Gongloe is talking about food insecurity in Liberia

Cllr Gongloe ( in dark glasses) on a recent visit to rural Liberia

By Seltue Karweaye

In a speech delivered in Nimba County during the launching of an agriculture project by the World Foundation International (WFI), Presidential candidate Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe stressed the significance of revamping the agriculture sector of Liberia with an emphasis on rice production to solve Liberia’s collective food insecurity problems.

He appealed for Liberians to start planting their staple food (rice) locally. According to him, the consumption and regular scarcity of rice which is mostly imported, have shown that it is not sustainable.

He lamented local cultivation of rice will lead to more insights on better innovative ways of moving from subsistence farming to commercial farming thereby improving food security in Liberia.

We are glad Cllr. Gongloe is bringing up the issues of food insecurity in Liberia and proposing solutions to our food security challenges. Food security remains a chronic challenge to Liberia’s
sociopolitical stability.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), approximately 64 percent of Liberians live below the absolute poverty line.

In the 2021 Global Hungry Index, Liberia ranks 110 out of 116 countries. 38.9% of the population in Liberia is undernourished, 3.4% of children under five are wasted, 29.8 % of children under five are stunted, 8.5% of children die before the fifth birthday.

Undernourished children suffer from irreparable mental retardation and physical growth retardation; they become unable to study and drop out of the education system, remaining at best in the role of unskilled workers for their whole lives.

Despite the constant emphasis on agriculture as a core aspect of the Liberia economy, past and present governments have ignored or inadequately confronted the long-term impact of food insecurity on Liberia’s stability and economic growth.

In his speech, Cllr Gongloe mentioned Egypt, a country that is mostly desert lands but manages to secure food security and exportation of agricultural products around the world. The area of agricultural land in Egypt is confined to the Nile valley and delta, with a few oases and some arable land in the Sinai.

The entire crop area is irrigated, except for some rain-fed areas on the Mediterranean coast, yet the country is aiming to increase its gross domestic product (GDP) contribution of its agriculture sector to 12 percent by 2024, in addition to increasing agricultural production by 30 percent by 2024.

According to Egyptian Minister of Planning and Economic Development Hala El-Said, the increase will create job opportunities in the sector, and increase the income of small farmers as well as double the sector’s share in exports from 17 percent in 2020 to 25 percent in 2024.

Israel is the poster child for a nation that has turned the odds in its favor agriculturally. More than half its land is desert and the climate is unsuitable for agriculture, yet, it is a world leader in
agricultural technologies and a major exporter of fresh produces. Only 20% of Israeli land is arable yet it produces 95% of its nutritional requirements.

Liberia on the other hand, according to the FAO, has a total land area of 9,632,000 hectares with an agricultural area of 1893.52 hectares.

In simple terms, about 70% or more of the land in Liberia is arable, out of which less than half is currently under cultivation. Not only do we have vast amounts of arable land, we also have favorable weather for the year-round cultivation of crops as Cllr Gongloe had rightly stated.

Endowed with vast and varied natural resources, large biodiversity, lush vegetation, and a climate favorable to agriculture, Liberia has enormous potential in food and cash crop production. Despite the foregoing, Liberia does not produce enough food for internal consumption.

According to FAO, the 2020 national rice production was estimated at 270 000 tonnes, similar to the five-year average and slightly below the previous year.

The 2020 FAO statistics placed Liberia among the highest importer of rice in the world as well as wheat, and sugar. Rice for human consumption accounts for over 80 percent of imports, while wheat and maize account for about 13 percent and 6 percent. Sadly, these are all products that can be grown locally and if managed properly, can be exported.

A 2015 emergency food security assessment found that food insecurity affects 16 percent of households, including 2 percent that is severely food insecure. For one-fourth of Liberian families, food accounts for more than 65 percent of their total expenditures

It is more saddening to know that Liberia once shone in its agricultural sector during the ’60s and ’70s is in such a deplorable state. This was the period when agriculture was not as mechanized and technologically advanced as it is now.

All these factors notwithstanding, Liberia competed satisfactorily in world exports.

Liberia was also the largest exporter of rubber between the early
1960s and 70s. Devastatingly, there was a decline from around 1974 till date; these days, Liberia does not feature among the top 5 rubber exporters in the world.

Ivory Coast, a neighboring country best known as the world’s top cocoa producer, is presently Africa’s leading grower of natural rubber and the fourth largest in the world.

Ivory Coast’s natural rubber output is expected to reach 1.1 million tonnes in 2021, up almost 16% from about 950,000 tonnes the previous year. Provisional port data showed that Ivory Coast exported 1.2 million tonnes of rubber in 2020.

For a country blessed with so many food production endowments, the 2021 Global Hunger Index (GHI) scored Liberia at 33.3 This index assesses all available data on hunger, undernourishment,
and the pattern of food consumption within countries, and the higher the score, the more serious the nation’s hunger challenges.

The score of 33.3 for Liberia, therefore, indicate a ‘serious’ hunger
problem in the country. Ironically, nations like Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, and Jordan which are substantially desert nations scored less than 14 on the GHI, indicating the near absence of hunger and malnutrition.

In his speech, Cllr Gongloe suggested the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) should play a pivotal role in finding ways to solve Liberia’s collective food insecurity problem by focusing its attention on agriculture through the formation of a robust agriculture battalion. This is an excellent suggestion.

In Rwanda, the Rwanda Defense Force assists Rwandan farmers in different farming activities across the country during Army Week. The army also assists with medical operations and construction of houses and was instrumental in fighting the 2018 Fall Army Worms that destroyed more than a tonne of maize crop per hectare in Rwanda.

The Rwanda Defense Force has since rebranded the Army Week to Rwanda Defence Force Citizen Outreach Programme.

In July of 2021, the Ghanaians Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Vice Admiral Seth Amoama launched Operation Demeter. Operation Demeter was introduced into the Ghana Armed Forces (GAF) to allow army units to produce foodstuff by undertaking agricultural activities to boost food production in the country.

Nigeria established the Nigerian Army Farms and Ranches Limited to assist with achieving food security and boosting Agribusiness Development in Nigeria.

The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) were created in 1908 as a means of securing Liberia’s borders against foreign encroachment. Unfortunately, the army assumed two essential responsibilities: tax
collection—one might say “taxation without representation”—and suppression of dissent.

After Liberia’s two civil wars, the Armed Forces of Liberia were built from scratch. The U.S. government spent more than $300 million to recruit and train Liberian soldiers. For the first time in Liberia’s history, we can now boast of the military that is well regarded, respectful of authority, is popular with the people, and professional in representing the state.

Cllr Gongloe is right that the AFL can assist in solving Liberia’s food insecurity problems. Our armed forces in line with the government’s agriculture policy can assist with increasing food production and diversification of the present farming system to attain sustainable food security and poverty reduction.

For the agricultural sector to be restored as the mainstream of our economy, the spending priorities of the governments must genuinely reflect a national commitment to the sector specifically rice production.

Allocating less than US$7 million of the budget to the agricultural sector, while relying on donor projects from USAID, EU, IDA, AFDB, etc. to assist the sector is insufficient to enable us to attain the food sufficiency we direly need, much less position us to be a major exporter of cash crops.

The African Union (AU) target of 10% of the budget applies particularly more to the central government where most of the actual cultivation and production of crops takes place.

Even with donor projects toward the agricultural sector in Liberia, we are still at 9% which is below the AU threshold.

What exactly is the problem with past and current governments that the issue of food security – the adequate production and availability of food within the country is treated with such levity?

Could it be that the daily provision of millions of US dollars maintenance of our government officials and their families has deluded our leaders from the hunger that abounds just
outside the walls of their abode?

Are our leaders so disconnected from the citizens that they do not appreciate the hunger and malnutrition problems that many households face daily?

Let us look at the 2020/2021 national budget approved by the legislature and signed into law by the President for some answers or lack of them.

In the 2020/2021 budget, the total provision for the Agricultural sector by the government of Liberia is put at U$ 6.4 million (1% of the budget) and was earmarked for recurrent expenses (compensation of employees, goods, and services as well as non-financial assets).

In 2003, one of the most prominent decisions arrived at during the African Union (AU) Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa was the “commitment to the allocation of at least 10 percent of national budgetary resources to agriculture and rural development policy implementation within five years”.

Eighteen (18) years after that declaration, Liberia’s budgetary provision for agriculture is less than 2%.

Scrutinizing the budget further, it is worrying to see how the largest proportions of the funds are earmarked for recurrent spending. For instance, the Central Agricultural Research Institute has a total allocation of US$1,354.028 with US$1,110,044 for
employee’s compensation.

There are compensations for goods and services (US$243,984), consultancy fees (US$40,000) as well as agricultural supplies & input (US$58,849).

Liberia is not in the top ten in terms of global rubber exports. Despite this, we believe that if the funds were tipped more in favor of capital expenditure on research and development, extension, and technical support services, we may just move up to be among the top ten or five sometime soon.

Many more of these lopsided expenditures abound within the agricultural sector.

The National Institute of Freshwater Fish has a total allocation of US$595,040. The compensation of employees is $518,568. Goods and services are put at $76,472. One wonders what deliverables accrue to the nation and citizens from all the huge recurrent spending.

In his speech, Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe strongly criticized the executive and legislative branches of government for awarding the national legislature USS$3.6 million in the 2020/2021 budget in the name of their so-called Legislative Engagement and Public Accessibility and US$328,589 for the so-called Constituency Visits with each legislator being given US$30,000 for the legislature engagement and more than US$8,000 for the constituency visit.

In the 2021/2022 budget, the national legislature is proposing to spend US$3.6 million for the so-called Legislative Engagement, Public accessibility, US$960,121 for the so-called Constituency Visit, as well as US$729,000 for Legislative Committee Hearings. His criticism of the legislature is spot on. Agriculture is a practical and ground-based profession. The enormous personnel costs incurred on redundant legislators add little or nothing to food security in Liberia.

Those funds budgeted for the legislature need to be invested in research institutes and the real pilot production sites (farms) and the acquisition of the seedlings, fertilizers, chemicals, and equipment required to make them boost crop output.

Studies indicate every US dollar spent on agricultural research produces nine dollars’ worth of added food in developing countries. Agricultural research successfully drove the first Green Revolution in Asia and can also do the same in Liberia.

Gongloe is also talking about the reactivation of the Agricultural and Cooperative Development Bank (ACDB) to empower farmers financially.

The bank was established in 1978 and created by the government through an act of legislation. Its main functions and responsibilities were to make loans to farmers and their organizations in order to increase agricultural production.

Prior to the civil war, the government had an Agriculture Cooperative Development Bank, which provided loans to farmers throughout the country with the sole purpose of developing and empowering them to grow their products and pay back the loan in a time frame. Agriculture can be a major sector of the production economy in Liberia and provide employment.

With little competition, large and growing demand for food (Rice), and favorable environmental conditions as well as trade deficit in agricultural products where demands continue to rise, it creates
immense opportunity for those willing to invest in revitalizing the sector. Agriculture can be a major sector of the production economy in Liberia and provide employment.

We are glad Cllr. Gongloe has brought the issues of food insecurity in Liberia to the national discourse.