MONROVIA – The call for an increment in the price of rice is not unique to Liberia as most countries in the region have already considered increment as a necessary option amid the global crisis which is now affecting food security across the globe.
Report by Lennart Dodoo and Obidiah Johnson
A May 2022 Food and Agriculture Organization Alert indicated that Food insecurity at unprecedented levels in most coastal and Sahelian countries.
The alert revealed that the alarmingly high level of food insecurity is due to localized shortfalls in cereal production in 2021, worsening conflicts, high food prices, and macroeconomic challenges compounded by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the FAO, food insecurity has reached an unprecedented level in the subregion, with the estimated number of food insecure people on an upward trend since 2014 and almost quadrupling between 2019 and 2022, driven by severe shocks: localized shortfalls in cereal production, worsening conflicts and insecurity, reduced cross-border trade, high food prices and macroeconomic challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, the number of food insecure people could increase above the initial projections as the effects of the war in Ukraine, mostly related to soaring international prices of food, fuel, and fertilizers, was not factored in the latest food security analyses. Food insecurity conditions can worsen further if constrained access to fertilizers, persisting local insecurity, and forecast localized unfavorable weather conditions result in lower cereal production in 2022.
Rice, being the staple food for most countries in the region, has seen monumental increments in price across various countries.
FrontPageAfrica discovered that 25kg of rice in the Gambia is sold for US$25 while 50kg is sold for US$45. In Nigeria, 25kg of local rice is US$40 while 25kg of imported rice is US$55.
Côte d’ Ivoire: 25kg US$30.00, 50kg US$50.00; Guinea: 25kg US$35.00, 50kg US$55.00 while 25kg of the highest quality of rice in Sierra Leone is sold for US$25.00 and the lowest quality is US$25.
Like many other countries, particularly in our region, the impact of global trade challenges was immediately felt. Challenges such as accessing essential commodities globally and their transportation to our ports continue to be a cause for concern.
In Liberia, the government immediately commenced engaging with all stakeholders, including rice importers on steps that can be taken to avert any shortage of rice on the market. And with retailers to ensure that they sell the commodity and not hoard thus creating an artificial shortage.
This included providing some form of subsidy and operational adjustments to importers in order to keep the price of rice stable, unchanged, and available.
The Government says it is working hard to ensure there is sufficient stock of rice in the country including a buffer stock level since this global supply chain challenge started; however, there have been instances of intermittent decline in this stock level as a result of logistical and technical challenges which most times cause panic buying by the public and hoarding by unscrupulous individuals. In addition to an increased demand for the commodity outside of the normal due to fear resulting from global challenges.
Additionally, the government through its inspectorate is continuously monitoring the situation on the market, making sure that no one (importers or retailers) is engaged in acts that would undermine regulations and policies aimed at ensuring that retailers do not hoard the product or inflate the price of rice.
FrontPageAfrica has learned that the President, through budgetary appropriations, is making sure that the government program to ensure rice is available and affordable is fully supported.
Nevertheless, the government says it is continuously monitoring the impact of the global food crisis, especially in terms of global shortages in access to grains, and will continue to make decisions and policies in the best interest of the Liberian people reflective of global circumstances.
In recent times, the price of a 25kg bag of rice has abruptly increased from US$13.50 to US$20, US$22 and US$25 respectively in Monrovia and other parts adjacent. The retail price of a cup of rice, which was sold for L$35, is presently being sold for between L$60 to L$80, respectively.
local traders and consumers continue to troop at warehouses of importers in Monrovia in search of the commodity.
They stormed the warehouses of Fouani Brothers Corporation, one of the major importers of the commodity, standing and sitting in long queue from the morning to evening hours to purchase rice for their respective shops, stores, market centers and homes, respectively.
Fouani Brothers Corporation is the only company that is selling the product for now to local business owners and consumers, purchasing 20 bags of 25kg rice or above at its warehouses located at Freeport on the Bushrod Island, outside Monrovia.
Fouta Corporation, Supplying West African Traders (SWAT), United Commodities Incorporated (UCI), K and K, are other major importers of rice to Liberia. But the companies were reported not to be selling to local business owners on grounds that they have ran out of supply.
The situation compelled local Liberian traders, particularly young and elderly women to stand in the rain and sun for weeks now, grappling to buy the commodity at Fouani.
The local traders have been out of business for a while now due to the multiple constraints they continue to encounter to buy their goods from the company.
Police officers were spotted on the scene following the influx of the local traders at the warehouses of Fouani from the earlier morning hours of Tuesday, September 27 to the late evening hours.
Selling 20 bags
Fouani was only selling the commodity 20 bags of 25kg per customer.
However, preference was given to other customers to purchase from 100 bags upward if they were willing to buy additional goods or commodities apart from the rice which they normally buy.
The goods included flat-screen plasma television, cartoons of oats, and other provisions.
“For over three weeks now, I been coming and I have not gotten rice. Today, I am here this time at least to buy rice and eat because nothing is in my shop and I get plenty of children. The last small rice I bought from SWAT, I bought it US$14.50. I managed to keep two bags and that is what we ate home,” Maima Massaquoi Momo, 45, stated.
She added: “I am not a rice importer and so, I can’t tell whether rice is plenty in the country or not. But the rice importers are telling us that ‘no enough rice’. Our President should make sure that instead of the Lebanese people bluffing us let our government form a company to produce rice so they can stop suffering us.”
The local Liberian business owners also reported that numbered tickets intended to guarantee law and order at the facility were being allegedly sold to them by some individuals assigned at Fouani.
The distribution process of the tickets, which is normally done on a first come basis, has been marred by corruption and selection.
They claimed that those willing to pay the amount of US$30 are given preference over others who stood in the rain and sun for several hours to buy their goods.
“We are just sleeping here for nothing because, we can’t even get the rice and they are selling only 20 bags per person. I came to buy 50 bags, but they said only 20 bags I can buy. People can bring the tickets outside to sell to us; they can give the tickets to outsiders to sell to us,” Marie Dennis stated.
Fatu Kamara, a young Liberian mother, visited Fouani last week and returned home unsuccessful under the heavy downpour of rain. She mustered the courage and return early Tuesday morning and managed to purchase rice from another person at a higher cost.
“I stand in that line for the morning to reach and we couldn’t get rice.
The rain beat me that night and for me to even use the restroom, was not easy. I just bought rice from somebody here US$18 for a bag. I will be transporting each bag L$70 to my house.”
She vowed to sell the rice at an affordable price to make a profit for the upkeep of her family.
“Right now, I don’t know how much I will sell a bag for. But when I get home, I will decide. I have to look for plenty of money because I have my family.”
Fatu said ordinary Liberians; especially consumers are the ones that will feel the pinch of the current situation.
“We that are buying the rice and our customers, all of us will feel it; it’s not the foreigners that will feel it because they feel relaxed and money is coming to them. We that are always in the cold along with our customers will really feel it.”
She observed that apart from Fouani, other importers of rice are not willing to sell it to local traders.
“For now, UCI is not functioning. But if you go to SWAT, you will not get it. Don’t waste your time because every day SWAT does not have rice. For Fouta, they said they are not selling. But the day they are ready to sell rice, they will be selling it with flour. If you don’t have money to buy flour, you will not buy rice,” Fatu maintained.
The cost of a bag of flour at Fouta is US$45. Struggling Liberian business owners do not have sufficient money to purchase and sell rice and flour at the same time.
She admitted that Fouani are also allegedly compelling those buying above 20 bags of rice to purchase other goods before they are served.
“For Fouani, it depends how many bags you want you will buy materials. But if you are buying 20 bags, they can give you anything they wish to give you to buy from them apart from rice,” she said.
Fatu expressed frustration that things will become worse for her and her family members as a result of the difficulties she continues to encounter to get her supply of rice from importers to sell.
“My children supposed to be starting school Monday. I even thinking how they will start; I have one child and three others I am supporting. We don’t even have money yet to start because, that’s the business I am depending on.”
David Toby spent nearly two weeks at Fouani to receive his supply of rice.
He also corroborated reports of these companies mandating local traders to buy other goods apart from the rice which they usually paid for.
He claimed that at one of the offices of the rice importers, the amount of US$13 is placed on receipts given to local business owners to deceive the government and others for the price of a 25kg rice, while the commodity is sold to them at a different price
“It is going to almost four months and K and K is not selling rice; if you go to Fouta, they will tell you to buy 100 bags of rice with 20 bags of flour. Where will I get that money from? So only Fouani we can maintain the price with even though they said if you buying 100 bags, you should buy three flat screen televisions. SWAT is selling US$17 and US$18. But if you buy the rice, they can put US$13 on your receipt. That’s the corruption there.”
Toby added: “I don’t have anything to do with flat screen television and so, we can buy 20 bags and go and come back. The little profit I can put on it, me and my family can managed with it.”
Many households in Liberia are coping with the ‘every day rice shortage hullabaloo’ by substituting their staple food rice-to fufu or others. Fufu is a typical Liberian food made from cassava.
“I had been coming here for one week now and I can’t get rice. I slept here under the rain last night. We can’t even enter or see the Lebanese people to talk to them. But people said they are only selling 20 bags. My whole shop is empty. My family and I are eating fufu because, we can’t get the rice,” Helena Flomo, 47, noted.
Others are compelled to cut down the cups of rice they normally cooked for fear of running out of the product at their respective homes.
“We used to cook eight cups for a household of about 11 persons. But we have reduced it to six cups now because, rice is very expensive. In fact, you can’t even see it. If you are lucky to see it, the price is like the cost of a gold dust”, Amara Fofana, a consumer stated.
Alvin B. Smith, 30, is a seafarer, working with the United Seamen Union of Liberia.
He earns money to take care of him and his family members’ responsibilities by offloading rice from docked vessels at the Freeport of Monrovia.
However, things seem to be difficult for him and others due to the prolong delay for vessels ferrying rice to dock at the Freeport of Monrovia.
As a result of this, Smith has joined his brother to wake up during the early morning hours to stand in the long queue at Fouani Brothers Corporation to buy several bags of rice for his sister who runs a shop.
“Any rice ship comes in the country we can offload it; but for the past days now, we are not working. There is no rice in the country; K and K, UCI, Fouta are not bringing rice. There is no food, no rice in the country. What going in this country is too bad and we are tired with this situation.”
Smith continued: “I can come by 7AM and I have not been served since then. I slept here for the past four days and my brother and I can change shift. They (Fouani Brothers) always telling us we should wait, rice will come. We keep sitting and sitting, but no rice.”
He noted that though a ship reported being transporting rice to the Freeport of Monrovia is normally reported and spotted on the ocean, the availability of more metric tons of the commodity remains uncertain until the vessel can docked at the port.
He claimed that the supply of rice currently on sale in Liberia was part of the latest ones brought into the country by Fouani.
“We want the government to start importing rice into the country because, the Lebanese nationals that are involved, things are not fine and they are not treating us fair.”
The local traders are not also earning more profits as compare to the past due to the delay in getting their goods from the importers.
They are also experiencing difficulties in generating funds to pay the fees of their children as the academic year 2022/2023 commences and shoulder other needs and basic necessities for them and their respective family members.