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China-Liberia Agricultural Technology Center in central Liberia: Prospects, opportunities and challenges

By Liberia journalist Fredrick P.W. Gaye, first published on Inprofiledaily

Prior to the civil war in 1990, agriculture was the main source of livelihood for the great majority of Liberians. Except on plantations operated by foreign concessionaires and wealthy Liberians, farming techniques are primitive. The “bush rotation” system of shifting cultivation is followed, in which the farmer clears wild forests or low bushes each year, lightly cultivates it with crude hand tools, and plants rice or cassava as the rainy season begins.

Following the civil war in 2003, Liberia was largely depending on donors for food.

However, China’s engagement with Liberia to boost food security has gone beyond donations. China continues to explore more opportunities for agricultural modernization in Liberia and the main focus has been on technology transfer and training.

On May 28, 2007, a Chinese delegation arrived in Harper, Maryland County, southeast of Liberia, to conduct feasibility studies for the establishment of an agricultural demonstration center. On March 28, 2008, then Chinese Ambassador to Liberia, Zhou Yuxiao, and Liberia’s Foreign Minister signed a cooperation agreement for Chinese assistance on constructing an agricultural technology demonstration center.

A year later, in April 2009, construction began of the China Agricultural Technology Demonstration center at the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI) in Suacoco, Bong County, central Liberia. The Center was completed in ten months, with an estimated cost of US$6 million. It was constructed on a 2360 square meter area. According to the Chinese Embassy in Liberia, the center covers an area of 2,411 square meters. Groundbreaking ceremony for the center was held on April 28, 2009 and the official handover ceremony was held on July 23, 2010. Yuan Longping High-tech Agriculture Co., Ltd was the main implementing organization.

The China-Liberia Agriculture Technology Demonstration Center

A China-Liberia Agriculture Cooperation Project Team (CLATCPT) of experts is based at the China-aided Agricultural Technology Demonstration Center in Liberia’s Bong County, central Liberia, about 180km from the capital Monrovia.

This agricultural technology exchange and cooperation partnership focuses on farm development that includes rice and vegetable production, training and exchanges of practical technology of agriculture, introduction of new agricultural technology and varieties, and research demonstration, among other things. It is also training students of Liberia’s Central Agriculture Research Institute (CARI). The center is also in partnership with local farmers in Kpatawee aimed at increasing agriculture production. The farmers are organized into a group called Kpatawee Farmer Based Organization (KFBO).

Under the partnership, the center provides agriculture inputs and technical support to the farmers, who grow vegetable such as watermelon, cucumbers, hot pepper, and Chinese onions and others.

Kobe Zhang, Vice General Manager of the center, says that under the partnership, the center also provides market linkage for the farmers to sell their produce at supermarkets and other institutions in the country.

He says the center is in fulfillment of the bilateral partnership between China and Liberia to strengthen agriculture production in the country.

Liberia’s Agriculture Minister, Mogana Flomo, hails the China-Liberia Agriculture Technology Demonstration site in central Liberia. Minister Flomo says it has been producing more agriculture technicians, thus contributing to the country’s agriculture sector.

Mamie Johnson, an agriculture student at the University of Liberia (UL), says the demonstration center is good because it will also train trainers as a way of expanding modern farming methods in Liberia.

Mamie hopes to associate with the center, adding that “we need to engage in commercial production when we are on par with the modern equipment”.

She, however, calls for more support to the center in order to increase its capacity to expand its programs across Liberia.

A plot of eggplant grown in Kpatawee

Another agriculture student, Tozay Meah, says, “I have visited the demonstration center and what I observed is that the Chinese experts are training Liberians with soil fertility and pet control using local materials.” Tozay wants the center to bring in more experts as well as establish branches in other part of the country to get to many farmers and agriculture agents.

 

Opportunities

There are ample opportunities in all spheres for the two countries to advance their cooperation for mutual benefit. In particular, cooperation should be accelerated in the critical field of agriculture where China’s engagement through aid and investment has been low compared to other African countries. Increased cooperation has the potential to enable Liberia to attain food security and also to supply China with its growing demand for food.

Potential opportunities include adding value to agricultural produces (rubber, cocoa, rice, cassava, and vegetables) through processing, manufacturing, and marketing for both domestic and international markets. Other opportunities include provision of farming implements, fertilizers, storage or warehousing facilities, pest control, standard measurement and drying methods. There is niche market opportunity for production and marketing of unpolished or “country” rice; opportunities also exist for vegetable drying and storage that would allow for sales in all seasons.

Liberia has favorable climate and fertile soil. Besides the cash crops, the Ministry of Agriculture says there are market opportunities and potential for agribusiness investment, which focuses on developing the value chain of the available food crops such as rice, cassava, vegetables, fruits, poultry and fish. The Ministry points to suitable climate for horticulture such as production of peppers, okra, onions, tomatoes, bitter balls, etc., which are in high demand throughout the country all year round. Lowland cultivation and low-cost irrigation, the ministry says, would give smallholders an opportunity to increase productivity and expand market share of these valuable crops.

On the political side, President George Weah names agriculture as one of the pillars of his ‘pro-poor agenda’.

Jutomue Dakeh Mulbah, founder and head of the Kpatawe farmer-based organization (KFBO), has been working with Chinese in Kpatawee and he expresses satisfaction for acquiring skills in mechanized farming from the Chinese. KFBO is undertaking rice cultivation in Kpatawee, with support from the Chinese.

“I did not know how to properly grow rice for increase in productivity and could not operate tractors and other farming machines when I came across the Chinese. But I can operate tractors, rice harvesting machines and others now,” Jutomue says. He says there are 32 members in the group, and that the Chinese are providing financial and technical supports to the group. He says the number will increase depending on supports for bigger projects.

Zhang Yanhua is a vegetable specialist at the center. Zhang says they are training farmers with various agriculture techniques. He says, because some plants can be affected by too much chemical, farmers are being trained to use local materials for pet control and soil fertility. According to him, the farmers, including agriculture students, are getting new skills in agriculture such as soil fertility using technology and local materials.

Flanked by mentor Zhang Yanhua, Moses at his cucumber plot

Moses Queapor is the head of small scale farming, with support from the China-Liberia Agriculture Technology Center, producing vegetable. It is located in Samukai Town, about 1.5 Km from the Demonstration center. The corporative was established in 2015 under the South-South Cooperation. Moses says the corporative has 16 persons.

One of the members is Korpo Kollie, a mother of four, who says she is learning new things from the Chinese in vegetable production. Korpo boasts of being able to sustain her family since she started working with the corporative. “Now I can afford to send my children to school since I started planting vegetable here,” Korpo says.

Similarly, 19-year-old Allison Queapor works on the corporative farm.  Allison says through the farming, he can pay his school fees.

Chinese vegetable specialist training Liberians

On Friday April 6, 2018, KFBO carried out the second harvest of 6.5 hectares of lowland rice to the delight of the locals and other assigned agriculture extension agents.

Mulbah informed the gathering, among them farmers that were excited about the effort, on the primary objective of empowering young people in the area through rice production.

Mulbah said KFBO provides the labor, while the China-Liberia Agriculture Technology Demonstration Center helps with the technical and financial supports.

He said that the paddy rice from the harvest will be given to farmers for seed multiplication, with the aim to increase their respective rice production, while offering to ensure economic security for the farmers.

Mulbah lauded China for the support and assured community dwellers of his preparedness to maintain the project.

Kobe Zhang, on his part, said the center’s support to the farmers’ project is in fulfillment of the bilateral partnership between China and Liberia, which aims to strengthen agriculture production.

Zhang reiterated the center’s commitment to making available market linkage for the farmers to sell their produce to other farming groups and institutions in the country. Zhang maintained that the center will continue to provide agriculture inputs and technical support to potential farmers in the area.

The Kpatawee project is part of the sustainability aspect of the agriculture demonstration center, he said.

Representative from the Chinese Embassy in Monrovia, Zhang Xudong, said predicated upon some major gains Liberia has made in education, health, agriculture, and security, it clearly indicates that the Liberia-China relations will continue to increase from strength to strength and unabated.

Xudong told the local farmers about the Chinese government’s preparedness to provide farming implements, as well as technical and financial support, to add to the many other opportunities that await Liberia. However, he expressed the hope that both countries can see “early harvest” in meeting the commitments the Chinese have made to Liberia’s agriculture sector.

“Therefore, it is extremely prudent for this marriage between Liberia and China, which I would term a ‘win-win reality partnership,’ to remain in full swing in this century and centuries to come,” Xudong added.

Bong County Superintendent Esther Walker said: “At this point, one can say that the friendship subsisting between Liberia and China is on a very good footing. There are numerous reasons while upholding the one China Policy is worthy. Just by being a partner with a country that has the world’s second largest economy and that is a manufacturing hub, resonates a lot.”

Moreover, Supt. Walker said China is not a selfish partner that holds back or sits and watches when there is a need to act.

Zhang Xudong from the Chinese Embassy in Monrovia (middle), celebrates with the farmers

“From all indications, China has never been restrictive in its quest to assist Liberia in its development drives. Across various spectrum, the country’s development footprints encompass agriculture as evidenced by the harvest of a 6.5 hectares of lowland rice in Kpatawee,” Walker declared.

She then hailed the cordial bilateral relations existing between Liberia and China, adding, “Beyond all reasonable doubts, the relationship is satisfying its true meaning.”

Apart from the rice production, the Chinese are also involved with poultry and vegetable production, from where pigs will be given to local farmers for multiplication of as many as possible so as to make farmers economically viable.

Challenges

Despite efforts being exerted by Liberia and partners, low agricultural productivity results to Liberia importing more than 80 percent of its staple food. This makes the country vulnerable to global food price volatility. Poorly integrated, the sector lacks basic infrastructure such as machines, farming equipment and tools, farm-to-market roads, fertilizers and pesticides. Alongside cassava, rice is the staple food.

Generally, all interviewees say the sector has not been attractive to the extent expected in terms of providing jobs for the number of people who acquire training in agriculture. Salaries and employment benefits are not motivating. As a result, most of the people trained in the discipline find their way to other sectors of the economy.

There is a high degree of involvement by the local population in agriculture. But the sector’s productivity remains low: little technology and poor pest management, combined with the extremely limited use of fertilizer and other modern cultivation methods.

Some of the factors include the lack of good quality farm inputs, high pre- and post-harvest losses, and the lack of incentives to produce food beyond subsistence level, given that marketing is difficult because of poor road networks and high transport costs.

Up to the present, the development of Liberia’s agriculture sector is funded primarily by donors.

Poor infrastructure, such as inadequate roads to connect farmers to markets, is a disincentive for Liberian farmers to increase production. While investment in rural infrastructure is a critical factor in facilitating the achievement of food security, roads and other forms of communications are not well developed in rural Liberia.

Many areas are remote and access to markets is a challenge for farmers in these areas. These conditions are some of the factors leading to urban migration.

Furthermore, many Liberians hold the view that agricultural production, mainly food, is the responsibility of government.

Another factor has to do with culture, language, work habits, beliefs and myths that affect relations between the Chinese and Liberian farmers.

In some parts of Liberia, farmers do not work in the fields on certain days or during some cultural and religious ceremonies.

Recommendations

Although there is an increase in China-Liberia cooperation in agriculture, there are also potential challenges to be overcome if the cooperation is to have positive results.

Liberia and Chinese policy makers and implementers need to ensure that the training reaches the majority of small-scale Liberian farmers. By so doing, and with other complementary measures in place, agricultural production could be improved. If cooperation is to succeed, there is need for deeper immersion in each other’s cultures, languages, and customs in order to clear the misconceptions that some on either side hold. Some of these beliefs and myths, such as the one that the Chinese use convict labourers, are common in Liberia. Liberian farmers and extension workers neither speak nor understand Chinese. Similarly, many Chinese agricultural experts neither speak nor understand English. Thus the language barrier is a major challenge.

The Agriculture College at the University of Liberia, through the Ministry of Agriculture, could liaise with the Chinese for the training of farmers and extension officers. Liberia could benefit from the demonstration center which is part of the China-Liberia agricultural cooperation policy. Liberia needs assistance and cooperation to address the shortcomings pervasive in crop production.

Skill transfers in agriculture should therefore be underlined in cooperation in agriculture between Liberia and China.

On the other hand, Liberian political leaders have to improve the economy and infrastructure to attract more investment in manufacturing agricultural implements such as fertilizer and tools, among others well as farm-to-market roads.

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