Liberia is recovering from a 14-year civil conflict and quarter century of instability that killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced three-quarters of the population.
The war decimated the west African nation, leaving it dependent on agricultural imports, largely food aid. While the agricultural sector still faces enormous infrastructural and capacity constraints, agriculture minister Dr. Florence Chenoweth is optimistic that the country can feed itself within five years. AllAfrica's Boakai Fofana and Tami Hultman talked to her in Monrovia.
Anything that moved became dinner
Our major challenge has been rebuilding an agricultural sector that was so systematically broken over 25 years. When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took over [in 2006, as Africa's first woman elected head of state], we inherited an agricultural system where there was no animal life. During our long years of unrest, anything that moved - any animal - became dinner. We fully decimated our animal life and our germplasm.
There were no seeds, nothing to plant. We have had to build from there; restocking the animal life and regenerating our germplasm.
We need to work hard to rebuild the agricultural sector within the shortest possible time. We currently have a capacity problem - all of our professionals left the country during the war. However, we've developed a scholarships program at all the major institutions - specifically for agriculture students. Within the next 10 years, in order to drive the major concessions this government has brought in, we have to train about 71,000 people for jobs in agriculture. We currently train up to the PhD level, because we need scientists at all levels - as well mid-level technicians. My next goal is to expand our training to high schools.
I'm happy to see our staff members go abroad to train so that they can return and take over. I can't do this much longer. When I was Minister of Agriculture in the late 1970s, I was young and full of energy and ideas - I came in at 32. I was out there training farmers to use tractors. Now we've gone back to cutlasses. It just breaks your heart.
I'm 66 now. Where do I get the energy to do this? [Laughs]. But when you see the need and you see the leadership and the dedication of our president, we give it our all.
Five years of progress
We have worked fast and hard to the point where within less than five years, we now have some animal life in the agricultural sector. We have re-established some of the inland fisheries. We are doing our own cattle breeding. Furthermore, for the first time in Liberia's history, we have [produced] our own foundation rice seeds. We are very proud that our scientists have managed to achieve this.
In five years, we have decentralized the Ministry of Agriculture. We have fully-operating offices in each of the fifteen counties. Now our farmers do not have to travel to Monrovia - they can deal with the government and the Ministry of Agriculture in every country. We guarantee our farmers - with support from our government and with some assistance from our Japanese partners - that if they produce surplus, we'll buy it, process it, and market it.
A $46.5 million award for agriculture
In June, we were among four countries to win a Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) grant. Liberia got $46.5 million. The maximum a country can receive is $50 million. So I'll take the $46.5 million!
It's been two years of very hard work. Liberia became CAADP (Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Program) compliant in October 2009. [Among other things, CAADP requires that signatory countries commit at least 10 per cent of their national budget to agriculture.] Then we worked toward stage two, where we developed a country-specific program. Our development partners joined us in preparing LASP - Liberia Agriculture Sectoral Program, a peer review process involving experts around the world. LASP qualified us for the GASFP competition, a $240 million fund run through the World Bank - but all donors have a say. Countries submit proposals and hope and pray that they'll qualify.
We propose to spend the money in 12 counties. We have three counties that are called the breadbasket - Nimba, Bong, and Lofa. Those are where most of our development partners have been focusing - lots of money in those counties. So this $46.5 million will be spent in the rest of the 12 counties - trying to uplift them. We'll ensure that we're not going to them with cutlasses and hoes, but that we are going with machines, tractors, power tillers, and processing machines.
Right now, what is leading the agricultural sector investment is rubber and oil palm. Apart from this $46.5 million we've just won, we are very close to reaching agreement for a program that will deal only with tree crops - cocoa, coffee, oil palm for small scale farmers, and rubber. The biggest challenge in the rubber sector is for producers to cut down those old trees and replant - faster, higher yielding varieties; no more waiting for those long years for rubber trees to yield.
Apart from rice, we want to push more cassava production. Cassava is our second staple food. What we're providing farmers now is high-yielding cassava - shorter duration, much bigger yields.
We've worked with the Ministry of Commerce to ensure that our farmers can have a guaranteed market for their produce. We have an emphasis on employing youth and women in the agricultural sector - but we'll be working with male farmers also. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel - counties that originally produced rice will continue to do so, and the same goes for cassava, beans.
Overall, we want to send a message to Liberians, saying, "Grow more, eat what you grow, and diversify."
We should feed ourselves
We are not trying to build an agricultural sector to get back to 1980s level; we're trying to build an agricultural sector of the 21st century.
Before the war, we were two-thirds of the way in producing our major staple. After the war, we went back to 100 percent importation. But right now, we're up at least to one-third of what we consume - we've decreased importation by one third.
We've not come this far all by ourselves. To maximize the funding that our government provides, we work collaboratively with our colleagues. We work very closely with the Ministry of Commerce. It makes no sense to encourage farmers to produce when they can't sell.
We no longer just want to be a provider of raw materials. All of the concession agreements that this government has signed in agriculture are at the second or third stage. We're not producing to send out raw materials. We have to work on rubber, so that we do value-addition here.
Working with the Ministry of Commerce, we already have a program at our university in Maryland. Those students will learn to use rubber wood to make building materials, beautiful furniture, and to use the latex to make gloves and so forth.
Within the next three weeks, we will release some rice to the market. We were able to produce local rice - 100 percent - for our school-feeding program. The World Food Programme (WFP) buys from our local farmers. We hope to be able to supply WFP with all the beans they need within the next one year. We think big - we cannot afford to think small, because we have to provide the engine for growth.
We are pushing for value-addition everywhere. We can now process our wonderful palm oil into refined cooking oil - you can buy it in all supermarkets. When you eat margarine within the next four years, it'll be produced in Liberia. When you use soap and soap products, it'll be produced here from our own oil palm. I say to all the young people: "Give us four years; our country will be completely different." Right now, we have the trees [planted] in the ground. Within four years, you'll be eating margarine produced here. There'll be so many jobs.
I see no reason why, with the momentum and goodwill that we currently have, we should pass five years without being able to feed ourselves.
There's absolutely no reason why we shouldn't. During the president's annual message at the Capitol building, she had (accompanying her) farmers who produce rice right here in Montserrado County. Those small farmers produced rice, which we bought back from them as seed and handed a check to them for US$10,861. There is no reason why it cannot be done.