Jeanine Cooper: It will take roughly 2 years to have Liberia reduce rice imports.
President George Weah has stated that agriculture remains a major pillar of the country development agenda and that he needed to find an individual who possesses not only the knowledge of agriculture but practical skills to matche his vision for agricultural transformation. It is in this regard that he recently appointed Madam Jeanine Cooper, founder and chief executive officer of Fabrar Liberia, as his new agriculture minister-designate, subject to confirmation by the Senate.
The new minister-designate faces the Senate on Tuesday, January 4, 2020 for confirmation. If successful, she will become the second Agriculture minister under the Weah's administration, succeeding Dr. Mogana Flomo, who was dismissed in June 2019.
But what does the new minister designate bring to the job to add value to the agricultural sector, which is saddled with great challenges?
Funding for the sector remains low as far as 2% of the total national budget for fiscal year 2019-2020, except for money that comes from external sources. As a result of limited funding, many smallholder farmers are still lack adequate support, especially via extension services, to improve productivity.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily Observer over the weekend, Madam Cooper said that the major problem with agriculture in Liberia is not the inability of the Government to increase budget for agriculture but that the failure of the Government to strictly monitor supports that come from external sources.
"The past Government did mobilize enough resources to support agriculture but the problem is that projects have never been well supervised. We must ensure that assistance from international partners address basic constraints to its fullest to have transformation," she said.
"Many projects come into the country without the Government insisting what is needed to be addressed by these our partners. If confirmed, I will ensure that we inform our partners on those areas we are lacking for necessary assistance," she added.
Madam Cooper founded FABRAR Liberia in 2009 and has been managing the company since January 2017. From a micro-milling operation, purchasing rice from smallholder farmers, FABRAR has grown to be Liberia's largest rice producer, supplying school-feeding and other institutional contracts, as well as supermarkets and retailers. In 2018, FABRAR began growing red rice through a consortium of farmers, most of whom are women, and exporting it to retailers in the United States and Europe.
She said that although the rice sector experiences low productivity, subsidy for rice farmers and processors are something she can work toward in her capacity as minister.
"We cannot boost the local production of rice if the farmers are not subsidized. The Government must encourage commercial banks to invest in the farming sector to improve production, mainly for rice," she said.
She said it would take her roughly two years to work with rice farmers to reduce importation.
Commenting on the improvement of agricultural extension and research, the minister-designate said the country's farmers must be introduced to improved technologies to access data that can address their farming constraints.
"The World now depends on mobile technologies to enhance agricultural extension for farmers although this does not rule out human labor. We shall teach our farmers to improve their knowledge through technologies and other means," she said.
She added that this is time for the government to invest more resources to enable farmers mechanize.
More to come...