Liberian Agriculture—Why Are We So Far Behind and How Can We Catch Up?

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In President Sirleaf’s address to the nation last Friday, she touched on many important and critical national issues, including national security. She also stressed one—our food security—which is fundamental to national security.

She challenged our young to pursue agriculture for it, like none other, stimulates employment and wealth creation.
Indeed!

Today’s global economy is seriously threatened by decline, especially that of China, causing prices of primary commodities to plummet. In Liberia, two of these—rubber and iron ore—which have historically been the bedrock of our employment and wealth, have been hardest hit, causing decline in earnings, many lay-offs and economic slowdown.

Yet here we are importing almost everything we eat, including our staple, rice, but also vegetables, fruits, meats and canned goods. Why, despite all the rainfall and green vegetation throughout the country, are we so food dependent? What happened, especially in the past 10 years when we had a President who, having worked for major banks, including the World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), we thought knew all about development and food security?

But this question predates Ellen. It is founded in the lack of vision of successive administrations.

Who remembers the 1921 Independence Day Oration of the eminent Liberian statesman, Momolu Massaquoi? In that Oration he made an impassioned plea for concentration on agriculture. But nobody, including President C.D.B. King, listened.

Do you remember, too, what we said in Editorials sometime back—that when Tubman became President in 1944 George S. Best, who had taught Agriculture at the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) since 1930, wrote him a letter? Mr. Best, by the time he entered Liberia in 1926, had traveled, as a British soldier in World War I to many parts of the world and seen development. In his letter, he suggested to President Tubman that he should introduce a cannery in Liberia to make juices, etc., and save our many fruits from rotting. Mr.
Best’s mistake was that he said Tubman had eight years in office, enough time to do it.

Tubman must have taken serious exception to that suggestion, for he knew that he had no intention of spending only eight years in power. So he never answered Mr. Best. Tubman stayed 27 years in power, and Liberia never produced canned goods. Even more sadly, after nearly a half century since Tubman—1944-71—we still are unable to produce bottled orange juice!

Yet we have to admit that it was Tubman who began training professional agriculturists. He transformed the Bureau of Agriculture into the Department of Agriculture and Commerce, and established the University of Liberia’s College of Agriculture and Forestry. Tubman’s scholarship program produced Liberia’s first veterinary doctor, Christian E. Baker, its first soil chemist, J.T. Phillips and its first poultry teacher, Henry Fallah.

It was Tubman, too, who in 1951, took over from the Phelps Stokes Fund, government financing of the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) and in that same year established, in Suacoco, Bong County, the Government Farm (now the Central Agricultural Research Institute – CARI). Sadly, none of these institutions were taken very seriously and were consistently underfunded.

The Maputo Declaration of 1995 stated that all African governments should make annual budgetary allocations of at least 10% to agriculture. But since that time, Liberia has consistently allocated little more than 1%.

In the past 10 years of her presidency, Ellen has had two highly trained Agriculture Ministers, both with Ph.Ds, and both miserably failed. They also put the Daily Observer to shame because we were the only media institution to endorse Ellen in the 2005 run-off—Why?

Not only because she was far better educated and more experienced than her opponent, George Weah, but also because we predicted that if she won, world leaders, mostly men, “would be falling over one another to give this first African woman President their fullest support.”

They did. But most of that aid was squandered and today we have little to show for it.

We have, since his appointment as Agriculture Minister, outlined a number of suggestions for Dr. Moses Zinnah. One is to engage ALL of our agricultural experts, especially the agronomists, animal science specialists and soil chemists, and put them to work.

We think Minister Zinnah can make a big difference even in the two remaining years of this administration. He must push for mass production of rice, engaging some Asian rice producers such as the Vietnamese; encourage Liberians, especially in Grand Cess, Foya and
Nimba, to raise cattle; encourage farmers in chicken and eggs, pork, goat and sheep production. He must engage our agronomists to initiate and train more people in vegetable production, improve and expand the agricultural extension services and embark on large scale tree crop initiatives—almond, banana and plantain, cashew nuts, citrus, cocoa, coffee, plum, etc.

That would be a good beginning.

We pray that Minister Zinnah is up to the task and has the firm and unflinching backing of the President.

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