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Liberia’s Trade Imbalance: The Story of the Egg

The healthy ratio between a country’s total imports and exports is one of many factors that can simulate a nation’s economy. For Liberia, their independence in 1847 was founded on trade issue, because they needed to be a sovereign nation in order to assess a tariff on exports to Great Britain as much needed revenue source. However, for most of the last 20 to 30 years this nation has been dependent on foreign aid and importation of goods such as foodstuffs since the production of locally grown or made goods was crippled by the war. This dependence created a huge trade deficit since the imports were far greater than the exports. Yet, in the last two years this gap between imports and exports has narrowed to where in 2009 the exports surpassed the imports (source: http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c7650.html). Nevertheless, these trends do not show the true realities of this ongoing trade imbalance that is still dependent on imports for many goods such as food that could be produced domestically. The story of the simple egg will illustrate this point.

When researching and writing this post, I could not stop hearing the popular U.S. advertising jingle “the incredible, edible egg.” It is also made me reflect on the timeless debate “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” Clearly, the “egg” is the symbol of reproduction since it is the offspring from male and female propagation, but also it is the simplest representation of economic production.

Strangely enough, the “egg” is one of the many basic items that are currently imported into Liberia. The egg along with tomatoes, onions and other imported commodities could all be easily grown and produced in this nation. Obviously, a nation should be concerned when they import more of the simple items than what they produce locally, because even a simple egg can affect an economy. This reality can be clearly shown from an interesting story that occurred in 2008 while I was managing a guest house for a NGO I had formerly served.

In February 2008, I received several U.S. guests who were staying for two to three weeks, and as part of our service we served breakfast. Unfortunately, for nine consecutive days, I was not able to buy an egg anywhere in Monrovia. This occurred during their first nine days at the guest house, so the breakfast service was lacking scrambled or fried eggs, and French toast or pancakes. Throughout this period, I checked daily with my vendors at the foreign-owned and Liberian-owned supermarkets to be told to check the next day. Near the end of this period, I learned that the container with the eggs was sitting at the port, because an extra tariff was added to these imported goods. The vendors held off on paying the extra fee causing the goods to remain unpacked and unsold at the port. It was never clear what the outcome was, but the eggs were restocked at the supermarkets and I was finally able to provide the guests a hearty breakfast.

This story recently came back to light when the supply of eggs two weeks ago was not meeting the demand, so the consumers buying in the open markets saw an increase of 25% for a single egg. What this equated to for these mostly impoverished consumers is that they saw the price went from two eggs at 15LD (Liberian Dollars) to one egg at 10LD—currently the LD and USD exchange rate is about 70 to $1. Many people from developed nations may not see this change from 10.7 cents to 14.3 cent for one egg as a major issue, but when people in developing nations are trying to survive on $1 to $2 USD a day, any increase can be a detriment to their livelihoods.

I have shared this story about the nine-day “egg drought” from 2008 with many Liberians. This story has spawned many interesting conversations about eggs, tomatoes and onions. Several Liberians have shared how one of Liberia’s wealthy elite was selling eggs for a while on his farm not too far from Monrovia, but that service no longer exists. Also, they shared how in other African nations you will find the locally grown products, like tomatoes and onions, being sold inside the supermarkets whereas in Liberia they are sold on the streets outside the major supermarkets. They further explained how the cost of these goods in Liberia are much higher since they are imported whereas in the other African nations they are far cheaper since they promote local producers.

Liberia is an unique nation; it has a relatively small population of about 3.5 million and is abundant with many natural resources along with some of the most fertile soil for agriculture. I know for most of us who enter this country from the developed world, our minds can be baffled knowing the existence of these two variables—population size and available resources. It makes us ask “why is there poverty in Liberia”, because when computing these two variables it makes no sense at all. And when you add the fact that an egg needs to be imported, this is a clear indicator that something is wrong.

Many of us who grew up in the U.S. especially in the rural areas can remember our parents buying eggs from the local farmers. Often this trade was operated by women who were sometimes called the “egg ladies” This income from the egg sales helped supplement the family farm business, since their livelihoods depended on the revenue of the crops, animals or by-products that they sold in local or commercial markets.

In Liberia, this same concept could move a farmer out of subsistent living by supplementing their current production of market goods. These farmers in turn could also supply the countless number of people, especially women surviving on sales from the open markets (i.e. informal market). From these sales, a single mother could move her children from selling on the streets to sitting in classroom. A nation that promotes local production, can also stimulate their economy.

Majority of Liberia’s population, predominately women, are working in the agriculture and informal sectors, but the income from this work does not meet all their needs. Therefore, increasing locally grown and produced goods, Liberia can decrease their dependence on these imports and also their costs. In return, Liberia and its people can benefit from producing not only goods to be sold in their markets, but also expanding into foreign markets through fair trade initiatives.

Comments

jodelight's picture

local

Hi Heather,

This article is great! I am so interested to hear about contemporary issues going on Liberia. I appreciate your thoughts on the import/export business in Liberia. I agree with you, that it would be an excellent step in the right direction for local farmers and folks in the rural areas to harvest tomatoes, onions and eggs.
In the US, I am a big supporter of farmers markets. I want the money I spend on fruits, veggies, bread and cheese to go back into the local community. I love the idea that we can support local farmers instead of allowing the global markets to direct sales. Of course I still shop at the markets, as it is necessary, but want to see local farmers succeed.
All that being said, I think that supporting 'local' is a great step for the US, Liberia and many countries to have access to fruits and veggies at a reasonable price.
Thanks for your perspectives!
-Jody

heatherc67's picture

Thank you

Hi Jody,

Thank you for your feedback. I agree that more and more people are becoming more conscious about buying locally grown food to support their farmers. Too often we focus on the macro-side of economics, but not the micro-side when both are needed. We need to shop both types of markets, because the marketers are dependent on us consumers.

I hope that our world can see the need for the both types of markets.

Blessings,

Heather

William's picture

The egg--the locally produced egg

Hi Heather,

I am a small farmer in McMinnville and produce pork and garlic. I gives me great satisfaction to have neighbors buy what I produce and tell me how good it is.

I have also been to Liberia and visited an agricultural part of a school our church supports. I met many other farmers while there and this is what I came home with:

lots of money is expected from the US before they can start any project;
current, 2009 technical know-how is expected to be given to them;
in some cases, people go without eating some days, but don't have a garden planted by their huts;
people are just becoming aware of money and how much things cost;
many mature aged people are uneducated and haven't made any commitment to change that;
"street sales" appears to be the norm, using girls often to carry goods on trays on their heads to do it (instead of being in school):
hunter/gathering practices are trusted more than educated techniques;
communication necessity means making a deal, but not saying "thank you." We send lots of packages and money to Liberia and seldom if ever hear that they were received or get a thank you. I'm afraid they have become dependent on our aid. A girl was born with club feet when I was there in July, 2008 and six months I inquired about helping her. No response.

These are generalizations of course, but what I observed. Things like being trust worthy and caring for your neighbor are not embaced by everyone. I send money every month to a missionary to help support three girl and youth programs in Buchanan (a smaller town near Monrovia). I have mixed feelings about helping the people in Africa. It seems to me that they expect to skip the toil and hard work period, and want to join Western societies in the Internet and "things" we have. Liberia has more natural resources than the US ever had: huge rivers for hydroelectric plants, good soil, regular rainfall, etc.

I am hopeful, but not convinced that people with capital will support the educated who want to start, say, an agriculturtal program to grow their own rice. What are your thoughts, Heather?
peace and hope,
william

heatherc67's picture

Your comments

Hi William,

Thank you for your comments regarding this post. I know that many people feel that Liberians are lacking ambition, education, trust and care for one another. Granted this is true for some people, but also it is true worldwide. However, I have come to know many people that are extremely hard working and trusty worthy, also those who have extended a hand for their neighbor. Though many might now have a formal education, but I have come across many wise and intelligent Liberians who gained their knowledge through experiencing war and poverty.

Sadly, Liberia has become dependent on foreign aid and yet many want to break free from that. But also, western nations have also caused this dependency because their desire to exploit the natural resources in this country such as rubber and iron ore. It makes no sense to extract these commodities to manufacture somewhere else as final products like tires and rain coats when it could be done here and the available human resources are eager for manufacturing jobs.

I have come to know not only Liberians, but also people from Ghana, Uganda, Senegal, Somalia and Ethiopia at my university or the many conferences I attended here in Liberia. Some are talented and compassionate individuals with post graduate degrees while other have gained their wisdom and intelligent through the "school of survival." Most Africans want to create opportunities to help their people to be empowered and self-sufficient. Most of these people know they have all the resources on their continent, but yet those who hold the money from the West and key government positions in their countries continue to want to exploit those resources while the general masses receive no opportunity to improve themselves. Though the slave trade and colonialism is over, there are still remnants of these oppressive systems still in operation.

As westerns, we need to realize we don't have all the solutions or the answers, and that we can't replicate every system that works in our nations. We need to learn to partner with the people and allow them to present the ideas and solutions for their problems, because they know their nation and culture better than we.

Again thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I hope that my thoughts are understandable. Please feel free to share more...

Blessings,

Heather

William's picture

Liberia's future

Dear Heather,

Thank you for your response to my letter. While we are both speaking in generalities, I found the people of Liberia loving, caring and hopeful. I not only prayer daily for specific people, but also send money monthly to support programs I've seen in action.

I'm a mature aged guy and have earned my education by living and caring for people. My letter to you was the first time I addressed the issues of why progress isn't more rapidly being made. If you've driven the road from Monrovia to Buchanan, you will agree that no attempt has been made toward improving the one road that connects the whole of Liberia. I spoke with a gentleman from the US who went there to attend a conference in southern Liberia and he said it took them about a day to get that far, due to pot holes and the road being washed out.

I'm familiar with the greed and corruption that money allows to happen. It happens here in the US too, but we built counter checks to catch it. Ellen Sirleaf may be doing a great job, I truly hope so, but where are the funds she needs to fix the road? Or hire badly needed teachers? There is no tax revenue from "street vendors." Where is her money coming from? She has made an effort to stop corruption in her govenment, but it's still there. How is she to attract capitol to build those dams and hydroelectric power stations so her country will have reliable electricity?

When I was there the principal of the school we visited said he wanted to put in a rubber plantation to provide the school with a steady income. A good idea I thought. He asked us to give him the money to accomplish this. Being a farmer, I asked where he would put it, who would clear the land, how he proposed to prepare the soil for tree growth and so forth. He didn't have any answers, but asked if I would come over and live there for a year and show them how to do it. I almost said "yes."

One item I think they misunderstand, is that they can't go from a hunter/gatherer society, to having TV and the Internet and expecting everything to happen instantly---catching up with Western society, by merely wishing to have it now. I recently wrote to a woman in Kenya and expressed this thought. Isn't it true that if you are riding a donkey a long distance a car passes you, you want to ride in that comfortable car instead of being thankful that you don't have to walk?

I think getting everyone educated is the first step. Teaching basic sanitation, teaching why they need to dig wells and have their children drink only safe water is important. Teaching them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps (sorry about the "old" expression) and get ready. I'm speaking about the "average person" here, those who know food insecurity, not those who came from privileged families and already have their PHD's. My experience tells me that the well educated people from developing countries get out as soon as their visa's are approved and move to the Western country.

Your thoughts?
peace,
William

heatherc67's picture

Interesting discussion

Hi William,

I have been on the road from Monrovia to Buchanan and all the way to Yarpa Town, River Cess County. When I was there in November 2007 there was not much for agriculture or other initiatives in that region. However, when going through Bong and Lofa County I have seen more efforts with agriculture and other developments, and the road to Lofa is far worse. I have not had the opportunity to the southeastern counties who are suffering the most because of the deplorable road conditions, especially in the rainy seasons.

I did have the opportunity to attend a climate change conference that focused on preserving and using the forests and other natural resources for the livelihoods of rural communities. Six communities were invited from the various counties such as Lofa, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Bassa, River Cess and Margibi. The presenters was a community member from each of the six villages. Prior to this conference they spent three days in a workshop identifying their needs, what they could contribute, and what was the potential. Through this facilitation they could identify all these areas and had the idea in how to best capture the full benefit. These people know their areas best, and we all can learn something from them.

I agree that education is first and foremost. Also, I believe that some of these people can also be teachers of things that are not necessarily on the standard curriculum, but are necessary for the learning process. I am currently working on article about education in Liberia, because one standards doesn't fit all. Plus the system is not meeting the needs of all generations who are seeking more education.

I know for many Liberians who continue to be marginalized, they are tired of the many empty promises they have heard from government, NGOs and ministries. I have witnessed some of this. As someone who gave money and time for a cause I thought was just, I would later discover that people were used and deceived for something that had nothing to do with their benefit. I have been conducting my own investigation and been talking with people who have been harmed by blatant lies.

Probably more than we realize we have given our money to charitable causes that never reach those who we believed we were helping. It is hard pill to swallow when you discover this reality. I have met and talked with people have have given their labor or property in exchange for better sanitization programs, schools and clinics, but end up getting nothing. These people lack the voice or clout to getting any justice when this occurs. They just get frustrated more and have no trust for anyone talking with an "empty month."

Yes some people who were fortunate were able to leave before or during war. And while many have don't been eager to return, there are those who have with their families. Some of these people are really trying to make a difference in their communities and they are blessing to find. Also, again there are many Liberians who are eager to have an opportunity to noticed and participate in changing from the status quo. Those are the people we need to seek out and help, because in turn they will continue helping others from their own efforts.

I'm enjoying this discussion, so interested in hearing more from you.

William's picture

Liberia

Dear Heather,

Yes, I have Dr.Yunus's book, have read it and it confirmed my belief in
micro-credit. I am into the social business concept.

I have a number of missionary contacts in Africa. I can send money through a
central office of the United Methodist Church in NY, knowing the money will
arrive in the country where I want it to go. I have sent a little to people
in Zimbabwe this way and know it got there. I support a program that is
taking former female sex workers off the street and training former child
soldiers. When I was in Liberia I met the missionary, his family. He has
access to email so we chat back and forth. I know the money I send him is
reaching him because he tells me so. I sent him money for a camera recently
and hope to make a video for You Tube or somewhere, with fund raising in
mind.

I know there are people everywhere who think like you and I: wanting to help
change the world. PulseWire is an excellent step. It takes time to build a
trusting relationship and I have limited time. Even at age 72 I am extremely
busy.

I believe in education and support it. My heart goes out to girls in Arab
countries where the men don't want them educated. Like Iran.

I have to go. I'm planting garlic on our small farm and I have to push
myself to do the manual work necessary. My passion in life right not (aside
from helping children) is Frency cooking. I have just started and love it.

Our Liberia Conference office of the United Methodist Church is in Monrovia.
I know a number of people who work there. We also have a radio station
there. If it didn't cost so much, I would bo the Liberia annually. I love
the people there

peace and hope Heather,
William

Nice Story, but...

You do not understand rural Liberia and the UpCountry ideals.

Liberians, cutting across tribal distinctions, do not prefer to eat there own eggs because of their potential deposit to their chicken bank. No kidding, ask someone about the "chicken bank" concept and you will find that eating chicken eggs is reserved for non-farmers, city and town dweller. Or, the chance visit to the city, were you may eat a "BoyEgg" on the street.

You see all eggs are far more precious after they hatch. A yard full of chickens is great wealth. I could go on but you get the general idea.

Please take the time to know the Liberian people. It will be better for everyone, and best for you.

Thanks.
Anthropogenicagent

heatherc67's picture

Your reply

Thank you for your feedback and giving insight with traditions about eggs that I was not aware of. This article was using the egg as an example of a larger problem of how more things could be grown, made and sold by Liberians. Most of the food is imported instead of grown locally, and again listening to many Liberians who have visited other African countries this is not the norm. Granted there are still the challenges in many rural areas of good roads and bridges to bring their goods to the profitable market areas that are not just in Monrovia alone.

My research is not based on my own observations living in Liberia or what I find in books, reports, or web pages, but is also talking with people. I have learned a lot from the people who are living from day-to-day. And I learn more and more each day as I interact with them.

Again, thank you...

Interesting discussion -- I still don't get why it is not profitable to sell eggs in Liberia - how many would you need to sell to buy a live chicken? I've never to been to a country (apart from Liberia) that doesn't produce its own eggs ....

heatherc67's picture

Producing eggs in Liberia...

Thank macroman for joining the discussion and your brought up a very important point. Granted there is cultural component about eggs in Liberia, and yet there are still many people buying and selling them in the market. So, I think there are some Liberians who would be interested in producing eggs to help support their livelihoods.

Blessings,

Heather

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