Liberia's farmers lose up to half of their annual rice crop to post-harvest losses resulting from pests and spoilage, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Getting more of Liberia's rice crop to market has been one of the challenges facing the country as it strives to cut its dependence on rice imports.
Through a local cooperative for women farmers, Roberts, 44, has become part of an ambitious national plan to boost the production, quality, durability and marketability of Liberia's rice crop.
Instructors trained by FAO have shown Roberts and other members of a local women's farmer cooperative improved techniques for producing, processing and storing rice.
Straddling a dirt embankment in a rice field in Tappita, Roberts explained that she and other members of the cooperative, the Tappita Women's Structure, have learned how to turn overgrown swamps into lowland rice fields, improve rice yield and quality throughout the growth cycle, use various techniques to protect the rice from pests, and add to the value of the crop with proper post-harvest processing and storage.
"We used to, you know, just put the rice in the ground," Roberts said, fanning one hand outward to mimic the planting of rice seedlings. "At the workshop, they taught me how to prepare rice in the nursery and lay the rice. Then, after the harvest, you mash it, parboil it, and let it dry good," said Roberts.
The plan is funded in part by the European Union Food Facility, the EU's massive response to higher food prices in developing countries, with technical support from FAO.
Men and women
In Liberia, the EUFF is part of a multi-faceted initiative by the government and the UN Joint Programme for Food Security and Nutrition, which aims to provide emergency assistance to food-insecure households while also building the long-term capacity of Liberians to improve their livelihoods.
To maximize the impact of distribution and training initiatives, the programme is working with both men's and women's farmer cooperatives, to be sure that women are given equal access to opportunities for distribution, training and decision-making processes.
"We insisted on involving women directly in swamp rehabilitation so that women would be able to help themselves grow more food, to have some to carry home. They wanted to do this job, but they did not have the means," said Sarah Mendoabar, mayor of Tappita, a town of 11 000 people surrounded by villages that are home to another 4 000 other people.
Mendoabar says female-headed households have been especially hard hit by higher food prices and a decline in household purchasing power in recent years. In addition to training, local women and men have also received seeds, fertilizer and other pest-control supplies from FAO.
For Roberts, the most surprising part of the agricultural training was the sight of a large metal vat, poised over a wood fire and filled with steaming, parboiled rice. She learned that parboiling rice would help to preserve nutrients in the rice grains, and increase their marketability.
Roberts now helps to train other members of her women's farmer cooperative in sustainable farming and post-harvest processing techniques.
She says updated methods for preserving nutrients in rice and making it more durable will, together with improved storage techniques, allow her and other farmers to reduce post-harvest losses of rice grain and lay the groundwork for a better future.
"I'll pull my women together and we will do this together. We will share what we learn in workshops and field practice."