Plaiting a New Mat on the Old: A Look at the Transformation of Liberia Agriculture Without Reinventing the Wheel

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By Henry Augustus Roberts, Jr.

Today, there is much talk about agriculture. In fact, the general consensus seems to be that agriculture is the “cure it all” the “fix” for ailing economies all over the world, Africa, in particular; and especially for countries like ours whose economies had been and continue to be dependent on the extractive industries.

Fortunately, the African Union (AU) and NEPAD (New partnership for African Development) realized this a long time ago and sought to do something about it at Maputo (Mozambique) in 2003 with the establishment of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). Today, the CAADP remains the AU’s most “ambitious” endeavour in addressing acute poverty, Food and Nutrition insecurities and Africa’s ailing economies. Unfortunately, with all of its lofty goals, sixteen years on, most Africans don’t seem to know much about the CAADP; and worse of all, many of the governments that signed on are yet to implement the CAADP fully or are unwilling to commit the resources necessary to achieve its intended goals even after recommitting at Malabo (Equatorial Guinea) in 2014. As much and eager as I would like to discuss the CAADP I would, with your indulgence, rather focus on the issues at home for the time being, even though, our success will really depend on how we align CAADP with our own domestic agenda in its implementation as our leaders have committed us to.  

My focus, as I said earlier, is on our situation here at home, particularly, with the emergence of the government’s call to action through its “Pro Poor Agenda”. As with previous governments’ “calls to action”, agriculture, once again, has been declared the focal point in this government’s attempt to address the situation of our economy and its effects on our people. Obviously, this is not new. Agriculture, one way or the other,  has always been embedded in all previous governments’ grandiose action plans- Tolbert’s “Mat to Mattress”,  Taylor’s “Vision 2020”, Sirleaf’s “Poverty Reduction Strategy” (PRS), “Agenda for Transformation” and “Agriculture Transformation Agenda”.

A cursory review of all of all of these strategies and plans-of-action to improve the livelihoods of the Liberian people will show that agriculture was either one of the main pillars or the foundation. History might show that, perhaps, the Tolbert’s government was the most successful in respect to agriculture as a strategic component of a call to a National collective action. However, in honesty, one must also remember the agriculture revolution did not begin with Mr.Tolbert as much as we like to give him credit as the “Best President”. We are not trying to get into a history lesson or argument, but we must remain cognizant of the fact that agriculture has always been the bedrock of Liberia’s economy since its inception.  For the time being we will leave the history lesson to the historians, but I do believe that we must all be aware of these facts so that as we discuss and engage each other in how to stimulate some form of Agro-revolution, we do not embark on a process of “reinventing the wheel” or making pronouncements which has no historical basis.

Let me explain what I mean. A few years ago at a very important meeting of stakeholders (foreigners included), discussing the prospects of value chain development and export, an operative of the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) made this statement: “Since 1847 we have not exported anything out of this country!”. Maybe this was a misnomer, especially coming from an MOA technician of import, but the same guy repeated this again at another forum. Obviously the guy just doesn’t have his information correct, or he just has an issue with 1847. Because in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s up until the “great depression” Lineria erxported pproduce such as cocoa, piasava, sugar and tobacco; and as recently as the 1970’s to the 1980’s, Liberian value added agriculture products including fish, shrimps, poultry products and fruits were being exported as far as places like the USA and Malaysia. Fast forward to today about 40 years on; and we are importing poultry products, including eggs, from far away as India and God knows, where else? This might seem trivial, but without this information and correction of historical facts, we are going nowhere fast. The Bible says: “For a lack of knowledge my people perish.” And I must add that we are also bound to keep repeating unnecessary mistakes. I guess that’s why the old people say, “To plait a new mat, you have to sit on the old mat.” The information provided in the patterns of the old mat guide the person plaiting the new one.

I am convinced that this must be the approach we must take if we are serious about creating an agriculture transformation here at home. Fortunately for us, not only do we have our own history of success, but we can also draw on those of other countries who have  had similar experiences. India, for example, was once a “food-aid” recipient and dependent country not long ago, but guess what? One day they decided ‘enough was enough’ and started an agricultural revolution that has propelled India as one of the leading agricultural productive nations in the world competitive with China and the USA. How did they do it? And how did we do it?  I know some of you are sceptics and are equally suspicious about anyone suggesting that our country has had many successes in agriculture or is even capable of generating some kind of agro revolution.

For me, not only do I believe that we can do it, but there is clear and ample evidence to show that we’ve done it before. Look, as said earlier, I don’t want to go into any history lessons here because I don’t want to get off track. I really want to concentrate on now and the future, even though, I do believe that if you know what you have done in the past, there is a possibility that you can do it again  now and in the future, perhaps, even better. However, what I would like to do is list some facts and myths about Liberian Agriculture; and then, perhaps, discuss them either individually or collectively. I think this approach will sort of set the stage for a more robust discussion; and perhaps, clear up some of the doubts that you might have.

  1. Facts
  • Agriculture is and has been the centerpiece of economic development in Liberia since its inception
  • Agriculture is business not merely a means of livelihood.
  • 75-85% of Liberians are engaged in some form of agriculture- production, value addition and marketing. In most cases women play a dominant role in the sector.
  • Food and Nutrition Insecurity remain major challenges in both rural and urban households leading to high incidents of Malnutrition in almost all 15 counties.
  • Successive governments have not funded agriculture adequately.
  • Agriculture sector is dominated by donor and international NGOs-funded projects.
  • Most agriculture projects cannot demonstrate or show any significant impact or achievements of their intended goals.
  • Most projects are focused on one segment of the sector – small holders and particular sections of the country.
  • Farmers have become dependent and spoon-fed by agriculture related projects.
  • Lack of access to finance and markets and limited value addition are significant impediments to farmers.
  • Our farming activities are dominated by outdated tools and technologies – lack of or limited mechanization. Countries where the leader has champion agriculture and lead the process have allexperience significant success.
  • The African Union (AU) has come up with an agriculture program that works.
  1. Myths
  • Liberia has not had any significant success in agriculture.
  • Liberian farmers are lazy and nonproductive. 
  • All of our food comes from our neighbors.
  • Liberian farmers cannot work together.
  • Our soils are so rich we don’t need fertilizers.
  • Our leaders must be farmers themselves if we are going to achieve any significant growth in agriculture.

As we look to revitalize the agriculture sector it is very important that we consider some of the Facts and Myths listed above. Of course we could have been more inclusive with challenges and even a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis; but for this discussion it is not necessary to go into such details. The idea here is to be as brief as possible in order to instigate a dialogue.

What is very important here, is that we take a holistic approach; and  in our discussion raise as many issues as possible. Because, in my opinion, somehow we must merge the many ideas and proposals that are being floated with the intent of transforming the economy through agriculture; and do everything possible, as I said above, not to embark on a process of  “reinventing the wheel”. Because, even though the sector has many challenges, there have been some successes which could and should be built upon, rather than coming up with brand new ideas.

Now, my challenge here has been how to discuss or more importantly, present them in a coherent and brief manner not to prolong the discussion. This is a very important concern because these “Facts” and “Myths” do present many talking points. So, I have decided to deal with a few; and perhaps, you the reader can think of some others which I have not considered.

As you can see the last items in the both “Facts” and “Myths” columns are highlighted. These are the issues I would like to deal with first in this discussion. I will deal with the myth first. There are many who believe that our leaders must be farmers or create their own farms to encourage others to follow suit; and this will somehow spurn a revolution in agro-development. I disagree but not entirely. There is nothing wrong with the president developing or owning a farm. It would be good for him or her  economically, and perhaps, serve as an incentive to get others, particularly government officials, involved in developing their own farmrs or agribusinesses. However, we must note here that there is nothing in our constitution that demands that; and there is no guarantee that it would work. There are other reasons why I am not in support of this which I am not prepared to dfiscuss at this time. However, I do believe that the Chief Executive must be a “Champion” of Agriculture and take center  stage in its development and promotion. He or she must not only be the champion but must put in place policies and programs that would not only encourage ordinary citizens to invest in agriculture but ensure that they succeed at it.

Fortunately, as I stated earlier, the AU has made it very easy and quite simple for not only our president but for every leader across Africa with the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). CAADP  provides a vehicle and guide that would enabled the President to actively engage, participate and promote the sector. In 2003 at Maputo, Mozambique, the AU launched the CAADP; and eleven years later, in 2014 at Malabo (Equatorial Guinea), African leaders once again, not only recommitted to the CAADP, but adopted  a Declaration on Accelerated Agriculture Growth and Transformation for Sharerd Prosperity and Improved Livlihoods (the Malabo Declaration)  with seven specific commitments (1.Recommitment to the Principles and Values of the CAADP Process, 2. Commitment to Enhancing Investment Finance in Agriculture,  3. Commitment to Ending Hunger in Africa by 2025, 4. Commitment to Halving Poverty by the year 2025, through Inclusive Agricultural Growth and Transformation, 5. Commitment to Boosting Intra-African Trade in Agricultural commodities and services, 6.Commitment to Enhancing Resilience of Livelihoods and Production Systems to Climate Variability and other related risks, 7. Commitment to Mutual Accountability to Actions and Results) and several monitoring mechanisms, including the Biennial Review1 and CAADP Results Framework to ensure African governments’ compliance and implementation in order to reach its intended goals as laid out in the CAADP Implementation Guidelines.

Now it would quite difficult to go into the details of CAADP in this paper without extending the discussion. So, not to bore you we will highlight some of the key elements of CAADP as follows:

        • Agriculture should be the basis for economic development, poverty reduction and  enhancing Food and Nutrition Security.
        • At least 10% of each country’s national budget should be allocated to agriculture (exclusive of recurring costs).
        • The budget allocation to agriculture should result in a 6% growth in agriculture GDP.
        • Each country should domesticate CAADP in alignment with its own development agenda with support from its respective Regional Economic Community (REC) – in our case, ECOWAS.
        • CAADP has set targets which address the key issues related to poverty, malnutrition and are in line with the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDG) and the government’s “Pro Poor” agenda.
        • CAADP should be private sector kead and driven.

CAADP works and has worked with significant growth in Agriculture GDPs and economic growth in the countries (Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Gabon, etc.) where CAADP has been partially or fully implemented; and especially, in those countries where the leaders have championed its goals and taken the lead role in its  domestication and implementation.

Of course CAADP cannot be implemented in isolation of any country’s own development agenda, however, when coordinated and done in the spirit of a collaborative African endeavor significant results can be demonstrated. My recommendation is that any effort to reform the sector be done in concert with the CAADP-Malabo goals and that the leaders on both sides of the aisle (Legislative and Executive) be well informed on the CAADP.

Now  that we have considered a vehicle that could help in the agricultural transformation process, let’s look at some other  “Facts” and “Myths”. As for the facts, they are indisputable and information are readily available to support what have been listed above. As I earlier stated the idea is to be focused on few  issues and the other issues in both the “Facts” and “Myths” could be further explored in a dialogue; let’s look at one or two that have some relevance to the transformative process. I think that three of the major myths in Liberia are: 1. that our famers are lazy, 2. Most if not all of our food come from Guinea or somewhere else and 3. anything will grow here and all that you have to do is just throw seeds on the ground. First, it is true that some of our food do come from outside.  Why? Our peoples have been trading with each others for centuries and yes, the Guineans and Sierria Leonians do do some things better than us, but they also buy from our farmers. Whether one want to believe it or not, Liberians produce most of the vegetables and fish we consume, including peppers; and let’s make it clear here they are not lazy, they just work too hard. And yes, we do have all of the elements, Sun, Water and SoiI to grow about anything here, but according to the science, our soils are not as rich as we think they are. So if we realy want to increase our productive capacity then we have to consider some interventions, mechanization and the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

So, my guess is that  your next question would be, “If our people are not lazy, and they produce all this food, then what about Rice, our staple? Can Liberian produce enough rice for the country’s insatiable appetite?” My answer would be a resounding “Yes!” Then I guess you might ask again, “Why haven’t we done so?” There are so many reasons why we have not and seem incapable of producing our staple; and I really don’t want to go into specifics because I might not have all the answers. However, these are very good questions that need to be answered, especially when you consider  the level and quality of work that have been carried out at the Central Agriculture Research Institute (CARI) not only in training but actual rice development. Believe it or not our young scientist, many you might know by name have done some phenomenal work at CARI not only in rice cultivation but also in cassava and many other crops.

I really don’t want it to look as if I am making excuses, but the rice issue in Liberia goes way beyond whether we can produce enough to satisfy our national consumption. To be honest I think in addition to growing the stuff we have to collectively make an earnest effort to change our eating habits if we want to solve the rice problem. For one thing, the cost of producing rice is very high here and in most of Africa which makes it difficult to compete with the imports, and  I don’t realy believe that the many schemes we have employed in the last few years will solve the problem, Don’t get me wrong, there are inroads being made, but until we combine changing eating habits with the government’s efforts, we might not get very far in solving the problem. It is not enough to say, “Eat what we grow”.

That’s why I think it is very important to consider the CAADP in conjunction with our own domestic strategies. Because the problems we face here are not very different from other African countries. Many of the issues and possible solutions have been identified in the CAADP; and the resources, financial and technical support have been provided in most cases. The challenge is how do we take them and make them work for us?

The AU has many concerns and has emphasized them in the CAADP Results Framework as priorities to be achieved in addition to the commitment to ending hunger by 2025. High amongst these priorities are Reducing Malnutrition and Jobs Creation, particularly for women and the youth. So, for me, it is very important that whatever scheme we envision be long term and can serve several purposes, the proverbial “killing two birds with one stone”- a value chain approach. For example can we talk about irrigation only in respect to agriculture; or should we not be talking about something that will bring the important resource of irrigation, water, to everyone for every other purpose, drinking  water included?

Some say roads, especially, farm-to-market roads, are the solution, and we should concentrate on building roads. Great! But roads wil only solve some aspects of the problems of post-harvest losses and access to markets, but they will not solve access to finance, outdated tools, lack of mechanization, storage and limited value addition and processing etc; and neither will the proliferation of foreign interventions. I believe that what we need to do is to take a holistic approach with an emphasis on encouraging Liberians, particularly young people, to take a serious look at Agriculture as an investment opportunity with government creating the enabling environment coupled with incentives and public private partnership (PPP) interventions that will give individuals who are now involved in the sector and those willing to enter the sector the confidence they need to invest and continue investing.

Our Farmers success is solely based on getting the produce they grow and process to markets and getting a fair price for them; and our economic success will be based on how much of their produce we can transformed for our consumption and export. Our history of success and the CAADP provides the road map. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

  1. In the last CAADP Biennial Review report on Agriculture transformation, Liberia had the lowest  score: 0.9; Rwanda, the highest, 4.6.

About the author:
Henry Augustus Roberts is an Agribusiness Consultant, CEO of the Buchanan Resource and Development Corp. (BRANDCO) and National Coordinator of the CAADP Non-State Coalition. He can be reached via email: [email protected] or phone: +231886516509, +231770407217.

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