By Ambulah Mamey, International Agricultural Development Practitioner

Key Messages:

  1. Liberia still produces less than half (0.2) cup of rice per Liberian, per day after spending hundreds of millions on projects to be self-sufficient in rice production.
  • Almost half of a billion (437.02 million USD) accounts for financial flow to Liberia’s agriculture sector- specifically the crop-subsector between 2018 and 2022.
  • The African Union has consistently ranked Liberia “NOT ON TRACK” to transforming its agricultural sector. Liberia failed 22 of 24 progress indicators in AU latest report.
  • 96% of farmers in Liberia relied on informal market as the main source of seeds, fertilizers and other inputs because agricultural market is not functional. The World Bank says Liberia is the worst place for farmers to operate their business.
  • Cocoa, farmers in Liberia received 69.79% less average yield/hectare than farmers in Cote’ d’Ivoire, 69.22% less than farmers in Guinea, 65.6% less than farmers in Sierra Leone and 66.6% less than farmers in Ghana. Rice farmers are experiencing almost the same.
  • No poor country in the world has ever reduced poverty without increasing agricultural productivity. If Liberia should move out of poverty, it must prioritize the transformation of its agriculture sector and improve agricultural productivity!!
  • Liberians must sit up, shine their eyes, and begin to demand real sustainable results from stakeholders in the agricultural sector- especially NGOs and the Government.

Liberia produces less than half (0.2) cup of rice (its staple food) per Liberian, per day. But on average, a Liberian need a little over 1cup of rice per day. The rice per capita deficit is happening after decades of multiple donors and government projects- costing hundreds of millions of United States Dollars- that promise to make the country self-sufficient in rice production.

Most recently, from 2018 to 2022, almost half of a billion (437.02 million USD) accounts for financial flow to Liberia’s agriculture sector- specifically the crop subsector. This amount does not include financial flow to other subsectors including a 40 million committed to the fishery subsector and several other millions spent on “improving” Liberia’s agricultural sector by an army of NGOs deployed across the country. Of the 437.02 million, 145.9 million (33%) was committed before 2018, but only 18.6million was spent before 2018; leaving the remaining 127.2 million available for the current Administration to spend. The 437.02 million is in the form of grants 172,118,287.9 (39%), FAO’s projects 7.84M (2%), Government of Liberia’s budgetary support to agriculture 19.01M (4.35%), loans that Liberia will repay with interest, 185.6 M (42%) and 52.4 M (12%) from other sources including beneficiary and private sector contribution to donor projects, and the Government of Liberia’s indirect support that includes tax waivers.

Data are scarce in Liberia, and when they are available, they tend to be incomplete. Hence, the data collated and presented above- may not be the most accurate but present a good picture of agricultural spending and commitment between 2018 and 2022. The anecdotal estimate has it that- before 2018- over a billion was spent to make Liberia self-sufficient in rice production. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), World Bank, African Development Bank (AFDB), USAID, and FAO were and are currently the major donors or lenders. There is also an “army” of agricultural NGOs working to improve Liberia’s agriculture sector.

Except for three of the current projects that are scheduled to last for 4-6 years, funds from these organizations are spread across short-term (2-3yrs) projects, implemented piecemeal across Liberia. The projects are designed a bit differently with unique acronyms to match, but all projects work practically towards the same goals: to enable smallholder farmers to improve productivity and increase production and to improve agricultural markets. The projects also seek to increase farmers’ income, reduce poverty, and food import and improve food security and nutrition. For example, the AFDB and the Global Agriculture and Food and Security Program (GAFSP) say their “Smallholder Agricultural Productivity Enhancement and Commercialization Project” and “Smallholder Agriculture Development for Food and Nutrition Security (SADFONS) are being implemented to “Increase farmers’ income through crop intensification, value addition and market development and to improve food and nutrition security and reduce poverty; respectively. The World Bank says its “Rural Economic Transformation Project (RETRAP)” is aimed at “increasing productivity and market access for farmers and agri-enterprises” while IFAD’s Tree Crop Extension Projects have been seeking to improve the incomes and climate change resilience of smallholder cocoa producers.

Short-term agricultural loans, grants, and projects promising pathways to food self-sufficiency, and poverty alleviation have old footprints and are not new in Liberia. The AfDB’s first agricultural project was implemented in Liberia in 1968 and it sought to increase rice production. Later in 1977 the FAO entered Liberia and has been working to revitalize the agriculture sector. IFAD came in 1981 with its first smallholder rice seed project to increase rice production and has not left- except during the war. But previous and current interventions- costing billions of dollars- have not been able to transform Liberia’s agriculture to deliver what the country desperately needs and what its agricultural sector holds the key to provide: strong economic growth, food, and nutrition security and sustained rural poverty reduction and jobs for urban youths.

NOT ON TRACK to Agricultural Transformation: 15 years of Poor Agricultural Productivity, Low Production, Increased Rice Import, and Poor Nutrition Outcome

After decades of spending billions to transform Liberia’s agriculture, the following facts ought to make Liberians sit up, pay attention, and begin to demand accountability from NGOs and the government. Since 2017 (the year the African Union began tracking its members’ progress towards a transformed agricultural sector) Liberia has been consistently ranked “NOT ON TRACK” to transforming its agricultural sector. On the AU’s latest scorecard, Liberia failed 22 of the 24 indicators of progress; including, 0 out of 3 points for its capacity to engage in evidence-based agricultural intervention, 1.3 out of 8.25 points for farmers’ access to fertilizers, seeds, and other inputs, 0.58 out of 10 points for farmers’ access to finance and 2.38 out of 10 points for public expenditure on agriculture and 1.69 points out of 3 points for food security and nutrition.

The “NOT ON TRACK” is consistent with many situations in Liberia and the following highlights of the agricultural input market- especially for seeds and fertilizers- are revealing. Agricultural Input Markets are among the first set of structures required to ensure the adequate supply of improved inputs (seeds, fertilizers, insecticide, and technology) to farmers, to boost productivity on their farms and increase production. But in Liberia, the market remains largely informal, disorganized, and hence, continuously failing to provide the quality and quantity of farm inputs the farmers need.

Up to 2017, about 96% of farmers in Liberia relied on the informal and unregulated market as the primary source of inputs. This informal market features traders from neighboring countries who supply mostly counterfeit/uncertified seeds, and fertilizers that contribute to low production quantity and poor quality that has kept many farmers in recurrent financial losses, and food deficit after months of hard labor. The number of farmers that use certified seeds in Liberia for the major crops (including rice and cassava) is just 8,137 (4%) of the approximately 203,442 farmers because the input market is nonfunctional and there is less attention directed to developing and enforcing policies that increase confidence for private investment. The dire situation with Liberia’s agricultural market is further explained in the “Enabling The Business for Agriculture (EBA)”, a World Bank study that examines to what extent governments make it easier or harder for farmers to operate their businesses. The EBA ranks Liberia the worst (101 out of 101 countries studied) in its overall 2019 ranking; revealing that fragile countries, including Haiti, Mali, Sudan, and Iraq, scored better than Liberia in the overall ranking for enabling agricultural business. On a scale of 0 to 100 for registering fertilizers and supplying seeds, Liberia scored 0 for registering fertilizers and 7.4 for seed supply. Something very disturbing about the World Bank’s EBA report is that Liberia’s miserable performance is reported after another unit of the World Bank, USAID, AFDB, the Swedish Government and other NGOs have spent at least 200 million on no less than six projects (1, 2,3, 4, 5, 6) that are focused- in a significant part or whole- on “developing agricultural market”, reforming agricultural markets”, “improving market access for farmers and agri-enterprises”.

These poor outcomes are further revealed in the trend and status of the productivity and production of major crops in Liberia, food imports and their attendant cost, and nutrition outcome -especially food-related non-communicable diseases. For the past 15 years (2006- 2020) the average yield per hectare for rice, cassava, and cocoa farmers in Liberia was significantly lower than their counterparts in neighboring countries (See Figure-2).

Figure-2: Source- Computed using FAO Data

Cocoa, farmers in Liberia received 69.79% less average yield/hectare than farmers in Cote’ d’Ivoire, 69.22% less than farmers in Guinea, 65.6% less than farmers in Sierra Leone and 66.6% less than farmers in Ghana. Rice farmers in Liberia received 50.2% less average yield/hectare than farmers in Cote’ d’Ivoire received; 13.1% less than farmers in Guinea, 20.2% less than farmers in Sierra Leone and 45.8% less than farmers in Ghana. Rice is Liberia’s staple food, and almost every past and current leader in Liberia (President, Senator, Representative)- has promised to make Liberia self-sufficient in rice production. But after 15years of uninterrupted peace and spending billions to increase rice production, Liberia remains a food deficit country with a 15 years (2006-2020) average rice (milled) production of 181,411.13 metric tons; 568,588.87 metric tons or 68.17% less than the 750 thousand metric tons Liberians demand every year. At the current average production (181,411.13 MTH) and the current population of 5.058 million, Liberia’s rice value chain provides less than half (0.2) cup of rice per Liberian per day. On average, a Liberian consumes over 1cup of rice per day. Instead of taking bold but evidence-baked action to increase rice production and address the per capita rice deficit, Liberia finds comfort in importing rice. As the population grows, the rice deficit increases, and the import quantity and cost to import rice grows. Over the last 15years, rice import has gone north: from 210 thousand metric tons in 2006 to approximately 400 thousand metric tons in 2020; costing Liberia at least 200 million on average.

The stark underperformance of the sector is influencing diet-related non-communicable diseases and other poor nutrition outcomes among Liberians as many revert to inadequate or low-quality food because of the unavailability and unaffordability of their required diet. Except for child wasting and stunting, Liberia is either off course or experiencing worsening conditions for the remaining 11 global nutrition targets. Particularly stark is Liberia’s limited progress towards reducing diet-related non-communicable disease.

Do We Still Need the Army of NGOs and Short-Term Multilateral Projects to Transform Liberia’s Agricultural?

The state of agriculture in Liberia could be worst without the NGO and multilateral projects, but Liberia’s agricultural sector will not get significantly better by relying on NGOs and multilateral projects as we do now NGOs have very important roles to play. They are good at diagnosing and “treating the symptoms” of agricultural development problems but have no good record of “curing” those problems. Liberia’s chronic agricultural development problems need an urgent cure, and because the country’s policy makers’ longstanding conviction in NGOs’ and multilateral short-term projects has proved naïve, it is time for a structural reorientation of the approach to agricultural transformation.

Such reorientation demands a lot; but to begin with, Liberians need a strong showing of their government in the agricultural sector as a strategic and major participant with predictable interventions and as an effective enabler of private capital flow and functional agricultural markets. “Political will” must be manifested in increased agricultural spending, but only on evidence-informed, outcome-based, and impact-focused interventions that are intentionally designed to be rigorously assessed for progress, challenges, and new lessons. Obviously, the current purchase and untargeted distribution of mineral fertilizers to farmers- without knowing the nutrient needs of their soil- is not one of the interventions.

For the army of NGOs and multilaterals, they will need to retreat faster than the current snail pace to doing what the evidence shows is the best ways to use their resources: facilitate, encourage, and support locally owned and managed initiatives and enhance the responsiveness of government services. Most importantly, Liberia needs Liberians, the media, and project beneficiaries or participants to sit up, pay keen attention, and begin to demand transparency and accountability from NGOs and the government for funds they receive, projects they implement, and what they promise those projects would deliver.

A well-functioning agricultural sector is the fastest and most equitable “forklift” to lift and keep Liberians out of poverty. Absolutely nothing other than agriculture can be a more reliable source of food security, jobs for rural and urban youths, foreign exchange, savings, and sustainable economic development for Liberia. From Asia, Europe, the Americas, it is growth in agriculture- for the most part- that enabled countries to record remarkable economic transformation and improve living standards. In Africa- closer to Liberia- the impressive economic transformation across Africa (South of the Sahara) beginning in the 2000s was driven mainly by the agriculture production growth rate. With all that has happened over the past 15 years ( 2006-2020), it is urgent that every Liberians sit up, shine their eyes and begin to demand real sustainable results from stakeholders in the agricultural sector- especially the NGOs and the Government.

Author: Ambulah Mamey is an International Agricultural Development Practitioner. The views expressed in the article are personal and do not represent any of the institutions he works with, or the DayLight.

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