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October 27, 2009

Liberia faces many post-war challenges to reviving agriculture

by Boakai Fofana

Nathaniel Ziayee and his family live in a single-room hut built with mud bricks and palm branches, held firmly together by sticks cut from the bushes that surround their small farm.He is a 56-year-old farmer who feeds his wife and nine children on what he earns from his plot of land in lower Margibi, just outside the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

“The government needs to come and help us kill the germs so we can get food to eat,” Ziayee says about the pests that hinder farming activities here. But he and his neighbors are not content just to eke out a daily living through subsistence farming. “I want to send food to the market this year,” says Ziayee.

Liberia’s climate is tropical and humid, with heavy downpours occurring during the six-month rainy season. It has one of the largest rainforests in Africa. Before the outbreak of civil war in 1989, many people took to agriculture as government campaigns encouraged people to “go back to the soil.” Crops from large farms further inland were brought to urban markets in large trucks. Students used school breaks to help relatives make farms. But during the war many people fled their farms, and fighters often ransacked the property, crops and produce that were left behind.

The war ended in 2003 and efforts are underway to rehabilitate the agriculture sector. Although agriculture is one area that the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hopes will spur economic growth and reduce poverty, the challenges are many. In 2008, the Agriculture Ministry listed low productivity and poor profit, crop pests and the lack of good road networks as some major factors affecting the sector’s development.

“Now we are planting all over here - plantain, pineapple and all sorts of fruits,” says Esther Gayou, a middle-aged farmer and mother of five. “My husband is not working. He has to go in the swamp and cut bamboo for us to [be able to] eat.” With her daughter on her lap, Gayou is emotional as she describes growing crops for her family, only to find “the ants were eating them up.” She said she sometimes buys pesticide with the little money she has, but it is not sufficient. However, Gayou says she is lucky not to have land near a swamp, as do some of her friends who were having difficulty planting crops.

The problem of swampy land is one that Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoeth wants to address. At a meeting in New York in September, she told representatives of U.S. foundations involved in Liberia that the swamps pose health as well as logistical problems for farmers, most of whom are women. The rate of malaria infection is higher in the wet areas, she said, and drainage projects are urgently needed – a challenge the foundations agreed to address.

A poverty assessment report completed last August by the Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services shows that poverty remains especially pervasive in rural areas. The Participatory Poverty Assessment (PPA) report lists poverty indicators such as poor housing, inadequate food and limited or no income. The report shows a 71 percent poverty level among crop farmers.

However, Chenoeth says she is confident that Liberia will achieve its farming development goals and food security. Liberia has signed the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), a product of the New Partnership For Africa’s Development (NEPAD), which aims to accelerate agricultural growth and eliminate poverty on the continent.

“Liberia's share of the national budget for agriculture is still less than 3.4 percent,” says Chenoeth. This figure falls short of the 10 percent national budget requirement set by the African Union (AU) to accelerate agricultural development.

Chenoeth believes that reaching the AU goal can accelerate Liberia’s overall economic growth by six percent. Agriculture is an integral part of Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, the government’s road map to national economic recovery. Acknowledging the major role agriculture plays in economic growth and the reduction of poverty, the government has pledged to increase resources to the sector.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are complementing Liberia’s effort to improve agricultural output. Among them is the Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (ACDI/VOCA), a U.S. nonprofit that promotes economic activities in developing countries through areas such as food security and agribusiness.

ACDI/VOCA’s project, Livelihood Improvements for Farming Enterprise (LIFE), sharpens the skills of farmers while assisting them with farming equipment and credit access to increase their yields.

“We have seen huge improvements in farmer incomes,” says LIFE project head Robin Wheeler, who believes government and NGO handouts are not sustainable. “What we do is empower people...We help you to do things for yourself.”

“Liberia has tremendous potential for agriculture,” Wheeler adds. “The country has 40 percent of West Africa’s virgin forest. For such a small area, it has unparalleled mineral resources, but the biggest long-term potential resource is agriculture.”

Wheeler believes almost anything can be grown in Liberia's tropical climate, but says a focus on production alone is not going to change things.

“What we need to have is a value-chain focus which looks at the things that are needed in the market and what it takes to get those products there,” he says.

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