Dornadula Chandrasekharam
Former Chair Professor I I T Bombay, India

West Africa: How to be free from ‘food slavery’

Liberia, for that matter all the SW African Countries, receive good amount of rainfall compared to the sub-Saharan African countries like, Libya, Saudi Arabia. Ironically one country is rich in oil and the other in water. Let us see the west Africa countries that are rich in water resources and have huge cultivable land that have been leased out or sold to foreign investors for agricultural food production. Gabon (415000 ha), Ghana (907000), Liberia (1 737 000 ha), Mali (372 167 ha) and Senegal (460 000 ha). Annual rain fall in these countries varies from 3000 to 4000 mm. This is huge amount compared to sub-Saharan countries’ rainfall. Let us focus on Liberia. The total area of the country is 11 137 000 ha and 1737000 ha area is cultivable land. 65% of the population is economically active in agriculture. GDP of the country is 442 million US$ per year. Population in this part of the world were exploited since 18th century as slaves (Atlantic slave export…….you know which country exploited them a slaves. ) until European investors entered the business for a different cause. Slave export was replaced by commodity export after this colonial entry. West Africans in general were and are not free from this slavery. Before and after colonization slavery continues. The population instead of working in other countries (especially America) were working in their own countries, in their own farms, for the benefit of the colonel rulers. Agrarians were and are working in their farms growing food and exporting to the European countries. Though colonel rulers call it a game changer and commercial transition, the theme is the same with  a different name. Labourers are working in their own farms cultivating food for others!! These colonel rulers are so selfish that they never thought of helping these “slave labourers” to stand on their own feet and rise above the poverty line! Thus the colonial rule although abolished slavery it was replaced by forced labour schemes.

The exports to the colonial countries include palm oil, cotton, cocoa, coffee, tea, tobacco, rubber and other cash crop products. The colonial powers introduced technological innovations to control the productions and exports through remote control there by avoiding high health risk from these countries. Thus the story continues.

One has to wait and see what the IFAD ( International Fund for Agricultural Development: A UN financial institution) does in these countries by providing US$ 20.4 billion in grants lift the population above poverty line by providing food security.  These grants and loans will not produce the expected results unless programmes to strengthen the performance ability of the farmers is undertaken to provide sustainable agricultural production. Mechanism should be in place to export part of the produce and import other essential goods (that can improve the infrastructure of the country) on barter system. This way the country will enhance its cash reserves. There should be timeline drawn to reduce the future grants and loans. Since these countries have sufficient water resources achieving food independence should not be a major issue. To achieve this the country’s leadership should be strong. Many leaders are under the influence of colonial leaders.  Since these countries have sufficient surface water resources ( for example Liberia’s per-capita water is 49,028 m³/person/year) generating electricity should not be a problem. Once water and electricity are in plenty the countries can be on the path of industrialization along with agricultural production. Financial institutions should aim at this kind of support and development rather providing short term food security.  Their fear is once these countries become food and water independent then colonial rule has  to end and the colonial power will have food shortage and have to depend on large food imports. As on now in Liberia 24% of the population have no access to safe drinking water. This is a small percentage considering the annual rain fall the country receives. Once electricity is available infrastructure can be built and with it the country can look up for other amenities like medical facilities, employment of rural population and empowering the public with education and technology.  I don’t think these financial institutions are aiming anything like this in these under developed countries with rich natural resources. The European colonial powers showed the way forward to all the oil rich countries. Libya and Saudi Arabia are already negotiated or negotiating with Liberia to obtain large agricultural land for rice cultivation. Liberia is planning to lese out almost 80 % of its prime land to these oil rich countries in exchange of fossil fuels. With sufficient surface water these countries need not depend on CO2 rich energy source. As on today Liberia’s per capita CO2 emissions are 0.18 tons……low compared to other countries that are planning to take prime agricultural land on lease.   Emissions can be further reduced by shifting completely to hydropower or at least reduce dependence on fossil fuel-based electricity. What Liberia or the water rich countries need is a strong leader who can plan economic strategy to plan sustainable agricultural and infrastructural development with minimum foreign aid. This can be done by partnering with countries that have no history of colonial ship.

Liberia gets its electricity from hydroelectric power stations and diesel and heavy oil based power generators. The Liberia Electricity Company supplies 190 MWe while the actual demand is over 300 MWe. In spite of high rainfall and convenient geomorphology to construct major hydroelectricity projects the Mt coffee Hydro electricity plant generates only about 63 MWe. This is too low considering the rain fall and surface run-off from rivers 5 major rivers. There is no systematic investigation undertaken to assess the hydro-electricity potential of Liberia. There is ample scope to install mini/small hydroelectricity projects without constructing major dams. Granites being the major rock type in the country, the potential of the granites to generate electricity through EGS should also be assessed. The financial institutions and the local governments should undertake such feasibility study and establish a concrete programme to install small hydroelectricity stations and supply electricity to the rural population. Because of the river morphology and forest cover many feasible hydroelectric -project sites are in accessible. Here the country need infrastructure facilities. These are the priorities for the country to lift the population above poverty line. There is no meaning in providing food security to countries like Liberia through technology transfer and financial aids. The country needs uninterrupted electricity and well connected electricity grid. With ample rain fall and large agricultural land  (1 737 000 ha), the country will be able to cultivate sufficient food and achieve food independence .  Foreign direct investment in agriculture can be curtailed. Farmers need not be slaves in their own farms. The indirect slavery system can be eradicated with in few years. Liberia can set an example and show the way to be food independent to other neighbouring countries. Country needs a strong political will and a strong leader!!

About the Author
I am a Retired chair professor from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and currently teach at IIT Hyderabad. I have 200 publications in the above fields and have supervised 25 Ph D students.