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The Quest For Development: Liberia, Our way out

Many decades ago, economists, politicians, and development practitioners began the search to discover the means by which Africa could become rich.  With a little success, the quest remains one of the challenges facing our continent.  The problems seem very common in every part of Africa: lack of jobs, electricity, pave roads and running water to name a few.  The difficulty is that most governments have failed to apply the principles of development in practical policy work. They have ignored the agro-sector in which we have comparative advantage. If our governments had strategically invested into the agro-sector, we would have seen huge growth in many parts of Africa. Alas, politicians and development experts are always in hurry to fix problems. As a result, they tend to ignore this vibrant and fundamental sector of our economies.

Every development process should be grounded on one of the following sectors: agricultural sector or manufacturing sector or service sector.  Oftentimes, nations gradually move from one sector to another.  That is to say from agro-based to industrial-based economy and then to service sector.  Any country that maintains and follows this trend is very likely to have sustainable and long term growth.  Most African nations are at the first step of economic development, i.e. the agro-economic level. So we should fully develop and improve this sector in order to sustain our growth.  The point I am trying to make is that we need sustainable development and economic growth based on agro-economy. Since my research interest is in food production and development in the Mano River Region. I will narrow down my discussion to Liberia in this op-ed piece.

Liberia’s development vision and economic growth should be grounded on agro-economic sector. This is because Liberia has comparative advantage in agriculture. Comparative advantage refers to the ability of a nation to produce a particular good or service at a lower marginal and opportunity cost. Liberia has a climate favourable to agriculture. That is to say Liberia has huge potential in food and cash crop production.  In addition, it has plenty of fertile land with river or water source(s) in walking distance.  Arguably, our rich agro-sector will be the engine of long-term sustainable growth.  Improving our agro-sector will definitely absorb 40 to 50 percent of our working population.

There is no magic bullet to fix problems facing local farmers.  In most cases, small-and medium-scale farmers are unable to produce large quantity of produce or crops because they lack the resources and knowledge.  Similarly, these are some of the difficulties facing local farmers in Liberia. But we can help them overcome these difficulties. How can this work?   Above all, we need to put in place proper mechanisms and strategies that will develop and improve our agro-sector. One promising strategy is to promote the concept of sharing resources, information, and knowledge among farmers.  Based on this, I have developed a simple agriculture model: “Shared-Resources Model”.  Shared-Resources Model (SRM) enables farmers help farmers – build their capacity and increase production.   For example, farmers might be able to share farming equipments and information in order to maximize their production.  This means that small-and medium-scale farmers will have access to valuable farming tools, knowledge, information and loans.   SRM will also empower Liberians to invest in medium and large scale plantations. Under this model, large-scale farmers will have some social responsibility to help small-scale food producers maximize their production scales.  This will have enormous impact on local food production.  No doubt we have an advantage in agro-economy to make Liberia a better place.

But the Liberian government should act swiftly and strategically to secure this advantage.  Interestingly, a strategic move will enable Liberia in the long run to compete with Ghana and Ivory Coast in cocoa and coffee beans production. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that we might out pass Ghana. This is because the Ghanaian economy is gradually moving from agro-based economy to industrial-based and oil production. The trend or shift seems normal in Ghana. I am not going to dip into the current growth in Ghana. So let’s turn back to Liberia… By smartly investing into our agricultural sector will place Liberia on the map of major coffee and cocoa beans producers. The demand for coffee and cocoa is increasing days in and days out. Because there is a new and growing demand for coffee and cocoa in some emerging markets, for instance China and India.

I have touched on cash crops production – coffee and cocoa beans. What about food production? The same model could work very well for food production. We have an excellent environment for cattle breeding and poultry farming. Liberia needs to dramatically reduce chicken and meat import in the next three to five years.  We also need to empower local cassava and beans producers in Grand Bassa or Lofa County to export part of their produce or crops on the international market. For example, grounded cassava could be shipped to North America, Europe and Australia to satisfy the growing demand for local Liberian food called “Fufu” or “GB” – Made in Liberia.

Shared-Resources Model will have huge impact on our nation. First, it will increase our food production capacity in taking care of domestic needs.  Many scholars in development studies and political economy have agreed that food production is the key to any development.  Second, in the long run, it will help create a large middle class based on cash crops production – coffee and coco beans.  Large middle class means that we will have more and more people working. This will also translate into more tax payers, which will improve government’s fiscal position. Third, Liberia will become the food hub of West Africa.  We have the potential to feed most part(s) of West Africa.

Selling or renting land to foreign base companies is not a perfect way out. This does mean that I am against foreign direct investment (FDI) into the agricultural sectors. I am big a proponent or fan of FDI.  But the trouble with this approach is that every dollar generated over 60% will be going out of the country. In contrary, if we encourage more local ownerships, we will have the reverse of this. By this I mean we will have over 60% of every dollar generated staying in Liberia.  Empowering Liberians to own large-scale plantations will break the cycle of poverty. As noted previously, it will absorb over 40% of our working population. At this point, you might seem to appreciate my “Shared-Resources Model”. But you might also start to wonder about the difficulties of getting financial resources to achieve this goal, Money…

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All of this seems so easy on paper but very difficult in reality. One of the major problems will be funding. Liberia is a poor country struggling to clean up the mess from 14 years of civil war.  But I am sure Liberians living aboard seem to love Liberia so much.  Conceivably, the Central Bank could consider issuing or selling Diaspora-Liberians- Bonds (Agro-development bonds).  This is a great option for the Liberian government. It will enable the government to raise enough money for this program.   For example, if we have 5,000 Liberians living in Australia and everybody decides to buy a bond for $ 100. This is an enormous amount of money.  You can do the math!  Through this program local farmers could easily get loans to buy land, heavy or light equipments and fertilizers with a little or no interest on the money borrow. Alternatively, the government could design a better mechanism to raise funds, because they may have many experts in this area.  In my final research paper/work I will outline in details how Shared-Resources Model can better work in Liberia.

In conclusion, I am challenging the minds of young Liberians to start thinking about how to move Liberia forward. We have the advantage to productively use our land and become a rich nation.  Ideas without actions will make no difference.  Let’s stop irresponsible political activism and discussion.  Maya Angelou has eloquently made the point, “if you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”

Musa V. Sheriff
Vancouver, BC Canada
Email: haidaramv@yahoo.com

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