The Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) released some grim statistics last week, showing a drastic rise in the country’s trade deficit.
Our Business Correspondent, George Kennedy, quoting CBL’s figures for the first quarter of 2014, reported that Liberia’s trade deficit widened by a staggering 86.9 percent to US$77.0 million from US$41.2 million as at December, 2013.
Total trade volume amounted to US$382.1 million with import receipts alone accounting for US$226.9 million. The CBL blames the widened trade deficit on a 4.2 percent decline in merchandise export earnings, couple with a 14.6 percent decline in merchandise import payments.
Commodities export receipts declined by 25.1 percent to US$152.5 million in the review quarter, from US$159.1 million at the end of
December, 2013, which the CBL attributes largely on account of a 25.1 percent fall in rubber export earnings to US$30.2 million in March, 2014, from US$40.3 million in December, 2013.
The CBL warned that weaker than expected growth prospects in the United States and struggling recovery in the Euro zone may perpetuate the decline in rubber prices in the near term.
This drastic decline in earnings from the rubber sector was expected, as Liberia’s rubber planters, including the giants, Firestone, Liberia Agriculture Company (LAC), Salala Rubber Company (SRC) and Morris American Rubber (MAR), recently reported huge losses due to sudden drop in world rubber demand.
The iron ore sector also suffered heavy losses, owing to the corresponding decline in the demand for this commodity. We recall that several months ago Sesa Goa, the Indian company which operates iron ore in Liberia’s Western Cluster, reported that it had reduced its operations by 80%, owing to drastic drop in demand for this commodity.
What does all this tell us? It tells us that we need to start focusing again on farming, which has consistently declined since the outbreak of the Liberian civil war, when there was massive destabilization and farmers found it impossible to work their farms.
The situation has, most unfortunately, not improved over the past eight and a half years of the current government. Why? Because President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has had bad luck with her Agriculture Ministers. This is not because of the lack of money. The international community, realizing how much devastation the war inflicted upon this country, including its farms, rallied enthusiastically to the rescue not only with food aid but with finances, too, to help revive Liberia’s agriculture. Barely two months before he was let go by President Sirleaf, her first Agriculture Minister, Dr. Chris Toe, told the nation that a staggering US$100 million was available to boost Liberia’s agriculture. That led the socio-political commentator, Mother Mary Brownell, to ask angrily in a letter to the Daily Observer Editor, “Where is the money? We see no evidence of it anywhere.” She was right. At that point the nation was still importing most of its food.
Under Ellen’s second Agriculture Minister, Dr. Florence Chenoweth, the situation has worsened, as Liberians continue to import almost everything they eat, including bitterball!
This newspaper has frequently pleaded with the Agriculture Ministry to flood the nation’s farms with agricultural extension agents, who would help the farmers utilize the benefits of research conducted at the Central Agricultural Research Institute CARI). Nearly four years ago Minister Chenoweth said she was training extension agents to do just that. Alas, the agents are nowhere to be found; and
Liberia is still importing most of the rice it consumes, and meat and even vegetables!
How shall agriculture SAVE Liberia? By growing our own rice, meat and vegetables; and by investing heavily in tree crops, such as coffee, cocoa and rubber. Ellen needs to find an Agriculture Minister who BELIEVES THAT LIBERIA CAN GROW HER OWN RICE, A MINISTER WHO POSSESSES THE KNOWLEDGE AND ENERGY TO MAKE IT HAPPEN. This alone would save the US$300 million we spend importing rice, and almost erase our balance of payments deficit.
Our people already know how to grow bitterball, peanuts, pepper and other veggies. We could even start growing carrots in Foya, Lofa County, and cattle in the southeast, beginning in Grand Cess, Grand Kru County and Foya.
But you need an Agriculture Minister with the ENTHUSIASM seriously to engage our farmers and put them back to work: THAT’S HOW!