Long queues were spotted at the Old Road Joe Bar and Rally Time Markets Monday July 6, as the Commerce Ministry launched a vigorous inspection for rice, the country’s staple, forcing businesses to sell at lower prices.
The move which was greeted with cheers by Liberians witnessed a rush to buy a 25 kg rice at the cost of 2,700, instead of 4,000 as had been hiked by dealers for the past weeks. For some weeks now there has been rumor of rice shortage on the Liberian market but the Commerce Ministry denied the rumor and blamed local provision shops for hoarding rice to create a false impression that there is rice shortage in country.
The ministry said it had to intervene at some business centers Monday, July 6, instructing sale of 25kg bag of rice LD$2,700, down from hiked price of LD$4,000.
This paper made an inquiry with the Ministry of Commerce Monday evening, following the incident in which consumers were seen in long queues to purchase rice, but in most cases were denied by local dealers or priced exorbitantly at some point for LD$3,500 or LD$4,000.
This incident came Monday despite a strongly worded statement issued by the ministry over the weekend, insisting that there is no shortage of the nation's staple, rice on the market. Mr. Jacob Parley, the Director of Communications at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, told this paper via mobile Monday that it is true that people queued for rice, but there is no rice shortage.
According to him, after the ministry issued the strongly worded statement over the weekend, there were people who still did not believe in what was said. As such, he notes that the ministry took the media to the Freeport of Monrovia where the media and the ministry's team toured two rice warehouses stocked with rice.
To raid the market of dubious practices, he says the team went out into the field based on tips from informers that some businesses were hoarding the product which is suspected to be responsible for [people's rush for the product]. At Rally Time Market for instance, he says there was information that a Fulani man's shop known as A.J. Business Center would refuse to sell rice to buyers, and at one point he would also sell it but at a cost of LD$4,000 or LD$3,000 at another time.
When engaged by the ministry's team why he was not selling the rice to consumers, Mr. Parley explains that the businessman claimed that the rice was already paid for by other customers who had yet to take delivery.
But due to the businessman's failure to produce receipts to authenticate this claim, Mr. Parley furthers that business people were predominantly market women who joined the queue as the ministry instructed the sale of the rice for LD$2,700.
At that same market, he says another business center called Moudou, was caught to be engaged in similar practice, prompting the ministry's intervention. He explains that a business known as Modu Business Center in the Old Road Community was similarly engaged in selling rice either LD$3,000 or LD$4,000, as alleged by consumers.
When the Commerce Ministry's team discovered a pile of rice in the shop, Mr. Parley says it also took similar decision by selling the rice for LD$2,700, and did same to other businesses that were caught.
"So if you saw people in queue on the Old Road, Rally Time Market, yes it is true. But that [does not have] to suggest that there [was] shortage, but there were people who were found hoarding the product and so we have to move in ... ," he says. He notes that Monday's exercise was sparked by wild speculation about rice shortage which the ministry says is untrue.
Over the weekend, the ministry dismissed fears and rumors that there is rice shortage here, saying the Country's current rice inventory shows that such speculations are far from the reality. It explained that based on the current inventory, there are 40,000 (forty thousand) Metric Tons of rice in the country, accounting for 1.6 million bags of the 25Kg rice.
It said further that the available quantity has the capacity to supply the local rice market for approximately three months, and that besides, a consignment of 30,000 Metric Tons, equivalent to 1.2 million bags of rice is expected in Liberia this July that will sustain the local market for two months.
The Ministry also notes that out of this quantity (thirty thousand Metric Tons) expected, 18,000 Metric Tons are due in between July 12 and 18, 2020. An additional supply of 55,000 (fifty five thousand) Metric Tons are expected in the country in August this year, accounting for 2.2 million, equivalent to about four months' supply.
"We would also like to make it emphatically clear that the approved retail price for the 25Kg bag of Rice is US$13.50 (thirty United States Dollars and fifty cents)," he says. Against this backdrop, the Commerce Ministry is warning against unwholesome practices in the Liberian business sector, including but not limited to hoarding of any commodity for that matter or arbitrary stepping up of its price, adding that it will not relent to apply the appropriate laws in going after those whose inordinate desire is to profiteer at the expense of the public, especially during these testing days of the Coronavirus Pandemic in Liberia.
"At the same time, we admonish the public to work along with the Ministry's Inspectorate by reporting any unhealthy practices in the Liberian business sector as collaboration plays a pivotal role in curtailing such unwholesome activities," he concludes.