Photo shoots of President George Weah with rice dealers following a meeting held with them to discuss the lowering of the price of rice on the local market was heralded as a resounding success in various news media.
We COMMEND President Weah for tackling the problem head on and for succeeding in achieving a reduction in the price of our staple and cherished rice. We, however, urge President Weah to go one step further by opening up the monopoly held by a handful of importers, mainly Lebanese and other foreigners. In this way, Liberians as well as anyone with the cash to do so can import rice into the country.
Whether the gesture on the part of the major importers to reduce the price of rice is intended as a shoring measure to protect their privilege and monopoly over the long term, is perhaps too early to tell. What it does say, however, is the ordinary consumer has virtually been milked over the years by subtle increases in the price of rice on the local market and as long as the monopoly remains in place, further increases can be expected.
But more than this, President Weah has to place AGRICULTURE, especially the local production of rice, on the front burner of the national agenda if ever his dream of raising Liberians out of poverty is to be realized. Agriculture, among all other drivers of the economy, possesses the greatest potential for absorbing the huge numbers of the unemployed and harnessing their productive energies and capacities.
First and foremost in this regard is the need to increase food production, especially rice, our staple food. Liberia is blessed with ample rainfall and fairly good soil from which bounteous harvests could be made. Rubber is for instance the largest agricultural export crop although it is a non-food crop. However, the seeds produced by the rubber tree, which are wasted or discarded can, with some processing mainly roasting, be transformed into adequate and suitable feed for pigs.
This alone has enough and huge potential for a thriving animal husbandry industry and all the accompanying benefits. Such an industry could supply a significant portion of our national protein needs according to agricultural experts. The collection of rubber seeds for processing for example could provide income earning opportunities for thousands of rural inhabitants not to talk about other potential uses of rubber which could provide jobs as well as significant revenue generating opportunities.
Bringing the matter closer to home, right around Monrovia, in Caldwell, New Georgia, Paynesville, and other surrounding areas, for example, lie thousands of acres of uncultivated swampland that could be put to productive use growing rice, our staple food, and other vegetables. Such an activity would draw thousands of unemployed youths into income earning activities and resultantly stimulate the national economy.
There are also other food crops like cassava, corn, plantains, bananas, pineapples, eddoes, peanuts, vegetables of all kinds including leafy vegetables, etc., all of which can be harvested within one-year after planting. However, with non-existent or poor state sponsored agricultural services for local farmers, including pest control advice, seeds, fertilizers, harvest technology, and post-harvest processing and storage, etc., such will be a very challenging and uphill undertaking.
That brings us to the question of post-harvest challenges which will have to be addressed if we are to achieve food self-sufficiency. Currently, a lot of the food produced by local farmers is lost in the post-harvest stage mainly because of the lack of processing facilities. The situation is made worse by the lack of good roads which could enhance the movement of food to markets.
As noted in our Thursday February 1, 2018 editorial, President Weah’s inaugural address was loaded with issues that Liberians and the public in general will debate for a long time to come. Agriculture, however, did not figure prominently on the list of President Weah’s priorities. Like his predecessor, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who promised to lift Liberians out of poverty, President Weah has promised a pro-poor governance which, by all indications, is meant to lift Liberians out of poverty.
However, under President Sirleaf, not more than 2 percent of the national budget was allocated to agriculture annually. It is not surprising therefore that her much proclaimed Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) did not work and most Liberians remain mired in poverty. Against this outlook, it remains to be seen just how much the government under President Weah will commit to agriculture on an annual basis.
It is that which will provide clear indications on what our President means when he talks about pro-poor governance. If annual budgetary allocation to agriculture remains at a mere 2 percent in the next budget year as it was under President Sirleaf, then we are afraid that pro-poor governance may very well over time morph into pro-rich governance just as it was under President Sirleaf.
Corruption for example that was supposed to be public enemy number one, going by her lofty pronouncements, turned out to be nothing more than a hoax intended for the ears of foreign donors. President Weah has emphasized that his government will show no tolerance to corruption, yet his nominee for the post of Justice Minister is on record for unscrupulous and criminal-like behavior.
This is certainly not a good start; and lest we forget, pro-poor governance is strongly linked to good governance and good governance is anchored to integrity. Although President Weah’s inaugural address said little or nothing about agriculture, we urge him to make agriculture the linchpin of his development agenda and have it play its true role as the driver of our national economy.
As the experience of Bomi Hills shows, mineral endowments are important but once depleted they cannot be restored. With most of the country’s mineral resources already mortgaged by former President Sirleaf to foreign enterprises under dubious or illegal concession agreements, our focus must now be on agriculture, which is a renewable activity with the strongest potential to advance President Weah’s pro-poor development agenda and ultimately lift Liberians out of poverty.
We hope and trust President Weah is indeed listening!