Liberia: Rural women defy Ebola outbreak by continuing to grow rice

| December 21, 2015

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The Ebola outbreak seriously affected crop production throughout Liberia last farming season. But despite the threat of Ebola, a group of women farmers faced up to the epidemic and continued to grow rice.

Musu Gbartu is the head of the War-Affected Women’s Multi-purpose Farmer Co-operative. The forty-seven-year-old stands in the middle of a seven-hectare field of lowland rice recently cultivated by the co-op.

She says, “Our desire … [was] to ensure that we had enough food for our families and communities.”

Mrs. Gbartu lives in the village of Melekie in Bong County, in central Liberia. The thirty-woman co-operative she leads was established in 2006 after Liberia’s post-war election. The women came together in search of alternative livelihoods. They started by growing vegetables, but switched to rice a couple of years later.

Mrs. Gbartu explains: “We ventured into rice production because we lacked storage facilities and a good market [for our] vegetables. We also experienced high transport [costs] to take vegetables to [the capital city of] Monrovia and [low] prices because they were quick to spoil.”

The women planted two hectares of rice last season and harvested six tonnes. Mrs. Gbartu vows to produce more this year.

Bandu Kerkulah is a member of the co-op. She says there is high demand for rice, and finding a market is easy. Mrs. Kerkulah explains, “We are part of the World Food Programme’s Purchase for Progress scheme—rice produced by our group is normally sold to WFP for its school feeding program.”

In 2014, WFP purchased about four tonnes of rice from the co-operative during the Ebola outbreak. The program distributed rice to Ebola survivors and to some communities that were quarantined by health authorities. Mrs. Kerkulah adds, “We normally sell 25 kilograms of our processed rice to WFP for US$25, but we sell it a little cheaper to the local community.”

Yassah Kollie is also a member of the co-operative. She says the US$15,000 the co-op earned during the Ebola outbreak really helped the women’s families. Miss Kollie explains: “The income we generated helped co-operative members to purchase household essentials, including Ebola-prevention materials such as [chlorinated bleach], medicated soap and other disinfectants.”

There are other benefits to joining the co-op. Members receive preferential treatment when taking loans for personal business ventures, paying only five per cent interest while non-members pay 15 per cent.

Mrs. Gbartu adds, “At the end of each year, we distribute the proceeds … from the sale of our rice among our general membership. Thirty per cent of our income is kept to be used in the next farming year.”

Although Ebola still poses a serious threat, the health authorities’ efforts appear to have brought the epidemic under control. Mrs. Gbartu is confident that their farming co-operative will continue to grow. She predicts a bright future for rice farming and is optimistic about this year’s harvest.

This article was originally published on August 24, 2015.