Liberians eat rice and chicken every day, but the West African nation relies mainly on imports for both commodities, as well as for about 80 percent of its overall food supply.
That, among other challenges, is something the new government of President George Manneh Weah hopes to change, with a little help from Georgia, a strong food-producing state with a history of helping build African nations’ capacity to feed themselves.
Mr. Weah’s agriculture minister, Mogana S. Flomo, Jr., made a stop in Atlanta this week to drum up partnerships that will move Liberia up the value chain and ultimately toward the impoverished country’s ambitious goal of becoming a net exporter of food.
“We’re looking for people who can work along the entire value chain, from the production stage to storage to processing to export, finding the right type of market linkages and all those things,” Dr. Flomo told Global Atlanta in a telephone interview.
He added that the government stands ready to provide incentives and grants such as land to those companies whose projects will benefit local communities. The government also can exempt from tariffs equipment or other goods foreign investors require to set up new processing operations.
“The entire thing is a win-win situation,” he said, noting that local farmers would be encouraged if they see the prospect of growing incomes through exports and creating value-added products.
The focus for cross-border collaborations is on projects that help the country diversify and enhance production. Liberia has long farmed rubber on a massive plantation run by U.S.-based Firestone, but volatility in global pricing has led to job cuts there.
Dr. Flomo said the country is rehabilitating cocoa farms decimated by war, as well as boosting palm oil and rice production.
One Georgia project already in the works is a proposed collaboration with the University of Georgia to create hatcheries that could supply broilers to chicken processing plants. That would help build a domestic industry rather than perpetuating they cycle of imports, said Cynthia Blandford, Liberia’s honorary consul general in Georgia, who hosted the minister’s visit.
“We import over $200 million in rice, and we eat rice three times a day,” she said, adding that Liberia was once even a producer of quality lobster and shrimp.
Ms. Blandford has spearheaded “sister” port and airport arrangements with Savannah, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, respectively, as well as many educational connections. She was singled out for her efforts during last year’s visit by then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
This week, Dr. Flomo visited the Atlanta airport to talk cargo, Georgia Tech to solicit startup connections and AGCO Corp., the Duluth-based Fortune 500 equipment maker, to learn more about its plans to boost mechanization in Africa.
AGCO, which makes Massey Ferguson and other tractor brands, announced Wednesday that it has set up a foundation focused on global food security. In recent years it has also debuted a “Farm in a Box,” a starter kit to help African farmers boost productivity. The company operates what it calls a “Future Farm” in Zambia that trains farmers on AGCO equipment.
Getting U.S. firms and individuals to invest won’t be simple. Liberia is still recovering from an Ebola outbreak starting in 2013 killed thousands and decimated the economy. Even before that, the country was just getting back on its feet following a civil war that raged throughout the 1990s. The country is now coming off a contentious election which even saw a former Coca-Cola Co. executive as a candidate.
Dr. Flomo remains undaunted and is committed to carrying out the Weah government’s “Pro-Poor” strategy focusing on agriculture, health care, infrastructure, youth development and the economy.
A big priority is improving standards so that Liberian products qualify for preferential tariff access under the African Growth and Opportunity Act in the U.S., he said. Part of that process will rely on upgrading outdated agricultural technology, which the country would welcome from the U.S. One desire is for a platform that would allow farmers to index crop pricing via their mobile phones to ensure fair treatment.
Ms. Blandford is taking an innovation and entrepreneurship delegation from Clark Atlanta University to the country in December, followed by a Georgia State University group that will focus on early childhood education. Both institutions have hosted Mandela Fellows in recent years.
Dr. Flomo said it’s these types of partnerships that give him optimism that the countries can work together for mutual benefit.
“That’s one thing that really moves me, and I really appreciate ether people of Georgia for their warmth and their willingness to work with Liberia to improve the condition of the Liberian agricultural sector,” he said. “We are going to work together to ensure that whoever chooses to work with us gets the just benefit for helping us.”