is, they should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound;
6. Research and other facilities at the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI) should be improved and upgraded beyond the institute’s pre-war status, and continuously improved so that it attracts scientists who return home from further studies as well as those who come from other countries to do collaborative research in agriculture and related fields;
7. After nearly 200 years of existence as a nation state, mechanization of agriculture, from production to agro-processing should not be compromised for anything less. Government should support in depth study for use of farm machines in production, agro-processing, and post-harvest handling. 21st century Liberian agriculture should evolve into a mechanized production and processing industry. Agriculture has the key to the industrialization of the country and creation of jobs in the hundreds of thousands;
8. Everything should be done to halt the burning or discarding of agricultural and forestry by-products like palm kernel shells, cocoa bean shells, cocoa pod husk, cocoa pulp, coffee flour, cascara, wood shavings, saw dust, etc. These by-products have economic uses. They can be processed into finished products for income/revenue generation;
9. It is not government but private individuals and groups that will develop the agriculture sector. As discussed above, government’s responsibility is to create and maintain the enabling environment for this to happen. Resurrecting and funding the Agricultural Cooperative and Development Bank (ACDB) by government is one important way of creating the enabling environment, as the purpose of the bank will be to extend loans to farmers;
10. Strengthen the Cooperative Development Agency (CDA) in order for it to facilitate reestablishment of defunct farmers cooperatives as well as upgrade their financial capacity to enable them carry on their business and give financial support to existing ones that are currently struggling to do business;
11. Mandate the MOA to conduct a national survey to identify college and vocational technical agriculture graduates as well as those that are still studying in and out of the country for creation of a database on them for use as a reference source for employment of agriculturally trained persons;
12. Using the database referred to in count 11 above, determine which of the trained agriculturalists would like to become agro-entrepreneurs singly, or in partnership with others of similar training. Then, encourage them to form groups of agro-entrepreneurs on county basis and lend them financial support through the ACDB;
13. Under the coordination and supervision of the MOA, national teams of veteran agriculturalists with expertise in various areas in agriculture (e.g. agriculture extension, agricultural marketing, farming business, planning, post-harvest handling specialists, agriculture engineering, etc.) should be set up to train, guide and supervise, monitor, and evaluate the groups to be of agro-entrepreneurs to ensure that they perform and accomplish their aims and objectives, as well as pay back the loan extended them in keeping with the time specified for the loan repayment;
14. Government, through the MOA should solicit support from donor institutions like FAO, UNDP, EU, IFAD, USAID, etc. for the conduct of an agriculture census. An undertaking that had some semblance with this was executed in 1970 or 1971. An agricultural census collects information on agricultural activities such as agricultural land use (e.g. number of acres or hectares under cultivation and crop types, livestock production, etc.), employment, and provides basic structural data and sampling frames for agricultural surveys. As a rule, agricultural census is conducted at least 10 years; but Liberia has not had one for about 46 years now.
Therefore, there can be no denying that except for occasional agricultural data gathering by FAO, EU, or other similar groups for their own use, the country’s data on agriculture is obsolete and unreliable for formulation of agricultural policy, planning, and informed decision making. Therefore, an agricultural census should be conducted during the 6 years term of the CDC-led government.
15. Good roads are a very important factor for agricultural development. If roads in the country, particularly in rural areas where most agricultural production takes place are impassable so that it is difficult to transport farming inputs for production activities to be carried out and for farm produce to be conveyed to market, there will be no need to venture into agricultural production. There will be dire consequences should there be no agricultural production. Therefore, the building of all-weather roads in rural areas should be a high priority for the CDC-led government.
16. Hundreds of Liberians who benefited from government and multi-lateral scholarships to pursue further studies in various fields of agriculture failed to return home after their studies to contribute to national development. To avert this, modalities should be put in place that will discourage and make it very difficult or impossible for unpatriotic persons to continue doing this;
17. There are several reasons why some beneficiaries of foreign scholarships fail to return home after completing their studies. Some of it is selfishness and lack of patriotism. But some of the reasons are justifiable. Here are a few of them: i) unattractive salaries and lack of a workable welfare scheme in the country; ii) Poorly developed and poorly equipped working environment. The practice of science is based on experiments and research.
To conduct experiments or do research requires the necessary infrastructure, materials, equipment, and administrators of institutions where scientists work. It requires administrators that are passionate and zealous about the work the scientists do and go all out to make their work easy and enjoyable for results.
In some instances, poor facilities at home, weak, incompetent and/or undesirable administrators of institutions are reasons why many would-be indigenous experts are reluctant, or fail to return home following their studies abroad; iii) low budgetary appropriation for state-owned institutions of learning, research and other work.
Insufficient funding can hamper the performance of institutions and dampen the enthusiasm of their staff members. Government should support the holding of periodic review sessions of its institutions, particularly learning and research entities for evaluation of their work. Such exercise will help expose any challenges an institution may have. This practice of institutional evaluation by the holding of periodic review sessions should be adopted as a tradition to be made binding on all state institutions under the CDC-led government so as to eradicate the laissez-faire attitude that is typical of some heads and many staff members of government institutions.
18. Set up a Liberian think tank as like the case in the developed and developing worlds (USA, Europe,) and Asia respectively. A think tank is a body of persons who have expertise in various disciplines or subject matter areas or specializations. They are recruited from academia, research institutes, corporations, etc. A think tank performs research and advocacy concerning topics such as agriculture, health, social policy, political strategy, economics, technology, state security, culture, etc. Its findings/reports are shared with government.
Their work helps government make informed national policy decisions as well as the crafting of sound policies. Setting up a think tank will certainly be an unprecedented step in the right direction. Conclusion Articulating one’s views on pertinent issues and putting forth recommendations for those concerns to be addressed is one thing; whilst the employment of the recommendations to find solution(s) to the issue(s) at hand is another matter.
It must be acknowledged that some laudable efforts were made by some past governments towards the development of agriculture in Liberia. The burning truth is that, so much more remains to be done. Hence, if the issues discussed in this document and the recommendations advanced for addressing them are followed to the letter, the achievements of the CDC-led government in developing the agricultural sector will not only be remarkable, but will go down in history as an unprecedented achievement.
About the author:
Mr. Gabriel Coleman is an Agriculturalist, Natural Resource Management & Policy Analyst Contact Details: +231-(0)-886-578-264/ (0)-77-771-2325. E-mail: [email protected]