Liberia

LIBERIA: Reclaiming rice from rats and rot

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GBARNGA, 14 January 2010 (IRIN) - Every year Liberian farmers lose 60 percent of their harvest to birds and vermin or poor storage conditions, contributing to country-wide food insecurity, say UN officials, who are calling on donors to put more funding into pest management and storage.

The Ministry of Agriculture estimates 52,000 tons of rice out of 144,000 produced in 2007 was lost, while 44,027 tons of a 155,293 ton harvest was lost in 2008.

"Our interaction with farmers has shown they lack very basic knowledge of pest control," said Augustus Flomo, a consultant with local NGO Agency for Economic Development and Empowerment (AEDE), which partners with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Liberia.

Eight out of 10 rural Liberians are moderately or highly vulnerable to food insecurity, according to the latest government food security survey.

During the country's 14 years of conflict, which ended in 2003, production plummeted, and Liberians went from importing 30 percent to 60 percent of their rice needs, said Ahmed Ag Aboubacrine, emergency FAO adviser.

Production has not recovered since, leading the Agriculture Ministry to try to reverse the trend by encouraging Liberians to return to their farms. But seeing over half of a harvest lost puts farmers off, said Daniel Lorbah, a farmer in Margbi County, 40km north of Monrovia.

Flash strips, rat traps

FAO is training farmers how to ward off rats and birds in field schools it has set up with AEDE and the Agriculture Ministry in all of Liberia's 15 counties.

Lorbah returned to farming in 2005 when the conflict had ended but found most years he lost three-quarters of the rice he produced. He underwent training in 2008, learning how to attach flash tapes (metallic strips that reflect sunlight) to his crops to scare off birds, and how to make and set up vermin traps.

"After going through how to deal with rats and birds, I am no longer facing problems of pests eating up my rice." Buoyed by the gains, he told IRIN he hopes soon to expand his 2.4 hectare farm to four hectares.

Farmers who have undergone training are gaining confidence, Joshua Juah, head of a farmers' cooperative in Kokoya District, Bong County, central Liberia, told IRIN - and are gradually increasing their plots. The cooperative's core-harvest cassava losses have dropped from 50 percent to about 10 percent in the year since introducing pest control techniques.

Next steps

Now that pest management is improving, donors need to turn to post-harvest losses by increasing funding for crop storage and preservation facilities, said AEDE technician Joseph Kpagbala.

"We cry day-by- day, because we do not have places to keep our rice, cassava, eddoes [a local tuber] and yams after harvesting them," Martin Togba, leader of Bong Country's Kpatakpai Farmers' Cooperative, 135km north of Monrovia, told IRIN.

"We keep them in places where they get spoiled after several weeks," he said.

Most farmers store their crops in makeshift bamboo huts roofed with thatch but without protection from the damp, according to AEDE.

James Korkollie, a member of the cooperative, told IRIN half of his 2009 plantain harvest rotted in storage just two weeks after harvesting, due to damp conditions.

"The roads are bad; no one wants to venture into this deep forest [to buy], and I am worried if this situation continues I will lose all of my crops by the end of January," Korkollie told IRIN.

A 2009 Ministry of Agriculture study on harvest losses recommended the government boost loan schemes to farmers' collectives so they can improve their storage facilities.

If they do not, government efforts to improve food security "will fail", John Jukon, director of Liberia-based cooperative Farmers Against Hunger, told IRIN.

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