Can Liberia Answer the Agriculture Challenge?
Yesterday the Daily Observer published an article quoting the Central Bank of Liberia’s 2014 Policy Statement which said that the only way for the Liberian Dollar to stabilize against the soaring US Dollar is for Liberia to produce goods for domestic consumption and export. That same day, two things happened: the first was the grassroots campaign and advocacy organization One.org, along with some of Africa’s top music stars and with hundreds of African Civil Society Organizations who presented their “Do Agric, It Pays” petition to African leaders at the AU summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, calling on them to recommit to spending at least 10% of national budgets on effective agriculture investments.
The second thing that happened yesterday was a conversation with one of our readers who could not help expressing his utter shock and disgust over a photo (see above) he had discovered, suggesting some brutal truths about Liberia’s attitude toward agriculture.
The image is a 2014 Google Earth photograph of the Guinean and Liberian sides of the border (yellow line) near Gbedin, the site of major rice project during the Tolbert administration. To our reader’s dismay, he saw a series of organized parcels of land – agricultural developments – along the Guinean side of the border, while on the Liberian side, the image shows only forested areas and settlements, hardly any farming activity to speak of. Agriculture activities along the Guinea side of the border are purportedly part of that country’s ‘Agriculture, Trade and Foreign Exchange Strategy: Organized Farms near Ganta and Gbedin’.
“This is where a lot of our foreign exchange is going!” he exclaimed. “The Guineans have learned that Liberians are not serious about agriculture, since our market women go there every week to buy produce with which to supply the Liberian population. So [by establishing large farms right along the border with Liberia], they are drawing our foreign exchange into their economy, while we have government officials being named African Minister of the year and so on.”
The man’s discovery of the Google Earth image of the Liberia-Guinea border could not have been timelier, with the African Union Summit was just underway in Equatorial Guinea. There, One.org together with Nigerian pop star D’banj and other African musicians and CSOs hand-delivered their petition to several African Heads of State including Presidents Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, Yayi Boni of Benin, John Mahama of Ghana, Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, and Macky Sall of Senegal.
“It is time for our leaders to step up and Do Agric at this year’s summit during the AU Year of Agriculture. Millions of smallholder farmers are counting on you—including the over 2 million African citizens who have signed the Do Agric petition and the 400 million who live on less than a dollar a day,” said One.org’s Executive Director for Africa, Dr. Sipho S. Moyo, ahead of the summit.
Receiving the petition on June 10 in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, President Jakaya Kikwete promised to “champion this cause at the AU Summit. I will present this petition to the other Heads of State. We as African governments cannot succeed in taking agriculture forward unless we modernize it, instead of our people continuing to use the hand-held hoe and other farming implements from pre-biblical times.”
Ghana’s President John Mahama accepted the petition in Accra, Ghana on June 20. He hailed the initiative and reiterated Ghana’s commitment to improving the lives of smallholder farmers, adding that “your campaign is preaching to the converted as we in Ghana are already stepping up the policies and investments in agriculture.”
The Do Agric petition contains a bucket list of recommendations to AU members that, if adopted, could among other things boost yields for smallholder farmers and a reduced food import expense, which currently stands at about $25 billion annually. Africa could also benefit from increased food availability for the 265 million Africans who are under-nourished; increased intra-Africa trade benefits, estimated to reach $2 trillion by 2030; increased incomes for farming families through reduced post-harvest loss which today stands at $48 billion a year; and increased food production and agro-processing, providing millions of jobs for African youth.
Noteworthy are Nigeria’s Coordinating Minister for the Economy Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Agriculture Minister Adesina Akinwumi, both of who also received the petition.
ONE.org officially launched its “Do Agric, It Pays” campaign on January 20, 2014 along the margins of the 22nd Ordinary Session of the AU Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in support of the 2014 AU Year of Agriculture. The campaign encourages African governments to keep their 2003 Maputo promise to invest at least 10% of national budgets in agriculture, and makes a case for better strategic policies and transparent public investments that will better support smallholder farmers, especially women, and lift millions of Africans out of poverty. Well over 2 million persons have signed the Do Agric petition so far, totaling 97% of the target number of signatures.
“We came together because we know Africa is rising,” says Nigerian recording artist D’banj. “Yet the farmers who produce most of our food still struggle to survive. 70% of Africans are employed in agriculture. This week’s AU Summit in Malabo is a historic opportunity for you to change the lives of millions of Africans and create a better future for our youth through better agricultural investment.”
Meanwhile, back in rural Liberia, smallholder famers are still desperately yearning for the support of the Agriculture Ministry and other relevant functionaries of government to come to their aid. They are haunted every year by lack of technical support to improve and maximize their output; lack of means (roads, etc) to get their produce to markets; as well as funding needed for acquiring more efficient farming methods and equipment. Even though the Central Bank of Liberia has made available some US$7 million to commercial banks to help farmers, the banks are requiring Monrovia-based land as collateral, which is essentially a non-starter for most small Liberian farmers.
There are no quick solutions or easy answers, the Central Bank has already noted. Over the last three years, the Bank reported, some of the country’s top agricultural exports – rubber and cocoa – suffered, contributing to the hike in the exchange rate. Although 2013 saw a slight rebound in cocoa exports, there is a need for serious investment in mechanized farming to give Liberian cocoa (and coffee) the attention it needs on the world market.
There are, however, noteworthy sprouts of hope. The newly established Liberia Collateral Registry is expected to count “movable assets” as acceptable collateral for commercial loans, essentially allowing farmers to bank their enterprises using their projected harvests as potential collateral. There is also the phenomenon of school gardens gaining traction around the country, nurturing a renewed passion for planting, targeting Liberia’s youth. The school gardens are effective because the students are fed at school from what they grow, thus learning discipline, diligence and pride in achieving good results alongside core agricultural skills. With guided practice as well as deliberate investment and encouragement from government and relevant stakeholders, this could be the window of opportunity for fighting poverty in Liberia. Like the youth themselves, such opportunities will take time to mature. And then, with hard work, only time will tell.