Liberian Women Lead a Revolution in Agriculture

Liberian Women Lead a Revolution in Agriculture

Ambassador Ertharin Cousin serves as U.S. Representative to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome.


Posted 24 August 2011, by Ertharin Cousin, DipNote (United States Department of State),


As we continue to respond to the heartbreaking crisis in the Horn of Africa, it’s important to keep in mind that we are able to apply some lessons learned from our long term commitment to relief and development work elsewhere in Africa. The key, it seems to me, is to respond to the disaster while also building long term solutions to broader issues. Just before I visited refugee camps along the Somalia border last week, I traveled to Liberia to look into some of our longer term programs there. It was quite an amazing visit.

I was able to view firsthand the synergies between World Food Program (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) programs there — programs which aim to improve the food security of Liberians as well as the Ivorian refugee populations they generously host.

Liberia has always had a special place in my heart, not only because of the American history we share, but particularly because of its future promise and potential. Liberia has just been approved as a priority country under President Obama’s flagship global hunger and food security initiative — Feed the Future — through which the United States promotes a twin-track approach to hunger: by providing emergency food assistance while simultaneously supporting efforts toward sustainable agricultural development.

The WFP and FAO programs being implemented in conjunction with the Liberian Ministry of Agriculture and other partners are key in this effort, and support President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s commitment to progress. They also ensure that the needs of refugees fleeing conflict from neighboring Ivory Coast are being met.

Our first stop was at Arjay Farms in Kingsville, Careysburg District, which is a prime example of a successful private and public partnership. Here we met two incredible women. One was Minister of Agriculture Florence Chenoweth and the other was Josephine Francis, the owner of Arjay Farms, and the president of a 2,300 strong farmers association that employs more than 50 women. Thanks to Josephine Francis, the association was awarded a grant from the Gates Foundation to carry out seed multiplication with 39 farms.

Minister Chenoweth and Jospehine Francis are the epitome of the industrious, multi-tasking, multi-talented women of Liberia.

The U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to whom I am most grateful for the truly valuable insight she provided throughout the whole visit, and I joined Minister Chenoweth and Josephine, who were working hand-in-hand in the rice paddy with local farmers harvesting an abundant rice crop. In January 2011, Liberia declared itself rice seed sufficient thanks to the assistance of the United States and FAO, which have, since 2006, provided both input and technical support for Liberia to begin rice seed multiplication.

We then traveled to Gbedine where we made a stop at the new Center for Rice Research Institute to view the new offices of WFP, FAO, and the Ministry of Agriculture. It is an example of a country-led plan working closely with the national government — something we strongly support. We also visited Purchase for Progress (P4P) and Livelihood Asset Recovery sites jointly run by WFP and FAO.

P4P aims to create market opportunities for organized farmers’ groups by using a value chain approach. While there, we followed the entire supply chain process, from rice transplanting, to harvest and post-harvest processing — including parboiling. We spoke to some of the 250 men and 125 women who make up the Dokodan Farmers Cooperative. It is one of two cooperatives awarded P4P contracts, thanks to which they were able to receive training in rice processing and packaging, and purchase the two power tillers they proudly showed us.

I am excited to see the positive changes we can bring smallholder famers under P4P, such as seed multiplication, and improved milling and processing. I am also proud to see an increased number of women doing post-harvest processing.

At and around Bahn refugee camp, which houses thousands of refugees from the Ivory Coast, we met with Liberian hosts and refugees working hand-in-hand in their villages to improve their food security. We felt the strong sense of community whereby Liberian families are paying back the Ivoirian families who hosted them during Liberia’s many years of unrest. One Liberian man told us he was hosted by his Ivorian family for nine years, and therefore felt obligated to do the same for as long as his Ivorian relatives needed. And because many of the refugee families I spoke to said they are staying put in Liberia until the situation in the Ivory Coast is stabilized, it is imperative that the programs FAO implements in conjunction WFP build resilience. At and around Bahn Refugee Camp in Nimba County we saw examples of agricultural inputs given to both refugees and host families that produced lush rice plots as well as vegetable gardens aimed at diversifying and supplementing the general food aid diet as well as generating some income to restore lost livelihoods.

Our last visit was to the USAID/Food for Peace-funded LAUNCH (Liberian Agricultural Upgrading, Nutrition and Child Health) project run by ACDI-VOCA. Education is the cornerstone of stability for a country’s economic development. At the health and nutrition site, we learned that most of the women and girls present, members of a project Care Group, averaged between the 6th and 8th grade. The young pregnant or lactating girls and women who participate in this program are being trained on the importance of proper breastfeeding and child birth spacing, and other health and nutrition topics.

Finally, I want to congratulate Liberia for receiving a $46.5 million grant from the World Bank and Minister Chenoweth for being awarded the African Prize from the President of Malawi for her work in fighting hunger.

My visit to Liberia was crowned by my private meeting with its formidable President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. What an honor.

In Liberia, as in Somalia and throughout the region, we are combining immediate relief with longer term solutions. It isn’t easy, it is never perfect, but based on what I saw on each step of my trip, we are definitely headed in the right direction and tapping into some very powerful and productive best practices.


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