Liberia and Rice Politics

By Nementobor Martin Kpahn

Markets in Liberia are colourful places. People come to see and be seen, and of course to purchase their food and commodities. Most Liberians must come to the market everyday due to a combination of issues. Lack of money to buy food and store it for several days and sometimes the lack of places to store excess food. In Paynesville along the main road where the road from Somalia drive, Coca-Cola road and the one from ELWA meet at the back trucks filled to the brim with rice wait to be offloaded. Beside the rice trucks, there are large European made trucks filled with almost every agriculture commodity you can think about-groundnuts, dried pepper and even tomatoes hailing from Guinea. All the food in the trucks have one thing in common: they are imported food!

Liberians are among the highest consumers of rice in the world with the average Liberian consuming around 133 kilograms (293 pounds of rice) a year according to a World Bank report by ClarenceTsimpo and Quentin Wodor in 2008. Interestingly, more than 80% of the rice consumed in Liberia is imported. There are four main rice importers in Liberia namely: Fouta Corporation, K&K Corporation, Supplying West African Traders (SWAT), and United Commodities Inc. (UCI). These four corporations import rice value at more than $100 million US Dollars a year to fill the huge demand for rice in the country which local farmers are not able to meet. Why hasn’t local Liberians farmers been able to meet the huge demand for rice by the population?

Let us look back at the historicity of rice in Liberia. In the past, Liberia was self-sufficient in rice until the 1970s when the Americans introduced the PL480 or Pusawa rice Liberia. Soon Liberians developed a love for the taste of American parboiled rice. Urban dwellers loved the golden taste of parboiled rice compared to the heavier albeit it more nutritious local rice. Liberians middle-class dwellers would often brag to their friends that” me and my children only eat Pusawa. Country rice is too heavy.’ Domestic rice production declined as more people left the rural areas in search of job opportunities in Monrovia and concession areas. Agriculture became neglected. In 1979, President William R. Tolbert attempted to remedy this situation by increasing tariffs on the price of rice making it more expensive for urban dwellers with the logic of increasing local rice production. The fact that President William R. Tolbert and his brother Daniel were two of the major rice producers in the country and could directly benefit from the increase price of rice played well into the hands of the opposition. Edged on by the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) of the late Gabriel Baccuss Mathews, Liberians took to the streets in an unprecedented manner resulting in the infamous April 14, 1979 rice riot which eventually led to the downward of the Tolbert government.

That incident had left an indelible mark on the psyche of successive Liberian governments who tend to favour low imported rice prices for urban dwellers to political stability. Since importing rice in Liberia is a big business; importer have a guaranteed windfall from the sale of rice in Liberia. During election times rice importers contribute significantly to political parties to ensure that no elected government will introduce radical policies to affect their lucrative business.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Ministry of Agriculture of Liberia, the country has 600, 000 hectares of arable land that could be used for Agriculture but presently only around 10% of this land is being used. A combination of low productivity, poor pest management, lack of access to credit facilities and poor road network means local farmers are not in anyway able to meet the huge demand for rice by Liberians.

Most young Liberians are not interested in Agriculture as a career but prefer to work for daily and monthly wages to purposely engage in the conspicuous consumption they see the elite enjoying. With a paltry budgetary allocation of 8 million dollars comprising approximately 2% of the present recurrent budget, rice and milk will continue to be imported into Liberia for a long time. My blood boils when I see trucks from Guinea filled to the brim with pepper and groundnuts entering Liberia, but when those trucks are going back to Guinea they are empty because we are not producing anything to sell in return to our neighbour.

For a poor country like Liberia to be spending hundreds of millions of United States dollars on imported food when we have abundant rainfall and land does not make any sense.

A special bank must be set up to provide credit facilities to farmers like the old Agriculture Development Bank since commercial bank loans in Liberia are mainly geared towards trade and commerce. The World Food Program (WFP) must be mandated to only use locally produced rice in their local school feeding program. This will encourage local farmers to produce more food since there is a market. The budget of the Ministry of Agriculture should be increased to at least 5% of the national budget. The government of Liberia should buy and distribute 100 small rice mills to distribute to farmers in the 15 counties on a cooperative (communal) business that local farmers can use to mill and bag their rice. This will help wean Liberia off dependence on rice and food imports.

If eating imported rice is the only way for me to be kwi (civilized) than I rather be uncivilized as me and my children eat nutritious rice grown in Nimba, Bong and other counties.

The writer holds a master’s degree in communication from Griffith University in Australia and is presently pursuing a Master of Applied Research from the University of Southern Queensland.

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