When the Food Enterprise Development (FED) was introduced in Liberia five years ago by its parent body, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), FED was hailed as a program that was destined to make a decisive difference in Liberian agriculture.
FED was funded by USAID under the Feed the Future, the US government’s global hunger and food security initiative, which is active in 19 countries, including 12 in Africa.
What made FED most attractive to Liberian farmers, who have from time immemorial been stuck in subsistence farming (meaning farming from hand to mouth), was FED’s pledge to develop a “market-driven approach to assist Liberia in its transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture for increased food availability.”
Who would not have wholeheartedly embraced such a worthy initiative that would do what Liberian farmers’ own government has miserably failed to do—to lift our poor, hardworking, hapless farmers out of their drudgery, pain and “more-day-in-hell” subsistence farming?
Who would have failed to embrace such a hopeful and worthy cause? No one!
Alas, after nearly five years of operation, winning a lot of publicity, including that provided by the Daily Observer’s weekly Farm Page, FED fell flat on its face when the moment of truth arrived early this year when rice farmers in Lofa County needed FED most.
In its search for their 2015 “Person of the Year”, the Daily Observer Editors turned to the newspaper’s Farm Page reporters. The assignment was to take the newspaper out of Monrovia far into the Liberian interior to find anyone they could worthy of the title, “Person of the Year”.
The Observer Farm reporters, Gloria Tamba and Alvin Worzi, traveled far and wide, until they reached Voinjama, Lofa County. There, they found this farmer seriously engaged in rice cultivation, but not only that!
This dynamic and selfless farmer, named John Selma, had reached out to several other farmers and encouraged them to join him in growing huge quantities of rice. Seeing how well he was doing on his own rice farms, they immediately started growing their own rice farms, following his great example.
The result, Selma and his fellow farmers produced nearly a million metric tons of rice! They had all heard or had been touched by what they considered to be this highly hopeful FED, and trusted that they were doing exactly what FED and the Liberian government wanted them to do—to demonstrate that Liberians could grow their own rice and become self-sufficient in their staple food.
Alas, something surprising happened! USAID/FED and the Liberian farmers’ own government, the government of Liberia (GOL), totally failed the Lofa rice farmers—why? Neither USAID/FED nor the GOL could help the farmers sell their rice—or even mill it.
Selma and his fellow rice farmers looked and looked and could find no buyers for their rice! The Daily Observer was itself flabbergasted (shocked, dumfounded).
In total and unexplainable surprise, the newspaper published an Editorial wondering whether USAID/FED had set up the Lofa farmers for failure. For by its own expressed purpose and design, USAID/FED pledged to initiate the “market-driven approach” aimed at assisting the farmers to “transition from subsistence to commercial farming.”
But how will farmers effect this transition if they cannot sell their produce?
To its credit, USAID/FED did give John Selma a truck to help him transport his rice to markets and, along with the Agriculture Ministry, linked him with the World Food Program (WFP) and Fabrar, a local rice processing facility. Both institutions bought some of Selma’s rice. Through USAID/FED also, the incoming agricultural agency, Liberia Agri-Business Development Activity (LADA), has indicated that Mr. Selma is qualified for the grant he requested to buy milling machines to improve his business.
This week at the Monrovia City Hall, USAID/FED gave an impressive splash attracting hundreds of people, including Vice President Joseph N. Boakai, the keynote speaker, Agriculture Minister Moses Zinnah and Commerce Minister Axel Addy. The program was held under the theme “Building a Food Secure Future in Liberia”.
Oh! Hamlet’s “Words, words, words.” How, we ask, can we build a “food secure future” when farmers grow the food and cannot find buyers? Nothing is more discouraging than that! Our Farm Page reporter Gloria Tamba, who covered FED’s two-day Agribusiness Exposition, said this critical issue of farm to markets, or the ability of the farmers to sell their produce, remains a serious challenge for them.
Until now, the Voinjama rice farmers have not sold all their rice, and fear they may be in trouble with banks and other lenders who advanced the money to buy the seeds and plant the rice. The last time we talked with Mr. Selma he said he was in the process of acquiring mills to mill their rice and make it more marketable.
Now USAID/FED is leaving. The Daily Observer talked with the Chief of Party, Lee Rosner, who disclosed that another USAID-sponsored group, Liberia Agribusiness Development Activity (LADA), will soon be coming to promote agriculture, including rice.
We hope this new group will be more successful in pushing markets for farm produce.
However, we once again appeal to the Liberian government, in particular its Ministry of Agriculture, to take our farmers more seriously. Vice President Boakai in his address to FED Tuesday raised the issue of markets for our rice and other farmers and also the need for agricultural extension agents to reach farmers throughout the country.
The GOL cannot continue to depend solely on foreign agencies like FED and LADA to answer our farmers’ problems. GOL must know that the primary responsibility for solving these problems rests with the Liberian government, AND NO ONE ELSE!