Liberia: Agriculture Minister Has No Regrets About Changes - Stepping On Hornet's Nests

Monrovia — Agriculture Minister Jeanie Milly Cooper triggered a firestorm back in April when she took the controversial decision to cancel a bidding process for heavy-duty tractors and other agricultural equipment in order to rationalize spending of donor funds.

She did not stop there. Breaking the bureaucratic channels of the African Development Bank amid accusations that she breached protocol of the Public Procurement Concessions Commission and the government, the minister went on to request a new bid that includes an expanded list of equipment better suited to Liberia's climate and topography; more aligned to farmers' needs and for smaller farm sizes and rationalized with agricultural assets already on ground.

The heavy-duty tractors and other agricultural equipment were to be purchased through a multi donor-funded project under the Ministry of Agriculture named: "Smallholder Agricultural Productivity Enhancement & Commercialization (SAPEC)".

Stance 'Uncomfortable for some people'

They contained 17 pieces of equipment, parts and accessories. But the re-tendering bid was expanded to 40 types of equipment that more directly benefit to rice producers, cassava processors and vegetable farmers. Some very expensive equipment in the original bid were actually duplicates of machines that had been purchased through other projects in the past and are sitting unused in the Ministry warehouses.

Explaining her rationale for the decision, Minister Cooper, in an exclusive interview with FrontPageAfrica this week said that most of the equipment on the list were duplicates of equipment which had been purchased years ago but never used.

"I said, this one, this one, they do the same function, this is not the best for our kind of soil, you're about to buy 15 of them we don't need them. This tractor here is heavy for a small holder farmer, it's good if you have a farm like... CARI has a larger farm, some of our cooperatives have large farms but you'll not get the kind of use that you can get out of a smaller tractor that is more agile and more versatile. And I went down through the list. I gave them 40 items, I said if you going to use this money to buy agriculture machinery to transform this sector, this is the kind of list we should be looking at, not that list. And he said, Minister, you're hundred percent right, you're correct. So, we had some discussions. Processes sometimes are really key in some institutions and even the government and I come in with my logic-trumping process and that's not popular stance and so it was uncomfortable for some people."

The minster said she used her technical expertise to make a decision she believes will benefit farmers and Liberia in the long term. "I'm a technical person and I wanted to know. Several weeks went by and then they opened the bids and I said, well, I asked you all you include some other equipment, we don't have much time. That project was coming to an end the end of June. The rainy season for me was my most urgent thing, so I wanted to get equipment in here for the rainy season. When I saw the outcome (of the bid) I said but we do not even have the companies that have equipment here on the ground and everything that the bid is focused on has to be imported and it takes weeks, if not months. If not till after several months. I know because I've been buying agriculture equipment and I know how long it takes to get here."

Defending 'Logical Decision'

The minister said she has no regrets about the decision. "That's a logical decision. Coming from the private sector you make decisions like that all the time. It doesn't make sense for me to buy this set of tires when I know it wouldn't last, I will rather go for tires that would last my car, etc. etc. Choices between brands."

When she brought it to the attention of her team, things began to get ugly. "There was silence from the team, they were taking time and all of a sudden, they started putting things in the newspapers that I'm trying to favor my friends. I was like, which friend? Everybody bidding on that thing I know them. That's some of the benefits of getting somebody in the field who knows the agriculture sector here. I know all of them. I've interacted with all of them. I know their capacities and I know their abilities. I'm not even talking about those people. The people I was taking about were not included on the bid. And just accusation, I said okay something must be going on here and at the same time the Bank wrote and said we understand that you cancel... We had put out a press release when I visited CARI and I was like we're going to make sure we rationalize how government spends its money. Squarely that's one of those honest nests on rationalizing on something that's already been decided."

The minister acknowledged the ADB initially had concerns. "So, the Bank said, well we have a procurement process and should go through and that's how it works."

The minister said she insisted that some of the equipment just did not make sense for Liberia at this time. "It doesn't make sense. Will we use process over substance? Is that what our needs are? To have bunch of equipment like that ones ADA had here parked for years? Or do we try to do the right thing while we can? We still time to make some purchase. There was a lot of back and forth, but a lot of things were being misrepresented in the press by different journalists. Things started to take an ugly turn and we had to organize some high-level meetings with the African Development Bank, and we explained because they were hearing the stories, too, and said we don't really understand. The funny thing is, the director for the project is a technical person. They wrote me a letter which has been shared. They asked me if you say it's not correct why are you saying that? We had given our responses weeks before, but the project team has chosen not to share it. I said, okay. You want to know why? Then I wrote item by item telling them why."

As a result of the back-and-forth on the controversy, the minister said the ADB has agreed that the money that was going toward this equipment bid be put toward the emergency response of the COVID-19.

Compromise Reach with ADB

It's a negotiation component by component until we get something, they are comfortable with and we are comfortable with. There's that US$3.1 million that instead of purchasing equipment has been put toward purchasing seeds and even purchasing seeds from the region where we don't have enough seeds here. It's going towards particularly something that they are very interested in - expanding our digital agriculture capacity.

Most of that money is going toward setting up those systems and that's something they feel we can build on. Further to that, there is additional money that they are bringing on board, US$16.3 million, which they have said for the equipment part that we couldn't do in that last component let's see whatever your priorities as a government.

So, we have a very beautiful relationship. It took some negotiation and there were some misunderstandings, fueled by false stories; but we've overcome that weeks ago. What's being put out, there in the press right now is unproductive. We've moved on and now instead of three million Euros, we are looking at US$20 million from the African Development Bank. It's all going to go towards agriculture, it's all going to go towards the kind of sustainable transformative plans that we have and they're fully on board.

The minister expressed regrets that the controversy has hindered her efforts to reform the agriculture sector. "I regret the loss of personal time, I regret things like the unsavory kinds of things that have been said and done regardless of whatever you might say it does it a toll and do get very discouraging and get yourself asking, "Am I being foolish here wanting to change things? Change is hard and it's uncomfortable for many people who have gotten used to the status quo. But then you think about your focus, where you plan to go and then you say I'll just close my eye to that and move on."

The noise she says has taken a toll. "It's taking a heavy toll on my peace of mind. I had been tired from one high-profile career and you're starting to wind down. Before being offered this job, I was thinking how to downsize my activities, so I'll have more time for relaxation. You reach a certain age you want to do these things, so I said, now I'm going into something where because of my character I'm going to be working overtime, I know it."

Debunking Contracts' Termination

The minister has also faced criticisms that she dished out US$309, 630 to recent hires she brought on when she took over in early March and terminated contracts of old staffers.

Minister Cooper explained that there was actually only one contract terminated because the fiscal budget had not yet passed to sustain the person on the payroll. "We had one contract that we had to terminate, but this other is an administrative procedure. You have a contractor and the contract is coming to an end, you give them 30-days' notice that the contract is coming to an end. Legally, we are not required because it states in the contract that you have a contract from January 1 to December 31st, that's it. So, January 1st the following year, you need to have a new contract. But it's a courtesy. I did this every year with the UN. Everybody understands it, you get the 30 days ahead of time and then you spend that 30 days reviewing your performance and whatever and if it's possible to renew, you renew. Now, the government's fiscal year ends June 30th. We don't have the budget passed yet for 2020/2021 so you cannot commit the government to what it would be able to spend in 2021 budget until that budget is passed particularly in this economic environment when we don't know if the budget may need to be contracted further. What we put in there was a notification that the contracts were coming to an end and they may be renewed. A simple administrative procedure was taken way out of hand."

The minister said she requested a functional review from the Civil Service Agency (CSA) when she entered the Ministry. "Let's remember that I entered the Ministry two or three weeks before COVID and so before they had time to even react, we are now all working from home and certain things have dropped from the radar. I'm renewing that request. Particularly, I want to take this opportunity to look at the functions in the ministry. Where do we have too much, where do we have too little? How can we rationalize what we have, how can we do better with that is available to us? One of the things I noticed is that it's very heavy, about 40 percent is on administration. About four or five percent is on logistics."

Holding no punches or regrets, Minister Cooper hoped that those who embraced her appointment will allow her the space to transform and bring about the change needed to turn the agriculture sector around. "Transformation is a bumpy road, it's not a straight shot, so there may be missteps, side steps as you get there, let's give each other a chance. Let's see where we are."

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