Another Agricultural Wake-up Call: Export More Farm Produce

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The Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) Commissioner General said it all, reminding Liberians that they are in deep financial trouble because the country imports more than it exports.

In a comprehensive presentation last Friday, Madam Elfrieda Stewart Tamba reported that the shortfall in revenue collection her Agency is experiencing right now is due to the high import ratio compared to Liberia’s low export capacity.

The time has come for Liberia to stop blaming our economic woes on external factors, for example our perennial dependence on what foreign buyers say they will pay for our rubber and iron ore.

What kind of governments have we been running that continually fail to realize that world prices of these commodities are perpetually unpredictable, and we must, therefore find other products to depend on?

President V.S. Tubman was not yet 70 when in 1968 he paid a state visit to his friend and brother, President Felix Houphouet Boigny of the Ivory Coast.

During that visit, Tubman and his delegation, which comprised leading Legislators and Cabinet Ministers, saw many highly positive developments in that country.

The first was the paved roads they traveled on far into the Ivorian interior, past Bouake and on to Yamoussoukro, President Houphouet’s birthplace. The second was a post office in every small town they passed.

The third was electricity everywhere; and the fourth, La Cote d’Ivoire was becoming rich, especially in agricultural produce, including most of the food they ate.

Most particularly, the delegation saw a robust cocoa crop everywhere. At that point, the Ivory Coast was Africa’s second leading cocoa producer, next to Uganda. That was until the semi-illiterate and murderous dictator Idi Amin, following his coup d’état overthrowing the regime of President Milton Obote, mismanaged the Ugandan economy so terribly that soon, the Ivory Coast emerged as Africa’s leading cocoa producer.

What did the Liberian delegation bring back from the state visit to La Cote d’Ivoire? Next to nothing! That country, like neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone, has basically the same soil as Liberia’s.

But did we decide following that visit, to plant cocoa? No, we did not. We failed to encourage our Nimba farmers, our most productive cocoa producers, to expand and modernize their cocoa farms and transform them into plantations. We continued to depend on that one agricultural product, rubber, even though we had seen throughout the years that rubber prices were so wickedly unpredictable, leading most small farmers often to close their farms because they could not afford to pay their workers.

But all of the foregoing was during Tubman’s time. Since then we have had President William R. Tolbert, who seemed to have learnt a lot from his friend and brother, President Houphouet, whose daughter married Tolbert’s son A.B. Tolbert.

President Tolbert created the Liberia Coffee and Cocoa Corporation (LCCC), which started growing the two crops. But it was soon discovered that state enterprises were NOT the answer. Rather, the Agriculture
Ministry should have empowered the farmers themselves to produce these commodities, coffee and cocoa. How? The Ministry should have flooded the interior with well-trained agricultural extension agents to teach the farmers better growing methods, supply them with planting materials imported from the Ivory Coast and Brazil, as well as fertilizers and irrigation systems, and set the stage for serious coffee and cocoa growing.

After Tolbert, came Samuel K. Doe; and after him, Charles Taylor, then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Alas, not much has been done over this nearly a half century—1980 to 2017. Why we are so persistently accustomed to losing so much precious time in this our beloved country, Heaven knows.

The Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC) did a lot to engage Liberian farmers. LPMC regularly encouraged farmers to produce coffee, cocoa, palm kernels, palm oil and other produce. The farmers made money and LPMC became a thriving state enterprise. That was until the 1980 coup d’état and the PRC’s mismanagement of the entire economy. Specifically, Head of State Doe appointed Aletha Johnson Francis as Head of LPMC and she ran it to the ground. The corporation has not been able to recover since.

Perhaps a revival of LPMC might be considered toward the revival of Liberian agriculture. We are fortunate to have still around two individuals who know all about how that Corporation successfully functioned—Ambassador Charles A. Minor and Ambassador Joseph N. Boakai, now Vice President of Liberia.

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