25 August 2014

Liberia: No Shortage Despite Ebola - Commerce Minister Says Prices Stable

Monrovia — The outbreak of the deadly virus in Liberia has had an adverse effect on all sectors of the economy with some businesses, hiking prices of basic commodities but Commerce Minister Axel Addy has told FrontPageAfrica that basic commodities, including the nation's staple food rice are still insufficient supply as there is no shortage to warrant increment in prices. Since the increase in cases of Ebola beginning July, Liberians have been complaining that prices of basic commodities, including rice, gasoline and sanitary materials are skyrocketing on the local market.

There has been rumors lingering the streets of Monrovia that there is a shortage of basic commodities in the country, something the Ministry of Commerce has refuted. A mother of four, Martha Kollie sitting on a low wooden bench on a porch with a radio next to her looks weary and worry. Martha attributed the trend of events occurring in the country as being responsible for her poor physique.

She says the hike in the price of basic commodities is making her to believe that there will be rice and gasoline shortage. Ma-Martha explained that her decision to buy two bags of rice is based on rumors of a would-be rice shortage. "Where I bought my rice the man who owns the shop told me to buy more rice because ships are not coming to Liberia because of the Ebola", she says.

Ma-Martha further said: "I believe him because when I listened to the radio other country are not allowed planes to come to Liberia even Ivory Coast our next door neighbor is stopping ships from coming to Liberia so why I should not be worried",.

Civil war lessons

She says the fourteen years of civil war has taught her enough lessons not to overlook any rumors. "The two bags of rice will carry me for the next two to three months by this time the Ebola will be over", Ma-Martha said. But with people like Martha has fears over rumors about the shortage of basic commodities, Commerce Minister Axel Addy says the ministry has dispatched inspectors in the field to ensure that wholesalers and retailers are in compliance with the stipulated price.

Minister Addy said: "We don't want business owners, taking advantage of the current situation to increase prices because the operation is going on normally, we encourage the public to use the hotline, we will be all out there, we just dispatched a team on the field to address this issue." Minister Addy explained that the Free port of Monrovia is functioning in spite of the Ebola outbreak.

He continued: "We want the public to know that the port of Monrovia is open for business, there is a stringent measure put in place to ensure that the product doesn't get terminated, that ship can still come to the port and there are ships still coming to port, business as usual." He says the Ministry of commerce is ensuring that there is a stable food supply on the market.

Government subsidy rice for West Point

The quarantining of West Point is creating food shortages and pressure on food prices in that area, but the Minister Addy says the government has subsidized rice by fifty percent in West Point. A wholesaler in West point James Wesley said, the agreement between them [wholesalers] and the government would see rice been sole half the real price.

"For now the rice the government giving us will be so half of the normal price, the price for 25kg will be LD$750 based on the government intervention. The government is paying fifty percent. For me what we are doing is serving your people and not time to make profit in this time of crisis," Wesley. He said, prior to the agreement between the government and business owners the price of rice in West Point was high.

Major Importer says No shortage

A major importer of rice, Samuel Falley, General Manager of the United Commodity Incorporated (UCI) said that there is no shortage of rice on the market. "Our inventory stands around 29,000 metric tons, as you can see we have three warehouses the rice is sufficient, the rice on the market is sufficient we do not foresee any shortage," he said. Manager Mr. Falley disclosed that a vessel bringing 900,000 metric tons of rice will be docking in September, saying "so there is no need to panic, our prices remain the same."

According to him, the increase in prices by retailers is something that he does not have control over. "The increase in the price of rice by the retailers is beyond my control, but our prices remain the same, nobody should create artificial shortage", he explained. The importer continued: "we are working to ensure that the market do not run out of rice, we have people in Maryland, Ganta and Grand Bassa to ensure that rice reaches all parts of the country."

Sethi Brothers, the major Manufacturer of rubber buckets, used to combat Ebola says prices of buckets have not changed. Sam Tokpah, sales manager of Sethi Brothers said, his company is producing more buckets to meet the growing demands of the population in the wake of Ebola.

"The price of a bucket remains the same despite the demand. We only manufacture baked at this moment and the only product selling faster is the bucket," Tokpah said. Despite all the measures being put in place by the government to keep trade ongoing the outbreak has already had a toll on the Liberian Economy.

The Liberian economy had been expected to grow by 5.9% in 2014 according to economists estimate, but the country's Finance Minister, Amara Konneh, says the growth projection is no longer realistic due to a slowdown in the transport and services sectors and the departure of foreign workers because of Ebola. A number of big mining firms have evacuated foreign staff and shut down non-essential operations in Liberia. China Union, which began shipping iron ore out of Liberia, this year, is scaling down its activities and has threatened to shut down temporarily if the outbreak is not contained.

The world's largest steelmaker Arcelor Mittal has seen work disrupted on its iron ore mine expansion project in Yekepa in Liberia, after contractors declared "force majeure" and moved people out of the country. The closure of borders in Liberia and the suspension of flights are also having a detrimental effect on trade, severely limiting the ability of the country to export and import goods.

More than four major airlines coming to Liberia including Asky, Arik, Gambia Airline, amongst others, have all suspended flights to the country over Ebola. Kenya Airways one of three airlines still plying recently announced that it is suspending flights to and from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Also Brussels Airlines is weighting the options after several countries denied it permission to make a temporary landing because of its flights from Ebola affected countries including Liberia.


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