A surge in rice prices in 1979 contributed to Liberia's descent into chaos, sparking riots and a political crisis that led to the coup that brought Samuel Doe to power. Now the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has identified Liberia as one of 37 countries facing a hunger crisis as a result of food price hikes.
"Given our history of conflict, if we want to ensure there is stability and that peace is consolidated, we want rice to become available, accessible and affordable," said Minister for Agriculture Chris Toe.
Toe told IRIN developing rice production for commercial sale would prevent thousands of Liberians being pushed deeper into poverty as the cost of living soars.
Liberia currently imports 90 percent of its rice – the staple of its 3 million people – from Asia and the US, despite having fertile uplands and lowlands ideal for rice production.
To head off the worst case scenario, the government says ut has designated 15,000 hectares of land for commercial rice production under a US$30 million agreement intended to boost local food production and reduce soaring import costs as global food prices surge.
"According to our figures, an enormous amount of lowland, over probably 600,000 to 700,000 hectares and only 4 percent of that is now being used for irrigation purposes. Most of it is just out there and nothing is done with it," said Toe.
The government says it has reached a deal with Swiss-funded aid group African Development Aid (ADA) to launch the first large-scale attempt to boost in-country agriculture since the end of Liberia's civil war.
The agreement with ADA is expected to be finalised in the coming weeks, Toe said. Under the accord, around 75,000 metric tonnes of rice will be produced within five years. Most of that will be sold to consumers in Liberia.
Toe stressed it will still not meet all of Liberia's food needs. The country's estimated 3.5 million people get through 500,000 metric tonnes of rice a year.
The vast majority of rice currently produced in Liberia is consumed by families living on smallholdings. Aid agencies say that as the food crisis worsens, local people living in rural areas are increasingly in need of access to seed banks and rice mills.
"Rice is a staple food. Local people are threatened [by the food crisis] because imported rice is almost unaffordable. We are installing rice mills in rural communities and we provide seed banks. But these kinds of projects produce very little rice – not even enough for one family for two months," said Peter Kiura, Community Development Coordinator for the American Refugee Committee (ARC).
Kiura added that most smallholdings cultivate rice in upland areas. The Swiss-backed deal will also see swampy, lowland areas being turned into paddy fields.
The Ministry of Agriculture has targeted two sites in northern counties Lofa and Nimba for rice cultivation. But production is not expected to get underway until the end of the rainy season in October.
In the meantime, the government says it will tackle the escalating food crisis by securing access to commercial imports and appealing for international food aid. Opposition parties are also calling on the government to reduce the government tax on rice, currently US$2 per bag.
"If prices continue to rise we have to be able to take care of the most vulnerable. International food aid cannot be written off," added Toe.
At Old Road market in the bustling back streets of Monrovia, rice vendor Augustus Geego told IRIN he has noticed a significant drop in sales.
"The price [of rice] is just getting higher and higher, people can't afford to feed their families. A year ago, I sold 40 bags a day. Now I don't always sell 10," he said.
A 50kg bag of rice that will feed a family of seven for two weeks currently costs US$34 - the average monthly salary for a security guard in Monrovia. The cost of a plate of traditional spicy dishes such as jollof rice at traditional restaurants has shot up to around US$2.
Customer Mamie Tomar said she can no longer afford to buy a whole bag of rice and must instead purchase half measures or buy rice by the cup.
"A half bag lasts around a week; we have our parents and children living with us, so it's very difficult and we need the price of rice to come down. I worry that the price will get even higher; we've got our family, our children, it's not easy. If the price gets even higher we will find it really difficult," she told IRIN.
People are increasingly turning to alternative staple foods such as cassava, yam, plantain and even imported spaghetti to lessen the impact on threadbare pockets.
People say they are becoming increasingly worried that food price hikes could lead to instability and slow Liberia's progress. Aid agencies working in Monrovia say malnutrition rates are increasing. As poverty thresholds change, families are spending less on medical treatment, housing and education.
"The guns are no longer firing in Liberia, but economic hardship is killing the citizens," said Spencer Page, a taxi driver.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions