Living Income Summit Keynote, Minister Jeanine Cooper June 14, 2022

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you so much to IDH and the Living Income Community of Practice for inviting me to speak at this all important day of reflection. I come from Liberia…a little country that most of you have heard of but few of you trade with. Yet our little country and its products pack a serious punch, being produced within the same environment that hosts nearly half of the Upper Guinea Forest, and West Africa’s richest biodiversity hotspot. We have the environmental credentials and we produce in ways that sustain this…but we are not yet there when it comes to trading to our value.

Disasters mostly happen at night or on weekends. Because usually, during the day or during the workweek when we are more vigilant, shocks need not turn into disasters. The last two years, coinciding with my period of service as the Minister of Agriculture, have been turbulent, to say the least. The shocks of the COVID pandemic, coupled with incipient climate change had lulled us into such a prolonged response that we really did not see the disaster we were living in. Until the Russian invasion of the Ukraine set off a chain of events that we seemed to not be expecting…though all the signs had been there for some time.

The contemporary philosopher Malcolm Gladwell describes this phenomenon in his book the Tipping Point where he talks about the behavior of Londoners during the bombing of their city during World War II. At first the air raid sirens sent people scurrying quickly to safe havens and underground shelters. But after a few weeks, the sirens would go off and people would barely pick up their pace, or even change direction. They had reached a tipping point where the fear of the bomb had diminished and was more of an annoyance than a threat.

Well in Liberia, in many parts of Africa I daresay, we had reached and passed the tipping point without realizing it. We had so feared scarcities and higher prices in 2020 when so many countries closed themselves off and shut down exports. What’s worse, we’d seen this before during Ebola and had survived it. At first we were afraid but after a while, it was just a pesky noise and we continued about our business.

“All of a sudden”, and I say this with quotation marks, all of a sudden Russia invaded Ukraine and we heard about global shortages of wheat. Ah! How much bread do we eat? Shortages of sunflower oil? Well we prefer palm oil anyway. Then one day there was no fuel at the filling station. Just the usual profiteering we thought; the Government will soon handle that. So we waited, and desperately watched gasoline prices increase from $3.70 to $5.70 almost overnight. A 54% price hike…and the shortages disappeared. And all around the world, gas prices were going up so…. But within a few weeks of that, prices dipped again and stabilized…and then almost immediately the shortages reappeared. Now, today, Government is mandating a price cap of $6.70 for a gallon of gasoline. An additional 17.5% increase. The macroeconomic stability and the inflation  that we had fought so hard for, that we had wrestled down to 4% in December 2021, picked up speed and by March, sources were putting it at 12%. Rice, our staple food increased in price from $13/25 kg bag to as high as $30 in some rural areas. Almost overnight. And now, we understand that the wheat that WE don’t eat is an essential ingredient in the daily diets of the people who DO produce the rice that we import. And the fertilizer that we don’t use in Liberia IS used in India to boost the yields of the same rice that we import.

And what does this mean to our rural farmers? Martha, a mother of six in our southeastern county of Maryland, can only afford the transportation to send one of her six children to school. She has to make that choice of who will go and who will sit out this term, or worse, this year. Because the price of one gallon of gasoline is now higher than the worker’s minimum daily wage.

Then you have Fallah, a subsistence rice farmer who supplements his annual rice harvest with purchases of imported rice or other foods…he was forced into eating his stored seeds ahead of this year’s planting. So he will need help to even plant at subsistence level this year, and this means that even as the Government tries to scale up food production and the agrifood sector, there will be many who may drop out of farming altogether this year.

Yes, we had reached Gladwell’s tipping point without even knowing it. So we need a reset because this disaster will continue since we can expect more shocks to come. Government and partners, the private sector, we have to think in emergency terms because the urgency of feeding ourselves is today’s, not tomorrow’s reality. And as government…as usual our first role is to “create a more enabling environment”. The question is how? How do we do this quickly enough to not only rescue and boost this planting season that is already underway, but to scale up production and support our agrifood sectors, our cash crops, our rural livelihoods? Bureaucratic policies and ODA lack the flexibility and the agility. So even though our development partners are stepping up to the plate and making crisis funds available, the challenge is in the implementation. The balance between value and risk distribution is severely distorted with smallholder farmers receiving a very small percentage of the value, while bearing the majority of risks. So how do we meet this new crisis head on and emerge triumphant? We need to become more innovative on how value is being distributed and how risk is being distributed from our smallholder farmers and rural populations, for the women who juggle farming with child rearing and other work.

But even as I say this, I think back to our LACF, the Liberia Agricultural Commercialization Fund that we set up in 2019 after nearly four years of studying and discussing. In 2021 we hired a fund manager and set up a grant implementation manual to govern this $41M matching grants scheme targeting 7 value chains. The manual outlines 13 steps from expression of interest to disbursement. And each step has sub-steps that often require days, weeks even, of deliberations and assessments and study. We’ve asked for a relaxation of the rules and the agreement from our DP is cautious. But we need to fast track the disbursements and understand, and accept, the risks we are taking in doing so. And the even greater risk of doing nothing.

We do not have a national certification program for any of our produce. We are not using pesticides or fertilizers mainly because we can’t afford them. But now, we consider this organic growth as an advantage. Bu throw do we prove that our produce is organic? Fast track certification. Fast track your compliance and monitoring. There are actions where YOU, and WE need to work together. For example in creating traceable and transparent value chains and in discussing how market mechanisms can radically be transformed. YOU can help US to enter the higher value markets we deserve to be in. I say ‘deserve to be in’ because we, in Liberia, in Cameroon, in other African countries, WE have been good stewards of the ecosystems that the world needs to preserve if we are to make any meaningful dent in global warming. WE in Liberia, for example, have been good guardians of critical chambers of the third lung of the world, sequestering over 15B tons of carbon from our forests alone.

As Minister of Agriculture, I speak for the Government of Liberia to assure you that we are ready to work with you to scale up our supply chains, clean them up where necessary, and allow us, our farmers, producers and agribusinesses to access the niche markets that we produce in our biodiverse rainforest ecosystems. We have organic cocoa, some rare cultivars lost in other producing countries. Our Liberica coffee, we who gave it its name, is also growing organically, sustainably and ethically harvested. Our edible palm oil, produced from wild trees, and our palm products are ethically sourced. Our rubber, our coconuts, our honey is produced in West Africa’s most biodiversity ecosystem.

We are scaling up our food production and putting programs in place that boost rural livelihoods. To do that meaningfully and for us to meet our own development goals along with the SDGs, we need new and sustained outlets for our products.

I came to this conference not just to promote Liberia and Liberian products, or to tell you the dilemmas our government faces as we try to scale up our food systems to meet today’s crises; but also to learn how YOU, the world’s leading buyers in the world’s biggest consumer markets, how YOU procure. Where you want our goal posts to be placed once and for all. What you think WE need to do to be able to meet your requirements and to supply you. YOU, in the First World private sector CAN innovate your procurement practices and for example, work with longer term relationships with countries like Liberia. YOU, the First World investors and financial service providers CAN incentivize investments that contribute to living income.

Yes, I came to learn. And from learning, I want you, as many of you as are willing, to come with us and help shape our agrifood sector to be reliable centers of excellence, and sustainable and ethical sources of products and produce for your markets. So that we can together redistribute the value and our producers can earn a living income.

We need to innovate and we need to get uncomfortable. For Martha in Maryland County to be able to feed, clothe and educate all six of her children; and for Fallah to increase his harvest to have enough to eat and to keep seeds for next year’s planting. Yes, we have to get uncomfortable.

For the past few weeks, in the margins of this meeting and the previous missions, I am talking to development partners and planners; agropreneurs, and farmers; investors and companies needing help. Answers are within reach but we all have to reach for them together.

I look forward to the day’s deliberations and I thank you for the opportunity.