What in the heck is cassava?—All About Liberian Agriculture – Part 1

Field of Cassava plants

cassava field

A while back we finally made the decision: “Anna and I are going into Agricorps! We are actually doing this!” We had been on a roller coaster ride of thoughts and emotions for the last few months, but when we finally made the commitment to Agricorps I thought I could at least breathe a sigh of a relief and take a short mental rest. Not too long after that, I was reading a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report on Liberian agriculture and I found myself asking “what in the heck is cassava???” Quickly I realized we were gonna have to do our homework.

While reading the FAO report, my whole world was thrown upside down by the prospects of doing life and agriculture in the Liberian climate. Growing up in Maryland, I’ve grown accustomed to 4 equal seasons: a good amount of rain in the spring and fall, cold and snow in the winter, and suffocating humidity and drought in the summer. Maryland’s weather may be notorious for being unpredictable and for changing dramatically in short periods of time, but it’s what I’m used to. I am so entrenched in Maryland’s climate that I’ve deceived myself into believing the oft-used saying, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes!” So when the reality of living in Liberia set in, you can imagine my shock while reading about Liberia’s rainy season, dry season, and number one producing food crop, Cassava. It’s a lot to learn about and crazy different from what we are used to, but it’s humbling, intellectually stimulating and just plain fun to investigate and learn about a whole new agricultural world. Here we go:

Liberia’s agriculture industry is the dominant contributor to export trade and earnings, and it is a source of livelihood for more people than any other sector. 70% of Liberia’s population, approximately 3.9 million people, are engaged in agricultural activities which are dominated by traditional subsistence farming systems. Subsistence farming is self-sufficiency farming in which farmers focus on growing enough food to feed themselves and their families. In this type of system there is little, if any surplus available for trade. The Liberian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was estimated at almost US$ 1.7 billion in 2010, and agriculture contributed 42% of the national GDP in 2008.

Agriculture production in Liberia can generally be divided into three farming systems: traditional, commercial, and concession. Traditional farming systems include local farms that produce food and other crops for market, but in Liberia this division is mostly made up of subsistence farmers. Commercial farms are mostly operated by Liberians, and they produce fruits, coffee, palm oil, cocoa, poultry and pigs. Concession farming are foreign-owned large plantations that produce mostly rubber and palm oil for export. Firestone Natural Rubber Company operates the largest contiguous rubber plantation in the world in Liberia, less than an hour drive from where we will be living in Kakata, Liberia.Firestone Natural Rubber Co Logo

Liberia’s major agricultural products and their contribution to the agricultural GDP is outlined in the table below:

Agricultural Product Contribution to Agricultural GDP
Tree Crops (including rubber, cocoa, and coffee) 34%
Cassava 23%
Rice 22%

Cassava tubers

Oh, by the way—cassava (seen to the left) is a starchy tuberous root much like potatoes. I’ll have more on the major crops and livestock products in part 3 of this 3 part post, but for now stay tuned for Part 2 on Liberia’s location, climate, and geography.

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