By Solomon C. Hedd-Williams
Liberia is moving towards the dawn of an innovative future that is enshrined in a vision of progression through recovery and development by 2030. The President of Liberia Her Excellency, Madame Ellen Johnson – Sirleaf recent consultation with citizens of Bong County, signifies a start up dialogue to create a road map for broad based economic recovery which reverses the deterioration of our nation and fosters development that is sustainable.
However; with the abundance of natural resources and our vast arable landmass, we have to change the notion and belief that our country, Liberia is considered to be one of the poorest nation in the world. Therefore the key to the success of vision 2030 for broad based economic recovery and development in Liberia heavily depends on the development of the agriculture sector.
There have been measurable strides made by the current Liberian government through the Ministry of Agriculture in efforts to rehabilitate, revitalize and develop our nation’s agriculture sector. From the years in review (2006- 2009), the sector accounted for 42.2% of real GDP for 2008. In the agriculture sector, total employment more than double from 141,581 in 2007 to 295,354 in 2008 and growing, with agriculture and forestry accounting for 60% of that increase. Considering the years in review from 2006 to 2008, the sector has shown some level of growth rates in agriculture activities. Growth rates of 3% in 2006, 8.7 % in 2007 and 7.89 % in 2008.
Foreign investment in the sector has increased, with the emergence of large commercial agricultural concessions. The GOL has made some progress within the years and have concluded on several concession agreements with various commercial investors for the development of targeted sub-sectors within agriculture. The investment focus is now changing from rubber to other crops such as rice, oil palm, cocoa, and coffee. It should be well noted that some progress has been made with the construction of some feeder roads funded by both GOL and the Japanese government. The resumption of agricultural activities, has led to the improvement in food production.
Despite all of these valuable efforts, and other interventions by donors and the international community, growth in the sector remains stagnant; our food security status remains on a slow pace, dependence on foreign markets increasingly high, with the farming sector still under-performing. Most of our constraints are related to inadequate policies, procedures, transport, market infrastructure, lack of skilled and subject matter specialists, weak land tenure, management issues, post-harvest losses, techniques and underdeveloped value chains to mention a few. Our annual rice consumption as a nation is placed at 400,000 tons, yet we purchase about 90% of that which is imported thus costing the Liberian government $200 million USD and counting. The vision must adapt the Comprehensive African Development program model approach, which underscores key emphasis on increased funding and budgetary support to address key constraints in the sector through a market driven public sector led revolution, which revitalizes its focus on our smallholder farmers and rural communities.
To create strong linkages with other sectors and to reposition our agriculture sector in the National economy for the production of high value crops to contribute to our overall national food security. We must envision for our nation, a twenty-first century Ministry of Agriculture that is equipped With the necessary programs, services, technical capacity and policies to spur our nation’s agriculture growth and development. The low budgetary share of the national budget to the MOA has been significantly inadequate in planned programs and services to foster the operational capacity of the MOA. We must develop policies to increase our public and private agriculture funding. Increased funding must begin with the modernization of our Ministry Of Agriculture. There are several programs and services that can be added to the current Organizational chart under specific departments and divisions to make it more operational and functional.
The MOA should serve as a center piece of vision 2030 to meet the objective of closing the gap between capacity and need that currently exist in the sector. Strengthening of the various institutions to support the MOA’s operational capacity is pivotal to this vision. Under rural development, agricultural mechanization or engineering must play an operational role. The MOA should be well equipped with the necessary agro-machinery for land clearing, and feeder road construction for our farmers as well as being capable of building its own infrastructure as needed, to create an enabling environment for farming activity in the country, thus establishing an effective operational MOA under the direction of the current drive of decentralization at the County and District levels. The vision to divide the country into four agricultural regions, with Regional Agricultural Officers in each region to support the decentralization program within the Counties is a good policy. The idea is for County Agriculture Officers and Extension workers to take up assignment in counties that fall within a given region. Each region should be equipped with the necessary input and human capacity needed to carry out the work of a sub office structure of the MOA there by providing more structured support at the local level.
In addition the role of government has to change from that of direct extension to oversight. Ensuring contrast is adhered to and market prices are made available to our smallholder farmers transitioning them to high value crops and providing access to European markets. There must be direct attention to bread basket crops and identification of those areas and districts within our Counties that are considered to be soil suitable for high yielding crop variety. We should have a better understanding of our hardiness zones through a comprehensive study of our soil profile and water availability of the various Counties in selecting value chains that will be successful for many years to come. Our regulatory services should be strengthened to the fullest providing maximum protection on our food, animal and our fishery territorial water protection and safety across our border lines. This is a revenue generating avenue for the MOA and the Country at large.
Liberia must transition from the usual traditional method of slash and burn to mechanized farming systems. The introduction of high value crops requires significant investment in greater capabilities and storage and processing facilities. We should commence on mechanized farming through the encouragement of the private sector. Increased private sector investment is crucial in job creation and the economic viability of the country. We should utilize the pro-poor approach to raise agricultural productivity through commercialization .Our nation is a rice consuming country; we have the potential of keeping up with the pace of other rice producing countries especially Thailand and Vietnam. We do have the arable land capacity both low land and upland.
We must commence on a new approach that involves agricultural mechanization and commercialization which embraces a private sector driven agriculture investment growth with process engineering and value chain that will support our smallholder farmers out growing scheme. Farming tools and equipment are not meant to replace farmers but to compliment, support and accelerate their farming efforts and activities. We should begin with the gradual introduction of small handheld cultivators, tractors, tillers, rice cutters and combine harvesters to our farmers. With small handheld machinery, they will be able to prepare their land and at the same time adopt synchronized rice planting and other crop cultivation schedules.
Finally, the educational and support institutions must be updated with the necessary human and fiscal capacity for robust development of all departments, laboratories, and libraries to cope with the challenges of an advancing modern agriculture in Liberia. The development of its Department Of Mechanization and Engineering is also very important to the overall development of our land under mechanized farming. More equipment and land must be provided to our educational and support/ research institutions for career development, practical, planting trials and experimentation. These public institutions play a pivotal role in the broad based recovery and developmental agenda of the agriculture sector in Liberia and their inactivity only weakens the entire success of the process.
As our nation moves towards development and broad base economic recovery, the agriculture sector must serve as a yard stick in the transformation process of Liberia becoming a middle income Country, with a focus on women empowerment and the significant role they play in the agriculture sector development in Liberia. They plant, harvest and sell all of our locally produced and foreign agricultural commodities.
Solomon C. Hedd-Williams as a MSc, Agronomy.He can be reached at email@example.com