Concern was named "Best International NGO in Liberia" by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in part for its innovative efforts to give the poorest marginalized farmers tools and training to improve the country's local food supply. Are Concern's Farmer Resource Centers part of a new "green revolution" in Liberia?
Liberia is beginning its recovery from a devastating 14-year civil war that wiped out its agricultural sector, the main source of income and food for most people. Today, nearly 80 percent of the population live in extreme poverty, on less than 70 cents a day, and a recent World Food Program survey found that about 40 percent of the population are highly vulnerable to food shortages.
Today, Concern is not only meeting the needs of returning refugees who are trying to rebuild their lives after the war, but also setting up innovative "Farmer Field Schools" and "Farmer Resource Centers" that give the poorest people, particularly women farmers, training in everything from raising livestock to modern irrigation techniques to marketing and literacy. Concern's initiatives are a grassroots effort to empower the poorest communities to manage their own food supply and develop a source of income-a vital step in renewing Liberia's infrastructure and economy. But are these programs having an impact?
Back to the Soil: Investing in Local Growth
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the country's first democratically-elected leader, thinks so. In fact, she has launched a "Back to the Soil" campaign, based on the belief that programs like Concern's that empower smallholder farmers are absolutely key to Liberia's recovery and long-term development.
Victor Ngorbu, manager for Concern's Farmer Resource Center in rural Grand Bassa county, believes this is true not only for Liberia, but for all of Africa: "Our resource centers could be the beginning of a green revolution in Africa. Farmers who have been trained at our Centers are telling us that this year, their harvests were improved: now their families are eating two times a day instead of the one small meal per day they were eating before." Victor and the Concern team are teaching farmers how to plant vegetables, rice, and pineapples as well as methods for improving seed varieties, controlling pests, raising livestock, and manufacturing farm tools. Concern also trains adults in basic literacy and business skills.
In November 2008, Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf visited the Grand Bassa FRC. What she saw was a comprehensive, strategic, and forward-thinking operation that concentrated into an 18-acre facility with a small office and classroom.
The secret to the success of the FRCs is not only the training they provide, but the philosophy that every farmer who learns at the school will go on to share that learning with his or her neighbors and community. That sharing is part of Liberia's rural culture, and is also the momentum that-with sustained investment, training and resources-has the potential to fuel a green revolution.
Concern is expanding its outreach to more of Liberia's rural areas through Farmer Field Schools (FFS). Villagers and extension workers who have been trained at one of Concern's four Farmer Resource Centers themselves become "trainers" at the 38 remote field schools, where they build upon and share what they have learned.
On an average day at the Grand Bassa FRC, local farmers are harvesting upland rice and tallying the yield on a demonstration plot. In another area, Concern staff are working with villagers to grow different varieties of rubber tree, cassava, and pineapple, and a University of Liberia agronomy student is tending a plot of organically grown eggplant. At the Center's fish farm, villagers are learning aquaculture
In 2008, over 5,000 farmers directly benefited from the Farmer Resource centers; another 1,350 people were involved in the Farmer Field Schools.
Overcoming Setbacks: The Caterpillar Invasion
A massive caterpillar infestation that began in early 2009 is proving that in a post-conflict country like Liberia, such a setback to its ability to produce its own food supply has the power to threaten years of careful progress. Literally millions of these pests invaded over 100 villages in northern and central Liberia, decimating vital crops such as cassava, lowland rice, banana, coffee, and cocoa. An estimated 350,000 people were affected.
In addition to serious crop and soil damage, the caterpillar infestation has polluted water sources, and farmers have been driven from their land, which could decrease production.
President Johnson-Sirleaf, in a rapid and coordinated response with the UN and NGOs like Concern, responded and the immediate threat has been halted. Concern deployed emergency resources and responded to the crisis with pesticide spraying, protection of water sources, and by providing logistical support of the Ministries of Agriculture and Health. However, the caterpillars are likely to reemerge, as they were able to produce eggs and bore into the ground, forming cocoons.
Concern's vital work at its Farmer Resource Centers (FRCs) is preparing literally thousands of the most vulnerable people who depend on small farms for survival for exactly this type of shock. Preparation, early recognition and protection from are a core part of the FRC curriculum.
Season by season, and plot by plot, Concern's Farmer Resource Centers and the determination and initiatives put in place by the Liberian government are empowering the country's poorest people to take charge of their own lives and take care of their families using their own resources.
Liberia Caterpillar Infestation: Concern Responds
Concern is responding to a dire national emergency in Liberia - a mass infestation of caterpillars that affected much of the country's rural agricultural areas. Though the worst appears to be over - at least temporarily - infestation remains a serious threat to agriculture in Liberia and its West African neighbors.
Concern is operational in affected Bong and Lofa Counties, as well as the more southern coastal Counties of Grand Bassa and Montserrado, which have so far escaped the infestation. The response has been two-fold: first, an emergency deployment of resources in Bong County involving pesticide spraying, protection of water sources, and logistical support of the Ministries of Agriculture and Health; and the training of thousands of rural farmers through comprehensive multi-purpose Farmer Resource Centers, which have been recognized as a model livelihoods program by the Liberian government.
Originally thought to be 'Armyworms', the caterpillars were later identified as a similar species, Achaea catocaloides. Literally millions of these pests invaded over 100 villages in northern and central Liberia consuming all vegetation in their path, decimating vital crops such as cassava, lowland rice, banana, coffee, and cocoa. An estimated 350,000 people were affected - there were even some reports of villagers fleeing homes that were overrun by caterpillars.
In a fragile, post-conflict country like Liberia, such a setback to its ability to produce its own food supply could be devastating. In addition to the crop and soil damage, the caterpillar infestation has polluted water sources, and farmers have been driven from their land, which could decrease production.
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the UN, and NGOs including Concern have coordinated a response and stopped the immediate problem. However, the caterpillars are likely to reemerge, as they were able to produce eggs and bore into the ground, forming cocoons.
Although the emergency has subsided for the moment, the work continues. Concern is now launching a water, sanitation and hygiene intervention in some of the most vulnerable communities in Bong County to ensure that the infestation does not devolve into a water and health emergency.
The caterpillar infestation demonstrates that Liberia's progress in the agricultural sector remains fragile, but by strengthening its foundations, Concern's Farmer Resource Center approach will continue to increase productivity and stability.