Airlift the Rice to Monrovia, Please!

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In the Observer’s end-of-year edition, we made Lofa County farmer John Selma Person of the Year. The choice for us was clear. Here was a man who, after all of the noise the international community had made over food sustainability, galvanized a group of Lofa farmers and decided they would produce enough rice to feed the country. The Liberian government has long paid lip service to agriculture, and these patriotic, hardworking Liberians had decided that that notwithstanding, they would grow enough food to feed their country—at their own expense.

The farmers borrowed money from a village loan and savings scheme, expanded their farms and yielded an abundant harvest. They were overjoyed—until they found out that there was no way of getting their produce to market and their government was wasting time in helping them.

Then last week, we found out that the farmers were in trouble—that they could face legal action if they were not able to pay back the money they borrowed to expand their farms.

The Observer contacted the Ministry of Agriculture to ask whether the government could mandate that rice importers purchase rice from local farmers before being allowed to import it from India and China. The Ministry of Agriculture said that was the Commerce Ministry’s job. When the
Observer contacted the Commerce Ministry, they said they were waiting for the Ministry of Agriculture to take the lead in mandating that foreign rice importers buy from Liberian farmers first before being allowed to import.

Economically and logically speaking, food produced in-country should be much less expensive than imported food. But the price of locally grown rice (affectionately known as ‘country rice’) is on par with the price of imported rice on the Liberian market mainly because of the cost of transporting it to Monrovia on very bad roads.

So the farmers have done their part. Whose job is it now to ensure that they are able to sell their rice at a profit so that their families are fed and their children go to school? So that in such a tough economy, as Varney Sherman has already warned us, there is an affordable and sustainable alternative on the market as far as the supply of our staple food is concerned? So that more and more Liberians are encouraged to go back to the soil in a country so rich in vegetation? So that we do not wake up one day to find this country embroiled in another April 14?

We can answer most unequivocally that it is the government of Liberia’s (GOL) job. Whom do they expect to build farm-to-market roads? These farmers are not asking for a handout; nor did they drink and party away the money they borrowed. They have the evidence to show that they did what they were supposed to with the money. They were responsible and even united. And must they now be punished for such a patriotic initiative?

The government of Liberia is creating around this issue an air of impossibility, as if fixing the roads would be the only way to get the rice to markets. Why has the government of Liberia not contracted cargo planes from Ghana, Nigeria or even asked the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) to make the rice available on the market? Surely rice milling machines can be made available to the farmers (we understand they are made in Ganta).

And so, as we understand it, there is absolutely no other reason why Liberian ‘country rice’ is not being sold on the market at a competitive price other than a lack of commitment on the part of the GOL. So what really is the problem that causes the GOL consistently to give foreigners preference over Liberians in their own country? It seems the determined and unconscionable propensity (inclination) of this government to want to outsource EVERYTHING—why? Has the government lost confidence in its own people, and in itself?

We recently learned that the GOL has its eye on the privatization of education in this country—“Public-private partnerships” as they are called. Whose curriculum will these foreign-run schools be using? Will education be contextualized to our culture and environment or will our children see things they cannot relate to in their text books?

Today President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is scheduled to deliver her Annual Message to the Legislature. We suggest that one of the first things she should tell them is that GOL will airlift the rice produced by Lofa and other farmers around the country to Monrovia, have it milled and sold without delay so that none of this momentous (historic, extraordinary) harvest is lost and the patriotic initiative of these hardworking farmers does not go in vain. GOL cannot afford to let the Lofa farmers down and run the risk of totally discouraging farming in Liberia.

The President should also outline and activate every resource needed to implement a serious agenda for agricultural transformation in Liberia, focusing most especially on four crops: cocoa, coffee, rice and vegetables. Financing agriculture and good roads are the other legs of this important stool of our national economy.

She cannot help but deliver to the Legislators a litany of economic woes. The agenda for the transformation of agriculture, focusing particularly on these four crops and speeding up road building and maintenance would spell the answer to the economic crisis.

If the Sirleaf-led administration fails this country at a time such as this, if they sit back and watch the farmers drown with their hands extended for help, history will judge Ellen Johnson Sirleaf most harshly.

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