Liberia: Plenty for the few, hunger for the majority

By Seltue Karweaye

A good proportion of young people today were taught from primary school that agriculture is the mainstay of the Liberian economy.

Agricultural Science as a subject is part of our educational curriculum and therefore taught at all levels of education.

Despite the constant emphasis on agriculture as a core aspect of the Liberia economy, the sector long since ceased to be the main revenue source since our country was formed.

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 produce. Only 20% of Israeli land is arable yet it produces 95% of its nutritional requirements.

Liberia on the other hand, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2016 statistics, 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 year-round cultivation of crops.

Endowed with vast and varied natural resources, a 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, also of wheat and for 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 soon.

It is more saddening to know that Liberia once shone in its agricultural sector during the 60’s and 70’s 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 exporters 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 five 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 much food production endowments, the 2020 Global Hunger Index (GHI) scored Liberia at 31.4. 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.

According to the ranking, the score of 31.4 for Liberia therefore indicates a ‘serious’ hunger problem in the country. Ironically, nations like Iran, Kuwait and Jordan which are substantially desert nations scored less than 10 on the GHI, indicating the near absence of hunger and malnutrition.

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 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 allocations 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. 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!

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

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 attain the food sufficiency we direly need, much less position us to be a major exporter of cash crops.

The AU target of 10% of budget applies particularly more to the central governments where most of the actual cultivation and production of crops take place. Even with donor projects toward the agricultural sector in Liberia, we are still at 9% which is below the AU threshold.

Agriculture must be made a priority bearing in mind that some of our resources are non-renewable, finite resources that will be exhausted sometime in the future, or replaced by greener or cheaper alternatives.

The budgetary allocation figures also need to be tilted sharply in favor of capital expenditures.

Agriculture is a practical and ground-based profession. The enormous personnel costs incurred on redundant government employees add little or nothing to the development of our agricultural sector.

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

There must be better coordination with infrastructural Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to aggressive investment in storage capacities, low-interest loans and greater extension and support services should command the attention of agricultural policy makers at governmental levels.

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

This does not refer to wasteful expenditure on personnel cost, engaging in excessive domestic and international travel, purchase of un-needed SUVs and other pea-brained budget heads that constitute the bulk of typical MDAs recurrent expenditures.

Worthwhile investment in biotechnological hardware, software and attracting the best and brightest minds to agricultural research will pay off in the medium to long term. Liberia must attain food sufficiency so that the paradox of hunger amid plenty will no longer apply to us.