Liberia’s Rough Road to Rice Production

by Jessica Shor:

85 percent of calories consumed in Liberia come from rice, but after decades of turmoil and war the country relies on imports to feed itself—at a steep cost.


In 1979, Liberian Minister of Agriculture Florence Chenoweth proposed to raise the price of imported rice from $22 to $26 per 100-pound bag. It was an attempt to encourage domestic rice production, but the prospect of an increase to the cost of their dietary staple outraged Liberians. In protest, on April 14 of that year more than 12,000 citizens flooded the streets of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city.

The event became infamous as the 1979 rice riots, and what began as a peaceful protest turned into looting and chaos. In the mayhem on that steamy spring day, the Liberian army shot and killed dozens of civilians and wounded 500 more. The rice riots are widely blamed for sparking Liberia’s descent into civil war: They ushered in a series of assassinations and coups that continued for ten years, until full-on war broke out in 1989.

Thirty years after the rice riots, Liberia is no closer to achieving rice self-sufficiency. According to United Nations estimates, 85 percent of calories consumed in Liberia come from rice, 90 percent of which is imported from places like the United States, China, and South and Southeast Asia. The problem is not just that the rice comes from abroad, but that it is astronomically expensive for Liberians: It carries an typical price tag of 30 cents per serving, in a country where average per capita income hovers around $1 per day.

Liberia’s low levels of domestic rice production are not for lack of demand, nor for lack of attention. Noting the grain’s importance, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf named rice a strategic commodity, placing it on par with oil and concrete. During elections, campaign officials purchase sacks of the grain to distribute to potential voters at election rallies, and on street corners throughout the country, women sit behind wheelbarrows of rice, doling it out to customers by the tin can-full. Beside coal stoves in restaurants and cooking huts alike, Liberians consume heaping plates of rice, smothered in spicy stews of palm butter, potato greens, fish, chicken, and bushmeat.

Liberia’s dependence on imported rice is part of a larger story, of the destruction of war and the struggle to recover. Between 1989 and 2003, fighting killed more than a quarter-million civilians, pushed waves of rural refugees into Monrovia, plunged Liberia to the bottom of human development index rankings, and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. These effects still linger today, posing obstacle after obstacle on the road to rice self-sufficiency.

These hurdles consume the thoughts of Dr. Sizi Subah, a government researcher and consultant at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Central Agriculture Research Institute (CARI). In his office on the outskirts of Monrovia, he asked the question that has long plagued policy makers and citizens alike. “Liberia has everything going for it. We have good land and good rainfall,” Dr. Subah said. “So why are we importing more than two-thirds of our rice?”

Dr. Subah is right to wonder why Liberia does not feed itself. Clinging to the coast of West Africa just above the Equator, Liberia enjoys the same environmental conditions that make countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, and India agricultural powerhouses. Slightly smaller than Virginia, the hilly country is hot and humid, with frequent downpours during the six-month rainy season. Monrovia, for example, receives an average of 202 inches of rain annually, making it the wettest capital city on earth. In this climate, rice should be thriving.

Yet as I drove through Lofa County, a rural region near the border of Guinea, swamp rice paddies lay fallow beside villages, their mud surfaces punctuated by only the occasional anemic tuft. It was July, and according to Dr. Subah, the rice seeds should have been planted in June, and the paddies should have been lush in preparation for an October harvest.

“Swamp rice paddies can be developed as permanent production sites,” Dr. Subah explained, describing how nutrient-rich runoff collects in the lowland paddies and keeps their soil especially rich. “You can farm them for time indefinite. But right now, what is farmed is only a drop in the bucket. We’re not even at two percent of potential.”

Most Liberians, including Dr. Subah, blame stalled attempts to increase rice production primarily on infrastructure–– or, more accurately, the lack thereof. 94 percent of Liberia’s roads are unpaved, and during the rains, these roads become slicks of rust red mud, impassible for days at a time. Even on dry days, the 300-mile drive from Monrovia to Lofa drags on for 14 joint-rattling hours, on a dirt road that boasts ruts large enough to swallow the tires of even the biggest trucks.

The World Bank has invested 218 million dollars into infrastructure rehabilitation in Liberia, and Chinese contractors have swooped in to complete the projects. Paving attempts, however, are concentrated in the capital. While several contractors have offered to repair roads that link iron mines to Monrovia’s port, few efforts have been made to repair the country’s impassable farm roads.

These roads have proved fatal to past attempts at growing rice commercially. In 2008, the Foundation for African Development Aid and the Libya-Africa Investment Portfolio (ADA/LAP) launched a 30-million dollar project to increase rice production in Lofa by mechanizing the cultivation process. It was the largest project of its kind, and it promised to employ 900 farmers and cultivate 2500 hectares of land. To reach these goals, ADA/LAP organizers imported equipment for planting, harvesting, processing, and storing the rice, but road conditions prevented that equipment from ever reaching the production sites–– or even leaving Monrovia. Three years after the project was announced, Liberian newspapers reported that the machines remained in the city, collecting rust and drawing complaints from frustrated farmers. The project ultimately folded after Libyans disposed of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

It is not only large-scale projects that face challenges posed by Liberia’s roads. On his family’s farm in Kakata, halfway between Monrovia and Lofa County, Fabio Velanet founded Fabrar Rice. Fabrar is one of only two companies that sell Liberian-grown rice commercially, and for now it is sold in only 12 Monrovia supermarkets and has monthly sales of less than $2000. But in the three years since he began production, Velanet has steadily expanded the company and has started to purchase surplus rice from nearby subsistence farmers. Yet often, Velanet finds that farmers resist his encouragement to increase production.

He explained, “Rice is our staple food. Everybody eats it, and everybody knows that we need to grow it. But there’s that apprehension, like, ‘If I grow too much, will I actually benefit from it? Will I actually be able to sell it, or will it rot? Am I wasting my money?’ I think you’re going to continue to see that trend where farmers don’t want to grow rice until they get that linkage between themselves and markets.”

Then he clarified: “It’s the roads. We just don’t have ‘em. Even if you could grow extra rice, there’s no way to get that rice to a market. Literally no way. Once the rains come, the best you could do is maybe get a bike to the farm, but that’s not going to work too well.”

In Kingsville, 40 minutes outside the capital, there exists proof of what Liberians can do when their fields sit beside a smoothly paved road. Beside the street, scrubby brush suddenly gives way to lush rice patties. The 20-acre fields form part of a seed farm and training center run by BRAC, a Bangladeshi NGO that has operated in Liberia since 2008. The paddies are test sites for new strains of rice under development, and BRAC recruits farmers from rural areas to practice cultivation in the Kingsville fields and attend trainings in the center.

In one session, Ousman Dorley, a BRAC employee, taught 20 rice farmers from Grand Gedeh County about everything from making homemade fertilizer, to using tobacco leaves to prevent insect infestations during storage, to choosing attractive and protective packaging for the finished product. During a mid-session break for crackers and tea, Josiah, one of the Grand Gedeh farmers, praised BRAC’s training sessions.

“Education never ends,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. “I am old, but my mind still learns. I live in the lowlands, and BRAC teaches me how to grow rice in them. It’s my first experience with BRAC, and they are fine, fine, fine. I learned so many things.”

The center’s gleaming tile and stucco facility, the productivity of its fields, and

its easy access to Monrovia’s markets show that BRAC can give farmers the resources that Subah and his Ministry cannot. But BRAC’s successes are not necessarily replicable in Liberia’s more isolated areas.

BRAC uses a network of local coordinators to draw farmers into its training program, but those representatives cannot reach every rural community in the country, and they cannot provide the equipment, like irrigation pipes and mechanized harvest tools, that is available at the Kingsville facility. Moreover, training alone cannot lure back the thousands of Liberians who left their farms for the city as refugees during the war and have not returned, choosing to stay in Monrovia for its educational and employment opportunities. The Grand Gedeh farmers at the BRAC training represent the lucky few; most of their peers remain on small, isolated farms, stooping to tend their fields with dull cutlasses and their bare hands.

BRAC’s limited reach in remote areas––and the government’s inability to step in––became spectacle on the eve of Liberia’s July 26 Independence Day. An excited crowd gathered around a stage in a field outside Voinjama, the capital of Lofa County. President Johnson Sirleaf and a cohort of political and business elites sat in a cluster of folding chairs, while the rest of the spectators crouched in the grass, swatting away mosquitoes as they watched the song and dance show that kicked off official Independence Day celebrations.

“They call Lofa the breadbasket of Liberia,”the emcee thundered into the cool jungle night. “But this next group wants to tell you how intensive rice farming really is!”

From the darkness, four men inched onto the stage, chopping down invisible weeds as they went. Pantomimed rain began to fall. Five women, their heads wrapped in white scarves and their legs swathed in patterned lapa, crept on stage, pretending to plant rice seeds to the beat of a beaded gourd. The line of women snaked across the stage, preparing for a rice harvest that, had it been planted in real fields, likely wouldn’t come.

“This is our message for the Ministry of Agriculture today,” the emcee proclaimed. “We can do better with improved agricultural tools!”

But the government didn’t hear the message that night. Before the dance ended, President Johnson Sirleaf and her companions left the show, the high beams of their SUVs sweeping over the crowd as they drove off.

It wasn’t the first time the government had turned a blind eye to the problems plaguing farmers. In 2003 the Liberian government signed onto an African Union declaration that encouraged states to allocate 10 percent of their annual budgets to agricultural development. By 2005, Liberia ranked dead last among the declaration’s signatories in terms of actual funds put towards farm improvements. According to Subah, the government’s $460 million 2011 budget contained only $1.5 million for the Ministry of Agriculture. Some citizens cry corruption, but others more generously attribute the slow progress to the government’s lack of funding and resources. Whatever their explanation, though, few Liberians consider current state-led efforts to promote domestic rice production adequate.

“They’re trying,” admitted Subah, “but our budget is not enough. It will never be enough.”

So, for the foreseeable future, rice still enters Liberian markets not from the land and the farmers, but through the vast Freeport of Monrovia and the merchants who import foreign rice. At the shipyard, armies of workers sling sacks of the grain onto trucks, for delivery to the distribution centers that line Monrovia’s main streets and market squares.

These shops are run by people like Mistress Mulbah, who owns a distribution center on Tubman Boulevard, Monrovia’s main thoroughfare. Prices, Mulbah said, are set by the government and vary by grain quality: Chinese butter rice costs $33 per 100-pound bag, for example, while U.S. parboiled rice goes for 36 dollars.

Mulbah turns a healthy profit––she declined to give exact figures––but she too wants to see her country grow its own rice, even if doing so would put her out of business. She admitted most Liberians cannot afford to buy her rice, and claimed domestic production would both make rice more affordable and also provide more income for farmers.

“If the government would only provide machines, or put in more interest,” Mulbah complained, shaking her head as she gestured to the bags of rice being loaded onto a truck. ‘Product of China,’ the bags read. “Our soil is better than theirs,” Mulbah lamented.

That may be true, but rice production cannot be extricated from the tangle of post-conflict obstacles that remain. Eight years after the last shots were fired, the need and desire for recovery are there. The rich, rust-red soil is there. But the roads, tools, and funds aren’t, and until they are, neither is the rice.

Jessica Shor ’13 is an Anthropology major in Ezra Stiles College. The research for this article was made possible with the support of the Kingsley Trust Association Fellowship and the Tristan Perlroth Prize.