19 May 2017

Liberia: Wither, Liberian Agriculture?

The nation yesterday morning awoke to a shocking surprise--the replacement of Agriculture Minister Moses Zinnah by his Deputy for Technical Services, Madam Seklau Wiles.

The breaking news came late Wednesday night, in the State radio ELBC's 10 o'clock newscast.

What caused the sudden announcement is what everyone would like to know. Minister Zinnah's boss, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, dropped the bombshell just as she was departing for a private visit to the United States. But the public would not know until Madam President was far into the skies, well on her way to Washington.

It is a well-known fact that the President, in her nearly 11 and a half years in office, has had hard luck with her Agriculture Ministers, most especially the first two--Dr. J. Chris Toe and Dr. Florence Chenoweth, both of whom had been well trained in Agriculture, each having attained the PhD.

So what were the problems with the first two? Both had had considerable experiences in the field of agriculture long before Ellen called them to office. Chris had served in the 1970s and 80s in one of the most successful agricultural enterprises Liberia had ever known, the Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC). President Sirleaf called him from the presidency of Strayer College in Washington, D.C. But just as he took up the new assignment, there was an ongoing boom in the price of natural rubber, and two major rubber plantations, the Cavalla Rubber Plantation in Maryland County and the Guthrie Rubber Plantation in Bomi County, whose original owners having long departed the country, were now in the hands of the Liberian government. The government contracted the National Rubber Planters Association (NTAL) to run both plantations, and they did so with efficiency. But the passing of liquid cash--United States dollars--seemed too lucrative and NTAL soon found itself out of both deals. This led to great controversies and confusion between the Agriculture Ministry and Rubber Planters, which Chris Toe did not survive.

Then entered Dr. Florence Chenoweth as Ellen's second Agriculture Minister. It was Florence's second time holding the post. She served as Agriculture Minister for many years in the Tolbert government. Dr. Chenoweth was in office far longer than Dr. Toe's three years, but with the same difference--not much to account for. In her over six years as Agriculture Minister, Liberia remained a net importer of food--and we are talking not only of our staple, rice, but also meat--believe it or not, chicken and even eggs, massive amounts of these from Holland and other European countries; and also vegetables, including fresh tomatoes and even bitter ball, from neighboring countries with the same rainfall and soil as Liberia.

Nor did Ministers Toe and Chenoweth, when the rubber price was good, have the foresight to diversify some of the rubber money--or encouraging rubber planters to grow coffee and cocoa, whose prices on the world market were great at the time. Cocoa until recently was over US$2000 per metric ton, and there were modern varieties of the product that were ready for production in less than three years, compared to five to six years for older varieties.

Oh! How we in Liberia have become so accustomed to wasting our time, for absolutely no reason except our lackadaisical nature, our penchant for greed, selfishness and lack of vision. We indulge in shortsighted inaction while our neighbors forge ahead, leaving us consistently behind.

When Dr. Moses Zinnah, Ellen's third Agriculture Minister, was appointed in August 2015, this newspaper, the Daily Observer, immediately embraced him and flooded him with all kinds of advice to help him succeed. When we called him yesterday to find out what had happened, why his sudden removal, he said the President did not think he was moving fast enough with the achievements she had expected. He further complained about 'meetings, meetings, meetings,' that normally left him only night time to work. What of time to visit the farmers, and to undertake sustained supervision to make sure that farmers were receiving the agricultural extension services required to help them grow better farms?

The new Agriculture Minister, Madam Seklau Wiles, has less than seven and a half months remaining on the job. But she has two great advantages: she is a well- trained Animal Husbandry expert and might be able to address our poultry and eggs problem by encouraging our poultry farmers to produce more, and our pig and cattle growers to set the stage for takeoff within the next few years.

Her second great advantage is her husband, Dr. Walter Wiles, also a well-trained agriculturist, who heads the nation's leading agricultural research outfit, the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI).

There is no way he can sit there, in that most critical position, and see her fail.

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