It is easy to notice that the majority of expatriates in Liberia live in a bubble, a world of security, running water, working toilets, electricity, and even air-conditioning and gyms for the lucky ones. What is harder to remain aware of is that Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city, itself lies in a bubble. Despite the lack of toilets and electricity for the vast majority, Monrovia is, by Liberian standards, a land of privilege. In “the bush”, as it’s called, food security is still a huge issue. Most people are subsistence farmers, and they are often unable to grow enough food to sustain themselves during Liberia’s 6-month rainy season.
Some organizations are working to combat this, and I recently had the opportunity to visit one of them. Universal Farmer’s Association (UFA) is a farmer’s cooperative with over 15,000 members, currently working in Margibi, Grand Bassa, and Bong counties. I learned about UFA through Semeh Roberts, whom I met while visiting Alfalit Microfinance. Semeh invited me to visit the cassava and kana/ palm oil processing plant in Gbartala in Bong County. Given my experiences working on both market and permaculture farms and my penchant for left-wing politics, I was intrigued when I heard about a farmer’s cooperative in the region.
Just before Christmastime, Semeh and I met at 10 am on a Friday at ELWA Junction next to the Liberia Revenue Authority. Semeh and I took a keekee to Red Light and found a local taxi from there to Bong. The car ride was reasonably comfortable, with only 6 people crammed into the sedan. The only issue is that the car would not function. The driver had to stop every 10 miles or so to fix the engine.
I’ll spare you the details of the car breakdowns. Suffice it to say that what should have been a 2-3 hour drive turned into a 5 hour ideal.
The cassava processing plant is unassuming on the outside, but it is located in a beautiful area. It is easy to forget how beautiful this rainforest covered country is if you spend too much time in Monrovia. The machine was turned off for the day during my first visit because one of the workers, Romeo, had injured his hand.
I was immediately greeted by incredible hospitality. I met Mr. Zappa, a former carpenter, medical nurse, and military man; Romeo, who had unfortunately injured his hand; and the always optimistic Daniel. After I learned more about the program, we broke bread together (literally) and ate a lunch of fresh bread with sardines. I was not able to see the machine in action that day, but I saw just how hardworking Mr. Zappa, Daniel, and Romeo are. I could not wait to go back again.
The way back was smoother, and we made it to ELWA Junction within 2.5 hours despite a brief detour in Kakata.
Two weeks later, I had the opportunity to visit again, and was able to meet some of the hardworking members of UFA. UFA has 5000 members in Bong County alone, and most of them work two days a week at the processing plant in addition to the 5 days per week they spend at their own farms. I was able to see the machine in action. It can produce more than 100 gallons of kana (the inside of the palm) or red palm oil per day.
Mr. Zappa never seems to stop to rest. When he has any aches or pains from long days of farming or construction work, he merely takes a sip of Ivory Coast rum. All of the workers are dedicated to the project. Romeo refused to take time off despite his injured hand, and all of the workers sleep onsite.
The goal of UFA is to create additional income streams for small farmers and thereby eliminate food insecurity in the region. UFA also gives farmers access to more land and products by pooling resources. I remember attending an agricultural lecture in Bangkok. There, I learned about a group that helped farmers pool resources and share a tractor and land. This allowed the farmers to take advantage of modern agricultural methods, have a greater land area to farm, and profit from the goods they produced. The subsistence farmers become owners of shares in the global marketplace.
UFA could do the same for its farmers. All it needs now is the capital to purchase more kana, and there is no telling what these hardworking people can accomplish.