From The Indiana State House to the Fields of Liberia
By Gina Sheets
I was deeply honored when Governor Mike Pence invited me to serve as direct or of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. My husband Trav and I have been lifelong farmers in our hometown of Frankfort, Indiana and I was privileged to serve as the agriculture department’s economic development director in a previous post. Yet, I had a different assignment in mind so I asked the Governor-elect if it would be okay to limit my state service to one more year. He graciously agreed, allowing Trav and me to pursue our dream of growing good things out of African soil and growing the skills of Africa’s farmers.
Our story began in a think tank policy session exploring Indiana’s agricultural ties to Africa. At the summit, I learned about the people, businesses, schools, and organizations from Indiana doing work in numerous African nations. With a background in farming and economic development, the conversation inspired me to consider how I could have an impact in an emerging market to change lives and change the way the world farms.
Sagamore fellow Donald Cassell is advancing many innovations in his native Liberia and he explained how our farming could tie to agriculture education. Much like the Indiana University story in Kenya described earlier in this magazine, we were excited to partner with an African university that was establishing a program on agribusiness. We met Dr. Seit Buor who is president of the Liberian International Christian College (LICC) located in the city of Ganta, 170 miles north of Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia.
Truly successful agriculture requires not so much arduous labor as awareness, observation, connection, and persistence. Ultimately, it is not the growing technique which is the most important factor, but rather the state of mind of the farmer. -Masanobu Fukuoka
I combined my business background with my husband Trav’s Purdue ag degree and his ten years of experience in diversified farming where he raised all natural pasture poultry, free range laying hens, pasture beef, rainbow trout, and a variety of fruits and vegetables for retail sale. In 2013 while I was serving as state agriculture department director, we established our nonprofit, sold most of our belongings and began our move to permanent residence in Liberia.
We began work at LICC’s ag center and established a demonstration farm inlcuding vegetables, fruits, roll crops, fishery and rabbit husbandry. We are combining production with research and training, again in the model of IU’s medical program in Kenya. The farm has emerged as a small scale agribusiness. I serve as Vice President of Administration at LICC and Trav university’s Agriculture Program.
We are sailing against some pretty strong headwinds. While agriculture is Africa’s economic backbone—40% of all hard currency earnings come from the ag industry making it the largest contributor to African GDP—the sector is sorely underperforming. In all of Africa, only 7% of the arable farmland is irrigated and of the total land mass suitable for farming, 83% has limited soil fertility accounting for billions of dollars lost every year.
Agricultural work makes up 60% of the African labor force yet the continent relies on external inputs to meet its food needs. In the year 2000 the continent received 2.8 million tons of food aid and the annual cost of imports is $50 billion. Liberia imports 75% of its grain, which is amongst the highest levels in Africa. Sadly, even with all this food aid, approximately 200 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are malnourished.
The current food gap could be an opportunity to boost the domestic market economy and grow the independence of smallholder farmers by increasing their productivity. In Africa, agriculture is the mainstay of the rural economy and the main supporter of 70-80% of the total population. In a world facing food supply challenges as the population grows, Africa holds 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land.
These assets can only be realized with improved farming skills. In his book, The New Harvest, Harvard professor Calestous Juma highlights that China’s recent agriculture success is linked to its focus on the needs of smallholder farmers. We are strategically located in Ganta County which has a high potential for agriculture development because of high population, high number of farmers, increased levels of poverty, and location along Liberia’s economic development corridors.
Overall, Liberia’s agricultural potential has yet to be even partially realized. Though the majority of the population consists of farmers, production remains a significant challenge. Due to war, Liberia’s GDP decreased by 66% from 1987- 2005. Counted as one of the world’s poorest countries, Liberia is ranked 162 out of 169 countries in the 2010 UN development program. Poverty grips the population with about 64-84% living below the global poverty line of $1.25 a day and food insecurity is up to 42%. Nearly half of children under age five experience stunted growth, while 15% of children under age five are underweight.
Liberia’s two highest yielding crops are rice and cassava—which are grown by 74% and 62% of the population respectively—and its primary export crops from trees are rubber, oil, palm and cocoa. Agricultural output is derived from three types of farms: traditional, commercial and concession. Traditional farming systems involve production of food for home consumption. Commercial farms are larger and usually owned by Liberians, and the concession farms are owned and operated by foreign firms.
Liberia has four large commercial farms. The rest of the farms in the country are smallholders’ lot, no larger in size (100-400 square feet) than a backyard garden in the United States. In general these farmers have little education and training for long term expanded production and increase productivity.
With its abundance of arable soil, Liberia’s agriculture should thrive. The wealth of a nation does not consist in its natural resources, but rather its people’s labor and productivity. Since we’ve been on the ground there, we have found that lack of education has a direct correlation to low production rates. The average woman receives 1.6 years of education and the average man, 5.8 years. The civil strife has stunted academic development by many years for many people. To turn things around, we have assisted in the development of the curriculum for agriculture and other disciplines at LICC and Trav teaches ag practices at remote villages.
I am taking a more hands on approach by giving horticulture students experience with onion production research through greenhouse trials and documentation and teaching business practices to students who help run the rabbit farm in the agriculture center. I also prioritize educational opportunities for food production for women, as Liberian women farmers produce about 60% of Liberia’s agricultural products. For example, I started a pre-kindergarten program for children whose mothers are enrolled in agriculture training school, empowering women farmers and their children simultaneously.
To increase production and develop character, the Trav and I team-teach a curriculum called Foundations for Farming (FFF) to Liberian farmers. The FFF method places emphasis on farming practices with minimum waste, precise use of resources, and an attitude of generosity and joy. As a sustainable, holistic practice, FFF combats both poor resource management and corruption as a lifestyle. Mirroring the goals of Liberia, the FFF method includes crop rotation with no burning or plowing the ground. The Liberian farmers are used to cutting and burning trees down every season to clear land for plowed fields. This slash and burn practice leads to deforestation and denitrification of the soil.
Liberia is host to two out of the three remaining ancient rain forests in West Africa, which could be lost if deforestation continues. An integral technique to the FFF method is covering every area of tillable soil with organic matter mulch. The mulch blanket reduces the growth of competitive weeds and feeds nutrients to the soil as it decomposes. Poor soil quality in Liberia is one of the major barriers to production. After only one year of FFF practices, the color of the soil changes from gray to rich black. The rainy season, which produces 200 inches of rainfall annually, can easily strip a field of top soil through erosion. The mulch blanket effectively holds the soil in place even during downpours, and captures moisture to prevent premature evaporation from the hot sun. Though the heavy rainfall can be problematic, it is not without its usefulness.
The challenges we face in Liberia reverberates a tale of past conflict, political strife, violence and the intrigues of realpolitik in international affairs. Twenty-five years of civil disturbances have left the economy and the country in shambles, severely limiting public services. Liberia was established by freed American slaves in 1847 as Africa’s first independent republic with a constitution and polity mirroring the United States. The country remained stable until 1980 when it suffered a violent military coup that disrupted a long and delicate process of Liberia’s coalescence into a nation-state.
The coup led to a second violent upheaval in 1989 that turned into a fourteen year civil war. The war officially ended in 2003. The civil disturbances - including the war - robbed Liberia of any meaningful development efforts, leaving its people poor and devastated. Liberia is heavily dependent on foreign aid; US bilateral assistance alone was equivalent to two-thirds of the government’s budget. Corruption and selfishness wreak havoc on Liberia’s economy. Consumed with survival, the country had no energy for improving developmental resources, and so the nation regressed. Its infrastructure crumbled.
The Liberian agricultural sector was but one of many casualties of Liberia’s civil disturbances. We hope to be a part of rebuilding the country by restoring Liberia’s ag industry and investing in the next generation of leaders. It has been rightly said “the growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.” We are already seeing the fruits of our labor.
One farmer named John was so impressed by the yield of his pepper plants from the FFF method that he committed to return to his village and share the value of the method. A young woman named Eran is obtaining an associate degree in agriculture from LICC so that she can provide for her family through farming. She’s well on her way since she is paying for her schooling with money earned from employing her newly acquired agricultural knowledge and skills on her farm.
Much like Indiana University’s program in Kenya, our ultimate goal is that the agriculture department will be taken over by capable Liberians teaching as professors and farming at the Agriculture Center. Beyond, we desire for Liberian-grown agricultural exports to provide income for Liberians and revenue for the nation’s economic independence.
Commitment to a transcendent hope drives us in our work. Seeds, like souls, must be nurtured. We are committed to nurturing growth in people and agriculture by living alongside Liberians for years to come. We want to be there to see that seeds of excellence, knowledge and love blossom in both agriculture and in a new generation of Liberians ready to change themselves, the life of their country and the world.
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