Henhouse programs create micro-entrepreneurship in Liberia
Mamie Peters opens the door to her small hen house built of mud and fence sticks. A big hassle begins on the floor as Mamie’s hens know it is time for lunch.
Glozon community in Montserrado County is a one-hour drive away from the Liberian capital, Monrovia. The community is small – it only takes a couple of minutes to walk from one edge to the other. Less than two hundred people reside in their mud houses, and the cooking space is shared. The new joy and pride of the Glozon inhabitants can be found in the back yards: twenty-seven coops of 30 hens. One of the henhouses is now owned and managed by Mamie Peters.
“My chickens are very productive! In a couple of weeks I have got hundreds of eggs,” Mamie says with a tone of pride in her voice. Her hens keep running around while she picks the fresh eggs to a carton.
Mamie Peters is one of the vulnerable women who were chosen this time to the poultry project of Finn Church Aid (FCA) and Project New Outlook (PNO). Many women are single mothers in Glozon Community and all of them have several children and even grand-children. Incomes are limited and employment opportunities are scarce.
Own money for the very first time
The main source of income in Glozon Community is small-scale farming. The products of the village – mainly cassava and vegetables – are sold in the market, and in return the community gets to buy meat, fish and rice. The income from traditional farming is not enough to cover any extra costs, such as children’s school
“We have been taught how to farm more effectively, and we have new kinds of seeds. Now my small plot can also produce eggplant, radish, cucumber and beans,” Mamie Peters says. It only takes half an hour of the day to feed the hens, so there is still enough time for farming.
New vegetables are valuable in the market, but the best income comes from selling the eggs. This poultry project is like a gold mine to the women of Glozon. Some of them have own money for the first time. The future seems brighter as they can now afford to pay for their children’s school fees, or to see a doctor.
Positive impact to the agricultural sector nation-wide
The poultry projects supported by Finn Church Aid are prominent in Liberia. PNO is currently one of the few egg producers in the country. The goal of PNO is to create small-scale entrepreneurship.
The project has been recognized even by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia. She praised PNO and Finn Church Aid in her annual speech for their work as an encouraging example for agricultural development.
Eggs are highly valued in Liberia. Along the roads you can spot street vendors who carry trays of eggs on their head. People stop by to have a snack. There are hens running around everywhere, even in the streets of the capital city, but these hens are thin and not too productive when it comes to eggs.
Locally produced eggs are fresh and organic. And the taste is delicious. The problem is that there is not enough production in Liberia. Most eggs come from The Netherlands or Ukraine, even from India and Malaysia. The quality of imported eggs is poor, as the shipping might take weeks.
As local production in rural areas of Liberia is growing, access to fresh eggs is becoming easier. Moreover, the eggs from local backyards are laid by happy hens.
No hospitals or schools, no proper road network
Liberia is often described as a failed state. Unfortunately, that is quite close to the reality. The brutal civil war in Liberia got to its end in 2003, but the UN is still supporting the Liberian army and police.
Liberia is led by its wealthy elite. Most of the upper class are descendants of the former slaves who established the State of Liberia in 19th century, after getting their freedom. At the same time, 64 percent of the population lives below the poverty line – half of them in extreme poverty.
Providing adequate hospitals, schools, public transport, or even a proper road network is still a challenge. Patchy routes and poor condition of the roads are big obstacles for trade. In remote rural areas people have to live with what they can produce themselves.
The Liberian diet is based on rice and fufu, balls of cassava paste. With fufu or rice you get a stew made of okra or sweet potato leaves, accompanied with meat, fish or chicken if they are available. There is little variation and essential level of vitamins and protein remain low.
40 percent of children are malnourished
Local food production – not being sufficient before – got worse during the war years. Liberia is dependent on imported food. Even today, about half of the rice is imported. The share of imported eggs is up to 95 percent.
The prices remain high because of the transportation costs. Many Liberians can only dream of buying imported goods. They cannot afford it because of low income – only one in six Liberians has a secure job. Nutrition is a serious problem: 40 percent of children are chronically malnourished.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the first female president in Africa – calls for development in agricultural industry. Climate and soil in Liberia are favorable for agriculture, so in theory it is possible to create sustainable and sufficient food production. Still, the cultivation techniques are not up-to-date, which seriously hinders the production.
Results of the work are already visible in the supermarket stock
Domestic egg production has only recently got started. The first Finn Church Aid-supported egg producer was founded a few years ago in the outskirts the capital city, in the province of Margibi, when the PNO decided to expand its operations from agricultural crops to egg production.
Together with Finn Church Aid, PNO has been supporting and building the agricultural capacities of Liberians since the late 1990’s. Certain communities living below the poverty line are given laying hen and the most vulnerable women are trained to feed and take care of them. Small-scale egg production is being developed persistently. Now PNO’s eggs – produced by the hens of the most vulnerable rural women – can be purchased in the supermarkets of Monrovia.
“I know the importance of our work, but the attention from Madame President surprised me. Also Vice President of the State and Minister of Agriculture have shown specific interest in our program. It gives us even more motivation to develop further,” says Beatrice Togba Wuo, PNO’s director and founder.
The goal is to develop a sustainable livelihood
Egg production means a significant increase in the level of income for the women who live in rural settings. They get training in not only in taking care of the hens, but also in how to make a sustainable livelihood out of it. These women need to learn how to save money to afford buying the hen feed. And eventually when the hens stop laying eggs, they need to have sufficient savings to buy new hens.
Egg production piloted with PNO has become a success story. Now, the same concept is used in many projects of Finn Church Aid in West Africa.
Egg production is developing in national level, as now another producer is emerging. Olusegun Obasanjo, Former President of Nigeria, established a chicken farm in Liberia last year, and the potential volumes are expected high, though starting up egg production has not been free of challenges. Domestic competition is welcome to assure a stable supply of local eggs.
Many challenges, much optimism
The eggs that are produced in the backyards are laid by happy hens. Even happier
are the owners of the hens, who become entrepreneurs due to the project.
So far Liberian egg production does not work without external financial support. The biggest obstacle in being a profitable business is that hens and hen feed have to be imported. This is expensive. Production in Liberia is possible, but starting it requires large investments.
One challenge for entrepreneurship is poor level of education. The fifteen-year civil war ruined the school system, like it ruined the rest of the main pillars of the society. Within the generation of present 25 to 40-year-olds only the luckiest have gone to school without interruptions. 40 percent of Liberian population is illiterate. In some remote areas, even the teachers do not necessarily know how to read and write.
However, Beatrice Togba from PNO sees the future with optimism:
“We are planning to expand the egg production. My dream is that Liberian women find their way out of poverty and can thus make their voices heard. Life here is not easy. Entrepreneurship helps us to empower ourselves.”
Text: Ulla Tarkka