Rice is the staple food in Liberia. It’s usually served alongside eggplant, palm butter, or potato greens, which come in a spicy, stew-y mash that involves some combination of fish, chicken, pig foot, and anonymous bush meat. It’s delicious, though it doesn’t necessarily sound it, and can be had for LD 150 (about $2). Rice on its own, though, is not cheap.
Rice is sold from wheelbarrows on the side of the road and at markets, measured in empty tin cans. A can of rice costs LD 20 (about $0.30), and a 50 pound bag of rice costs $35, a sum seen as exorbitantly expensive by Liberians. The reason? Nearly all rice sold commercially in Liberia is imported, from countries including India, Pakistan, the US, China, Indonesia, and Thailand. The Ministry of Commerce negotiates import contracts with Liberian companies, which bring the rice into the country through the freeport in Monrovia. They then sell it to suppliers, who in turn provide rice to the wheelbarrow-pushing sellers on the street.
When I heard grumbles about the price of rice, I was surprised. Liberia is hot and wet – the ideal climate for growing rice. With rice viewed as such a staple, even called a strategic commodity for Liberia, I had assumed at least some of the rice sold commercially was grown here. I quickly learned, though, that’s not the case. As Immanuel Pratt, a local business student, explained to me outside a dark room filled to the ceiling with Thai and Pakistani rice bags at the market, “You have Liberians in the hinterland, cutting with cutlasses and planting rice by hand and by spade, but you can’t do that on a large scale. They have no training on equipment, or even any equipment.”
As usual, this story comes back to two themes: the war and politics. In April 1979, Liberians took to the Monrovia streets when then-President Tolbert raised the price of rice, imported then as well. More than one hundred protesters were killed, and the event was a turning point that accelerated the decline into civil war. The ensuing fighting pushed many Liberians into Monrovia, depleting the countryside of its farmers. Now, with the fighting over, there are calls for the government to do more to promote agricultural development. As always, criticism is directed at the wealthy lawmakers who award import contracts and the business elites who receive them.
As I’ve come to learn, the outlines of a functioning democracy and developing state are here, but when it comes to the basics – food production and roads, for example – many Liberians are left wanting.