By By Emmanuel Abalo | African Star |
At a regularly held international teleconference call held recently, and organized by the online news portal Globe Afrique, callers identified what they called the “cartel” of rice importers who were holding the country hostage to the high price of its staple commodity rice. They identified five main importers and called on the new administration to break the monopoly to allow for competition in the importation of rice to the Liberian market.
Some callers from North America, Australia and Europe alleged that prior Liberian government-preferred rice importers were “colluding” among themselves to maintain a certain price of rice for their own benefit while providing kickbacks to some higher-ups in government. African Star could not independently verify the claim of “collusion”.
Some callers questioned why the new President did not study data from his Commerce Department and developed a comprehensive plan before meeting and “negotiating” with rice importers last week.
In advancing solutions for dealing with dependency on imported rice, callers proposed the speedy decentralization of amenities from the capital Monrovia to encourage citizens to return to the rural areas to farm and the embarkation of awareness to change the consciousness of citizens to support and engage in an agriculture based economy. Callers also proposed a government policy of implementing large scale mechanized farming.
As a way to reduce the cost of importation of rice, it was suggested that the government engage Liberian flagged vessels to transport the commodity in exchange for fees offset and for the provision of training, tax breaks and incentives to ordinary Liberians to grow rice locally for consumption and export.
Callers supported the revitalization of the Liberian Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC) a state institution which supports government’s agricultural programs and initiatives in the various counties. According to callers, LPMC would be vital in bulk purchases of rice and other staple produce on the local and foreign market for resale to local distributors to ensure availability and competition.
Liberians, over the decades, have cultivated a taste for parboiled rice mainly imported from the U.S. in favor of the coarse grain “country rice” and cassava based products. Local rice cultivation and distribution were impacted due to failed and short sighted government agricultural policies and the civil war. Liberia depends on foreign import of rice to feed its population.
Rice is imported by a handful of major licensed traders and the Firestone Rubber concession and account for 75% of total commercial imports and the rest is done by other smaller distributors. Firestone, decades ago, initiated the importation of rice for its rubber concession workers and soon became a major importer to supply the Liberia market.
The country’s Department of Commerce is the lead agency along with others that set the price of rice based on fees and costs of importation and distribution. Rice is imported from Taiwan, Pakistan, and the United States.
The monopolistic stranglehold of a handful of rice importers have come under criticism in some quarters with calls for liberalization of the rice importation regime in the small West African country to allow competition.
Following a recent meeting with President George Weah, the Association of rice importers agreed to reduce price of a 25 kg bag of rice by$2.00 USD and the price of 50 kg bag of rice by $4.00 USD. However, the impact of the rising US Dollar currency against the depreciating Liberia Dollar is erasing any tangible benefit of the rice price reduction in a country challenged by poverty, very high unemployment and economic decline.
Callers to the Diaspora Forum over the weekend agreed to work on setting up a tasks force in particular critical areas and avail their expertise to the Weah administration as a way to help address grinding problems in the areas of health, education, finance and infrastructure.
The call was moderated by Lawrence Kennedy of Globe Afrique and Jones Nhinson Williams.