Under the Radar: Chronic food insecurity could hurt Liberia’s economic growth and stability

Under the Radar: Chronic food insecurity could hurt Liberia’s economic growth and stability

Since the end of the civil war in 2003, Liberia has become an example of progress and peaceful democratic transition for other countries emerging from conflict. The political, social, and economic progress that the country has experienced despite the disastrous Ebola outbreak in 2014 provide a positive outlook for the country.  However, there is a possibility that economic and political instability, and unrest, could evolve in the coming years due to the risk of food insecurity.

This could happen if the government fails to push for more constraining enforcement mechanisms, and fails to prioritize food security, human development, and global health in the upcoming years. There is an opportunity for investors, regional actors, and businesses to help enhance the country’s capabilities in fulfilling its food security goals by undertaking development, technological, and financial steps focusing on agriculture, infrastructure, health, water, and sanitation issues to help agribusinesses. Such initiatives would also give women, children, Ebola survivors, refugees, and orphans access to food and drinkable water in the short and long-term, and undermine a potential return of instability.

Food insecurity: a chronic problem

Like other developing countries experiencing food insecurity, food insecurity remains a chronic challenge to Liberia’s sociopolitical stability. While the global population is increasing and is expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050, Africa’s population is expected to double during the same time frame. There are over 800 million people facing food insecurity today, with the vast majority of malnourished people living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although 500 million smallholder farmers producing 80% of the food consumed in live in developing countries, including Sub-Saharan Africa, occupational farming is declining globally.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has reported that several countries that have experienced violent conflicts also experience dramatically high levels of food insecurity. Among these are the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia. The Liberian civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 1997, damaged the country’s agricultural sector, as “production levels of rice, cassava, and maize were much lower than before the war.”

While food aid and development programs were pursued by the United States during the early post-conflict period, little was done to improve Liberia’s domestic agricultural production. As a result, its food security dropped to crisis levels and by 2007, “food insecurity affected 80 percent of rural [Liberian] households.”

In particular, female-headed households, the number of which increased during the civil war, have since experienced lower productivity per hectare and lower food security and income levels.

While reintegration and reconciliation programs were launched by the government to revive farmers’ production capabilities as well as producers’ organization, the process was difficult due to the displacement of farmers during the conflict. A 2013 UN study indicated that African nations with agriculture dependent economies are dominated by family farming, which relies primarily on family and child labor.

Rebel groups’ violent activities in rural areas during the civil war negatively impacted Liberia’s agricultural sector. During a period involving civilian killings, child soldiering, and the demolition of resources and fields, the demographic makeup of Liberia’s rural agricultural workforce changed after the civil war, becoming comprised mostly of farmers older than 50, many of whom are women.

Additionally, young people, and young men in particular, returning to their lives during the post-conflict period, either found their communities in ruins, or pursued professional interests in urban areas. They also often lacked the requisite skills needed to succeed in the agricultural sector.

Ebola crisis controlled, a new President – now what?

In 2014, Liberia was at the center of international media attention due to the devastating spread of the Ebola virus. The epidemic hindered the promising economic growth that the country had been experiencing between 2010 and 2013. As a result, Liberia’s economy stagnated, many foreign-owned businesses fled, and the government diverted its scarce resources to combat the spread of the Ebola virus. This had the overall impact of reducing funds available for public investment into sectors such as agriculture.

In December 2017, newly elected Liberian President George Weah inherited many ongoing social challenges that former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration attempted to address. Aggravated by the Ebola crisis, these challenges include “high levels of unemployment, domestic debt, and a depreciated currency.” In his December 2017 acceptance speech, President Weah promised to tackle these challenges by attempting to weed out the threat of corruption to improve the quality of life for ordinary Liberians.

According to the FAO, the June to August 2014 Ebola outbreak was largely controlled by a response from the international community and the Liberian government. Liberia’s food security subsequently improved in 2015. Liberia has been experiencing improved food security since 2016. As a result, it does not have any emergency response programs currently in place, and international partners have been focused on supporting its economic recovery and development objectives.

The agricultural sector plays an important role in Liberia’s economy. It accounted for over 45 percent of Liberia’s GDP in 2010, and 76.9 percent in 2017. However, due to the impact of the Ebola crisis on Liberia’s economic and agricultural output, it imported over 80 percent of its food, including rice, in 2017. Since January 2017, roughly 14,000 Liberians require urgent food, nutrition, and livelihood assistance. Access to clean drinking water and food remains unobtainable for poor households, including households located in Lofa, Grand Cape Mount, Gbarpolu, and Bomi. Additionally, 32 percent of Liberia’s population experiences moderate to severe chronic food insecurity year-round.

Ongoing vulnerabilities

Food security can be both a cause and a consequence of conflict in developing countries. Yet, governments and companies have either ignored or inadequately confronted the long-term impact of food insecurity onto a country’s stability and economic growth. With ongoing crises and limited resources and financing to allocate, governments have approached food security on a short-term basis.

Liberia and countries that experience chronic food insecurity are vulnerable to various external factors, including climate change, the spillover effects of neighboring civil conflicts, and shocks in regional and international trade. These shocks include the depreciation of an affected country’s exports abroad. Internally, food insecurity in Liberia could be worsened by: potential health crises, including another Ebola outbreak; problems of post-conflict social rehabilitation; population growth; volatile food prices; changes in the food supply and in the labor market. These issues, particularly climate change, conflicts, and health crises, pose serious threats to domestic (and international) food security and sustainable development goals, jeopardizing socioeconomic progress.

Risks and opportunities for investors

Through its recent promised economic and infrastructure development initiatives, President Weah’s administration is likely to prioritize Liberia agribusiness in the next few years.

Thus, there is a golden opportunity for international, regional, and local investors and businesses to channel private and public investments onto revised existing and new programs, and focus on boosting agribusinesses and individuals’ access to technology, agricultural tools, and other essential resources. Considering that Africa has more than 40 percent of the world’s youth, the demographic makeup of Liberia’s agricultural workforce could change, if appropriate investments and training were implemented.

By capitalising on the new government’s pro-economic growth stance, the business community and existing international agriculture development programs can invest and help support local smallholders and agribusinesses, particularly women, and boost research and development programs.

For instance, certain initiatives that have proven to be successful in other countries, especially USAID’s Feed the Future in Ghana, can serve as models for Liberia. Feed the Future, a program authorized by the US’ Global Food Security Reauthorization Act, focuses on supporting long-term solutions to hunger and poverty, and strengthening the agricultural sectors of developing countries. In April 2015, USAID’s Office of Food for Peace awarded funding for ACDI/VOCA’s Sustainable, Nutrition and Agriculture Promotion Plus (SNAP+) to address the economic and social impacts of Ebola in Sierra Leone. This program involves direct, unconditional cash transfers to Ebola-affected households.

USAID’s efforts are not unfamiliar in Liberia. Its Food and Enterprise Development program helped Liberian rice processing start-up Fabrar Rice double its rice production and improve local milling capacity by financing the purchase of Liberia’s first automated rice milling machine. Fabrar Rice was able to stay open for business during the Ebola outbreak crisis, and feed many affected by the Ebola crisis.

Yet, the business community must be aware of the risk of governments such as the Liberian government and development programs depending on international donors solely. In November 2017, the US Treasury Department announced that it would withdraw US funding from the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program. The US was the program’s biggest donor, providing about one third of the total funds. The remaining donors include South Korea, Japan, Germany, UK, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The US’ recent withdrawal from this program and other major projects could deter investors and businesses from expanding their activities in Liberia and other developing countries.


Overall, former President Sirleaf and new President Weah made progresses in trying to improve their constituents’ livelihoods. Under the previous administration, Liberia joined the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), allocating 10 percent of its total annual budget towards boosting agricultural productivity. In April 2018, the new Liberian government promised to reach food security in four years, and is set to launch a comprehensive food security and nutrition assessment survey.

Thus, it is likely that the Liberian government will aim to boost private investments and coordinate with local, regional, and national actors in coming months and years. In this case, the international and regional business community can look into enhancing the development and implementation of new technological innovations to help forecast the drivers of food insecurity and help the government divert more appropriate resources. Technology can help improve seed production, farm production, harvesting, food processing, storage, and handling. There is a window of opportunity for international and regional investors to delve into these ventures.

About Author

Alicia Chavy

Alicia Chavy is currently pursuing a Master's in Security Studies at Georgetown University. Previously, Alicia worked at Kroll where she conducted due diligence and compliance research for Fortune 500 companies. There, she analyzed open sources intelligence on corruption, fraud, money laundering, and organized crimes perpetuated by companies and senior executives in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English-language speaking jurisdiction. Alicia also worked at The Asia Group, where she provided political and business risk analysis, and strategic support for Fortune 500 companies working to expand their business presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Prior to her consulting experience, Alicia worked at non-profit organizations where she conducted detailed assessments on foreign policy, security and economic issues in Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. Alicia Chavy graduated from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, earning a Bachelor of Science in International Politics.