From Indiana AG Secretary to African Farmer
Gina Sheets and her husband, Travis, moved to Liberia in January of 2014 to develop the agriculture pro-gram at Liberia International Christian College (LICC). Prior to their departure, Gina directed Indiana Depart-ment of Agriculture and Travis was county commissioner in Clinton County, Indiana. Gina developed an interest in improving African agriculture after attending a summit on the issue at Sagamore Institute in 2011.
By Donald Cassell
After the summit, the Sheets began a search for where their now kindled desire for service in Africa could best be realized. They were introduced in 2012 by Sagamore Senior fellow Donald Cassell to Dr. Sei Buor, president of LICC. Sei told the Sheets about his vision to see a program in agriculture and business develop at the college. After a short visit to LICC in 2012, the Sheets left their farm in Indiana and moved to Ganta, Liberia, a city of 40,000 people and LICC’s home.
Born and raised on farms, the Sheets have devoted their lives to diversified farming practices and improv-ing agricultural productivity for economic development. Before moving to Liberia, Travis produced a variety of crops and animals in a diversified farming operation in Frankfort, Indiana. Gina worked in economic develop-ment for the Indiana State Department of Agriculture for four years, being subsequently promoted as director of the Department. To support their work in Liberia, Gina and Travis founded a non-profit whose purpose is to use agriculture to cultivate hope in the developing world.
Today, Gina is Vice President of Administration at LICC and Travis leads the Agriculture Program. They work in LICC’s Agriculture Center, which Travis helped to establish. The Center has a demonstration farm where agriculture education, research and diversified farming take place. The diversified farming consists of vegetables, fruits, roll crops, poultry, fishery and rabbit husbandry. The farm is fast emerging as a small scale agro-business. Gina and Travis aspire to cultivate hope in Liberia among their students, colleagues and others within their sphere of influence.
Agriculture is the largest contributor to Africa’s GDP and the generator of 40% of income. However, agribusiness is sorely lacking Africa which was among the reasons the Sheets were drawn to Liberia. Liberian farm-ers’ capacity needs to be substantially enhanced to seize the opportunities in its soil.
Farming makes up 60% of African labor force, yet the continent relies on $50 billion worth of imports annually to meet its food needs. Liberia grows rice as the main staple crop with cassava as a close second. These crops are grown by about 74% and 62% of the population, respectively. In Africa, agriculture is the main supporter of 80% of the population. Yet, 200 million in sub-Saharan African are reported as malnourished. This food gap may be an opportunity to boost the domestic market economy and grow the independence of smallholder farmers by increasing their productivity. When farmers are better skilled and equipped, Africa will begin to benefit from the offerings of its soil.
According to the World Economic Forum, agricul-tural success has much to do with infrastructure, insurance, finance, and technology. In Liberia, infrastructure, whether physical, legal or administrative, is in dire need of improvements to provide a secure environment for investments in agriculture.
The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture De-velopment Programme (CAADP) is the product of a partnership between the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. NEPAD’s vision through the CAADP is to see African governments increase public investment in agriculture by a minimum of 10% of their national budgets and to raise agricultural productivity by at least 6% annually.
To achieve its goal, the CAADP highlights four development pillars in the areas of resource management, market access, food security, and research in agriculture. On October 16, 2009 the Liberian government signed the CAADP, becoming the seventh African country to sign the documents after Rwanda, Togo, Benin, Burundi, Mali, and Sierra Leone.
AGRICULTURE IN LIBERIA
Agriculture outputs in Liberia occur on three types of farms: traditional, commercial, and concession. Tra-ditional farm systems produce food and crops for home consumption, commercial farms are much larger and usu-ally owned by Liberians, and concession farms are owned and operated by international firms. There are four major commercial farms in Liberia; all other Liberian own farms are smallholder lot-sized gardens (400-100 square foot), no larger than an average American backyard garden. Many smallholders have little education and training to increase and expand productivity.
The Government of Liberia (GOL) sees agricul-ture as the linchpin for economic growth, and its policies reflect a commitment to developing the agriculture sector. One key strategy in the GOL food security agenda is its partnership with the US government global hunger ini-tiative policy as articulated in the Feed the Future (FTF) Multi Year Strategy for 2011-2015. The strategy frame-work highlights transforming the staple food value chains, and to this end policy makers have chosen rice, cassava, vegetable horticulture, and goat husbandry as value chains of interest. They hold potential for income and nu-trition. They also fulfill a special interest concerning the role played by women in Liberian farming business. The FTF strategy is focused on six counties, including Nimba, the center of the Sheets’ work in Liberia. With the goals of the GOL agriculture policy in mind, the Sheets’ work is also clearly within the framework of USAID FTF Liberia strategy.
Liberia should not be in such a dire state considering its abundance of arable land and irrigable water. But the wealth of a nation is tired to its people’s labor and productivity not natural resources. Travis and Gina believe that an acute lack of quality education has much to do with the disappointing productivity rates. Currently, the Sheets are teaching a curriculum called Foundations of Farming (FFF), which seeks to cultivate a mindset of resource management. It is in line with the GOL devel-opment priorities for agriculture. Contrary to traditional Liberian farming practices of slash and burn, FFF uses a mulch blanket, a covering of organic matter that is kinder to the environment. The blanket works against the poor soil quality, which is one of the barriers to production. In the rainy season, where there may be up to 200 inches of rainfall, the mulch covering holds the soil in place, pro-tecting it from erosion. The Sheets intend to harness the rainwater as an asset.
Since working alongside the Sheets, local farmers have been impressed by preliminary results and potential earning power of their newly acquired framing practices, which has encouraged them to continue learning from the Sheets. Experience takes many years to accumulate, but those students working with Gina are gaining invalu-able skills for future service. Gina also plans to offer basic food production training to women, and pre-kindergar-ten schooling to their children, simultaneously transmit-ting valuable skills and training to two generations in one family.
Character development is integral to LICC’s agri-culture program because people are integral to national progress. Mindful of the school’s Christian values, the Sheets are determined to be models of accountability and responsibility to their students. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked”( Luke 12:48). Responsibility is destiny.
Liberia’s agriculture sector is a victim of twenty-five years of civil strife. Founded in 1847 by freed slaves from the United States, Liberia was a positive presence on the world stage under the leadership of President William R. Tolbert through the 1970s. The military coup of 1980 led to a 15 year civil war causing a deleterious effect to every facet of Liberian life. Peace was restored in 2003 with the help of the international community. Yet, the regression of so many years of civil strife robbed Liberia of all mean-ingful development efforts, leaving its people devastated and ill equipped to participate in the knowledge economy. Children had been soldiers, not students.
LEADERSHIP AND DEVELOPMENT
The new Liberian leadership has embarked on a process of restoration. Liberia finds its strength to carry on in other African nations’ success stories, like Rwanda, which endured a massive genocide that wiped out one-eighth of the country’s population in 1994. Since then, Rwanda has achieved economic growth of 8 % annually for several years, helping over one million people climb out of poverty. This growth is greatly helped by a zero tolerance corruption policy which holds government officials accountable for good governance. Rwanda now enjoys a more secure and better governed nation.
Liberia is incrementing Rwanda’s leadership capaci-ty with considerable room for growth. The GOL has a goal for “Liberia to be a broad based middle income country by the year 2030, leaving no Liberians behind.” Since the close of the civil war in 2003, Liberia’s economy has grown at a steady rate of 7% yearly. The net flow of FDI in 2010 was $453 million and since 2005 total inflows have reached $16 billion. Liberia’s policy reforms will need to be expanded, enriched and deeply rooted to continue the required high rate of growth for national development. The Ebola plague like an insurgency or a military aggres-sion could compromise Liberia’s modest progress.
To ensure the growth of strong leadership, the Na-tional Leadership Development Program has been draft-ed. In 2009 the President’s Young Professional Program began in order to offer leadership training centered on integrity and honesty for the more efficient, effective and lawful administration of the public and private sectors. Liberia’s national leadership will need the support of civic and local change agents to sustain the recovery and grow servant leaders who run to a great purpose.
The Sheets work at LICC in mentoring and nurtur-ing farmers with skills and knowledge to excel undergirds the best efforts of the Liberian leadership. Rightly, the development of a nation begins with the development of its people. The Sheets’ hope is to see Africa move beyond food insecurity and poverty, and towards agribusiness partnership internationally. Indiana’s agricultural re-sources will prove critical to achieving this dream.