Agriculture—the Key to Liberia’s Economic Recovery

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Harry L. Morris, creator of Morris Farm in Kakata, the nation’s largest single rubber plantation, in the mid-1960s urged a young graduate of the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) and Cuttington College and Divinity School (now Cuttington University) NEVER to forget the soil, for this was the key to Liberia’s survival and economic development.

Mr. Morris, a teenager in his third year of high school in the United States, had returned home in the early 1930s, the eldest of his many siblings, to bury his father, John Louis Morris. John Louis had served in many Cabinet positions in government.

After the funeral, young Harry found himself faced with two choices: first, to return to the States and complete his education; and second, to stay home to care for his aging mother, Mrs. Maude Lyons Morris, and his siblings.

Young Harry chose the latter and the rest is history.

He immediately started managing his father’s small rubber farm in Kakata, and soon acquired land opposite his father’s and started his own rubber farm. By the early 1940s, especially after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, forcing America to enter World War II, Harry

Morris’s rubber had just begun to mature. He immediately started making serious money. America was by that time in great need of natural rubber to make tires for its automobiles and more especially for its war tanks, warplanes and civilian aircrafts, gloves for its medical facilities and boots for its soldiers. Soon, Britain sought America’s permission to buy Liberian rubber.

By the early 1950s, Harry Morris became a millionaire. In the mid-1950s Ebony Magazine, published by the black American media tycoon John L. Johnson, put Harry Morris on its cover as “the Rubber King of the World!” Why? Because Mr. Morris had by that time become the owner of the world’s largest rubber plantation owned by one man. Yes, there was Firestone, but this was an American multinational corporation. But Harry Morris was the sole owner of his rubber plantation.

Why do we make this historical recollection? Because in her address to the nation last Friday, here is what President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said about agriculture and young people: “. . .I see that there are lots of promises in agriculture as a value-chain that demands private sector participation. Our young people must look at agriculture as a very attractive source of employment, with potential to stimulate economic transformation. It is becoming abundantly clear that agro-business holds great promise for wealth creation.”

Was this true of the teenager, who had not yet finished high school but had just lost his father, yet decided to stay home and take care of aging mom? Of course it was. Look at the thousands that Mr. Morris employed, making him the second largest employer, next to Firestone, in what is now Margibi County!

We have chosen to focus on this part of the President’s address for two reasons: first, to reemphasize her critical point that Agriculture IS the redeeming factor in Liberia’s economic woes; second, so that the young people of Liberia may see the immense potential of agriculture by learning from and emulating this Liberian teenager who, instead of returning to the great USA to complete high school and college, decided to stay home, take care of his mother and siblings, and GO INTO FARMING! That crucial decision made him a millionaire! The farm was so successful that it was untouched during the civil war. Yes, there were losses, but it continued to operate throughout the war, thanks to the stewardship of Mr. Morris’ son Bill and others, and of course the rubber tappers and other workers.

We ask our youth: Who will be Liberia’s next Harry Morris?

Yes, the rubber price is way down, but rubber is not the only thing that can make one rich. There are coffee, cocoa and other tree crops. This newspaper has long referred to Grand Bassa, Edina in particular, as the natural habitat for cashew nuts, but no one listens. Yet cashew is the main foreign exchange earner in Guinea Bissau.

Then there is animal husbandry—cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, poultry and eggs. Any of these areas seriously tackled would save Liberia millions of dollars in the foreign exchange we expend each year to import these commodities.

There is, of course, cassava and other tubers, vegetables— beans of all kinds, eggplant, greens of all kinds, lettuce, pepper, bitter ball, radish, tomatoes. There are also fruits—banana and plantain, citrus, mango, golden plum, pine apple.

The vast majority of Liberians are already in farming. We need to reach out to them with serious and sustained Agricultural Extension. We also need to educate their children seriously at BWI and the other vocational and technical institutions and at the University of Liberia (UL) and Cuttington and propel them into agricultural entrepreneurship. If we can conscientiously do that, we will produce many more Harry Morrises.

And, of course, the big one—rice. Rubber made Harry Morris and many other Liberians and, of course, Harvey Firestone, rich. But rice can make Liberians even richer, for we spend over US$200 million annually importing our staple.

Let us seize this agricultural opportunity and go running with it. Herein lies the key to our economic and financial redemption.

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