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From Cassava and Rice to Recovery: Bolstering Agriculture for a Stronger Liberia

Photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

From rice in rich sauces to the starchy mashed cassava dish known as ‘fufu’, rice and cassava are staple foods in Liberia. Rice alone accounts for half of all calories consumed in the country, with every person eating around 133 kilograms a year– among the highest levels in Africa. Yet, Liberia only produces 40% of its local rice needs, importing 300,000 metric tons a year, at a cost of US$ 200 million. As for the root crop cassava, although it is the second most consumed crop in Liberia with 60% of farmers produce it, few make any income from it. 

Food shortages in Liberia have been compounded by a series of crises, some old; some new. From the impacts of long-term conflict to outbreaks of Ebola, rice shortages –and now the COVID-19 pandemic–a long-term solution was needed. The US$46.5 million Smallholder Agricultural Productivity Enhancement and Commercialization (SAPEC) project was introduced, to fill gaps in food shortfalls, and lead the country towards self-sufficiency in rice and cassava production as a priority, while bolstering livelihoods, food security and supporting peaceful recovery in the process. 

Realizing that more rice alone was not enough to provide long-term resilience for communities, the Liberian government promoted cassava and worked with researchers, including AfricaRice and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Together, the partners aimed to research and build better rice and cassava value chains, investing in research to breed new, improved varieties that could withstand climate challenges and bring in higher incomes for farmers. 

Investing in research for better results  

Tapping a longstanding relationship, the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) and CGIAR worked together to apply a holistic way of improving the value-chain to tackle food shortages. Implemented through the Liberian Ministry of Agriculture, with funding from GAFSP, the African Development Bank, and the Government of Liberia, research was conducted and field-based activities were carried out to shift dependency on imports towards long-term resilience within the rice and cassava value-chains.   

Initial research conducted by the CGIAR showed that major problems to be tackled to improve these value-chains included a reliance on rainfall alone by rice farmers. Fewer than 1% of farmers had access to modern equipment like power tillers, with more than 80% using hand mortars to pound rice into flour, taking up precious time and resources. Farmers were also unaware of options like rice parboiling, or processing cassava into flour, which add extra income through a premium for products in higher customer demand than fresh produce. 

The first thing we needed to do was to help farmers create a sustainable supply-chain

Michael Edet, a Cassava Extension Agronomist at IITA, explained: “The first thing we needed to do was to help farmers create a sustainable supply-chain, distributing enough planting materials. We also had to make sure that cassava  products would move in the market and build the market towards export in future. We started by upgrading facilities for processors to produce quality products into various foods and distributing improved seed options for better yields.” 

Getting better inputs, the last mile to farmers 

Across the country, packages containing seven improved rice seeds, or 3,000 bundles  of improved cassava varieties were distributed with equipment such as axes, cutlasses, and hoes to farmers at subsidized costs. All varieties were high-yielding, bred with climate-resilient characteristics for both upland and lowland conditions; disease and pest resistant, and for cassava, biofortified with vitamin A. They were tested with farmers to find those with the best traits like taste before they were released, giving farmers direct opportunities to provide feedback to researchers about varieties most preferred. 

AfricaRice researcher Inoussa Akintayo, explains: “Liberia is blessed with good rainfall. If well managed, farmers can grow a minimum of two to three rice crops a year. Introducing a series of improved, short-duration, climate-smart and high-yield varieties, allowed farmers to have more harvest, and to grow two to three crops a year instead of one for more food and income. Emphasis was put on rice seed, because formerly, all rice varieties grown in Libera were long-duration varieties, and [had] very, very low-yield.” 

Through field demonstrations, new cultivation techniques were shown to farmers to help them boost their harvests. Farmers were trained in land preparation; how to choose the right variety for local conditions, different planting methods and identification of diseases and pests and their control options among other farming methods. Digital platforms such as a herbicide calculator were installed on farmer’s mobile phones; and a WhatsApp group connected customers, processors and suppliers to share knowledge about current market prices and conditions.

Closing the loop on waste 

In 2016, Liberia produced 48,000 metric tons of rice husk, a waste product of rice processing. Usually discarded, research was done to turn straw and husk into a substrate to grow mushrooms, with 100 kilograms of substrate making 60-65 kilograms of fresh mushrooms. Demonstrations showed farmers how to incorporate rice straw and rice husk back into the soil to boost farm productivity, and experiments showed how rice husk can be made into biochar briquettes for cooking, with 100 kilograms of husk giving 25 kilograms of biochar. Also, waste starch from cassava factories are used as binding agents for briquettes.

Within the cassava sector, processing equipment was upgraded, including six cassava factories and 12 micro hubs and bakers were trained in using  High Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF), which can be made into bread, biscuits, cakes and other higher-value confectionery items for sale or home consumption, for better prices than fresh cassava. Since 80 percent of imported rice to Liberia is parboiled, there is an opportunity for women to earn extra income by parboiling rice. Women were encouraged to form cooperatives to obtain finance in their own right, and provided with stoves to cut energy requirements and exposure to smoke, reducing the amount of water used in parboiling rice. 

Financing research and solutions in agriculture

Liberia’s Minister of Agriculture, Jeanine Cooper, noted, "The combination of CGIAR-generated evidence and tools for climate-smart progress in agriculture, and GAFSP’s funds and support to take these tools to farmers, have contributed towards strengthening resilience at all levels within our communities. In Liberia we are currently building on this work  with GAFSP and the CGIAR through AfricaRice to intensify rice production; and we continue to put farmers at the center of this work, moving 25,000 food insecure and low-income farming households towards commercially-oriented agriculture, bolstering economic growth and improving food security." 

The combination of CGIAR-generated evidence and tools for climate-smart progress in agriculture, and GAFSP’s funds and support to take these tools to farmers, have contributed towards strengthening resilience at all levels within our communities

This is just one example of collaboration between GAFSP and the CGIAR, with independent evaluations showing a decrease in severely food insecure households as a result of this work. Increases in the amount of crops consumed after harvesting crops have also lead to households being less food insecure. Farmers took new farming techniques on-board, and now experts expect that the new varieties will be multiplied in other cassava-growing countries, to ensure year-round, commercial supply of this staple food and long-term impact of the research.  

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