Liberia Summary

Just got back from a trip to Liberia as a USAID Farmer to Farmer program volunteer. I gave workshops on fish marketing and quality control. Fish farming appeared to have come quite a ways from the days when a 200 square meter pond was big. Now, the minimum seems to be 400 square meter ponds, and the trend is to build ponds in the thousands of square meters by simply damming a valley and putting in a cement drain structure to control water depth in the pond.
Gone, too, are the days of just raising tilapia. All the farmers I talked to were raising tilapia, African bonytongue, and African catfish. They can spawn all three in the pond, although I think the bonytonge and catfish take longer to reach spawning age than tilapia. Even tilapia culture is advancing, with farmers sexing fingerlings and stocking all males for grow out.The bonytongue are a cool fish They sort of look like a cross between a buffalo fish and a sucker, but the lips are not fat lke the buffalo and sucker. The fish makes a nest by using grass and forming a bowl that’s about 2 feet across the rim of which can extend above the water. The male and female then lay their eggs in there, and when the eggs hatch, they burrow out of the bowl back into the pond with their young
Apparently this was introduced from Guinea. The barrage ponds will have grassy areas in their shallow ends and apparently this is the habitat for the bonytongue. The catfish are the bottom feeders and also crop tilapia fingerlings, and the tilapia eat plankton in the water column I think all three can be trained to eat feeds.
Feed is the input now that’s restricting higher yields from the ponds. Joe Sullivan, a retired ADF&Ger, does alot of this kind of volunteer work, and had trained some farmers there to miix wheat or rice bran with fish meal dust spoils available from the coastal fish smokers/driers and leaves of various crops. They mix the ingredients, run it through a food grinder and then dry the pellets so the feed will float. Some are trying this home made feed but no one I met had harvested yet to know results.
Surprisingly, some of the barrage pond owners said they were told not to feed their fish because their ponds were so big that it would be difficult to get the fish onto feed. This appears to be a misnomer, as all catfish farmers in the US feed their fish. Maybe more of an excuse than a practice. Most of the barrage pond farmers have livestock – usually pigs- in pens alongside their ponds and use the manure to fertilize the ponds – the few of which I saw had good blooms. All three species I found good to eat.Nearly everyone was on a 6 month harvest cycle – this just seemed to be written in stone as an accepted practice.
I’m trying to see if they could get some manufactured feeds in from Ghana. The Liberian fish farmers were getting $2/lb at the pond, and that’s higher than US catfish farmers get at the pond or what commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska get for most salmon species. The one Ghanaian fish feed manufacturer I contacted said food conversion rates for tilapia ranged from 1.3 to 1.6, With the relatively high price for fish, I hope some farmers will try to get some feed to see if it pays, and if so, they can order a container for their association and get the price down some. The only quote for a price i heard was about $1 per kilo for feed.
The Bong County Aquaculture Association, in addition to living in a county with a great name, were very coordinated in their membership. They had a team of technicians on their association board that did extension and were at harvests to collect weight data. They and other farmers also do the harvesting and selling for a farmer harvesting their pond so that the farmer whose pond is being harvested has a buffer between friends and family looking for free fish.
BCAA as a group can supply all species of fingerlings, and have an established price structure for each species and size range of fingerlings. They also have established a price of $2/lb and might have changed that to $4/kg at their meeting I attended that was part of the workshop, but I’m not exactly sure. Some of their pricing seems to be what “people can afford” rather than what the market will bear, and I think that will evolve as time goes on. Some new fish plants may be in the works for the marine fish that supply much of the country’s fish to market. If these plants start to export fish because they can meet international quality standards, that may mean even less fish in the upcountry farmers, and more opportunity for fish farmers if fish prices go up.These volunteer trips are necessarily limited to a couple weeks incountry and nearly a week of travel to and from as I still have my real jobs in Alaska It would be nice to go to Liberia for a month and be able to see some fish stockings and harvests and sales to better see how it all works.
A highlight of this trip was my first deepsea fishing trip. We caught a nice sailfish on our boat, while two other boats owned by friends of the captain caught wahoo and tuna. Our captain said he had similar fish quality and preservation issues as the fish farmers, so that could be another opportunity to assist them next trip, if they want to get serious about selling their catches.Some incountry random notes. Liberian dollars (also called “Liberty dollars”) and US dollars are accepted interchangeably at a standard rate of $100 LD to $1 US. I did not hear or see of any higher black market rates, so that makes paying for stuff easy.
Of course, I looked for rice and sauce (with Club beer) everyday, but sometimes in ex-patlandia of Monrovia it can be hard to find. Bananas are my other West Africa staple – they are all sweet- whether green or yellow skins. For the foods I ate, rice and sauce on the street or in a Food Shop was about US $1.20 to $3.00. Proteins included marine fish, goat, pork, beef, and wild deer and wild cutting grass (that’s the Sierra Leone Krio name for it. They call it “Grass Cutter” in Liberia. ). The same dish at a restaurant was $10 to $15. Clean water is now readily available. You can get it in bottles or the street equivalent, which is in a sealed bag that you chew off the corner with your teeth and suck it out of the bag. People seem healthier overall now than they did 30 years ago when clean water was not as prevalent. I had a touch of mild diarrhea only a couple times – and ironically, both times from eating the more expensive restaurant food.
The large (1 qt?) Club beer is $2.25 a bottle at a cook shop to $6.00 a bottle at a restaurant. Can’t tell you what imported beers went for because I only drank Club. They also have hard cider from South Africa – Savannah – which I want to say was about $4.00/12 oz bottle and a good something. Pop was $2/can or so.
Bananas ranged from US 5 cents each in rural areas to 10 cents each in Monrovia. French fries were US $5.00 for a big plate at the Royal Hotel’s restaurant, and Landeh (sp?), my new favorite Lebanese dish which is a strained yogurt with olive oil eaten with triangles of pita bread, was $4.00 per plate at the Royal Hotel bar. Why I know these prices is because you can’t get Liberian rice and sauce at many high end restaurants, so I had to get something else. I think that and free range goats should be outlawed in Liberia. I think cola nuts were 3 for 25 cents.The only non-food and drink stuff prices I noted was that gasoline and diesel were about US $3.00/gal. Gasoline is sold in 1 gallon glass jars and smaller glass jars on roadside stands, even in the small villages. Of course, there are gas stations, too, for automobiles. The same TVS motorcycles in Sierra Leone are ubiquitous in Liberia.
Hotel rooms with AC and running water ranged from $50 at Jackie’s place north of Gbarnga to $50 to $75 at the Passion Hotel in Gbarnga to $50 at the Vonjo in Tubmanburg to $100 at the Royal Hotel in Monrovia to $200 next door at the Royal Grande Hotel. The Royal and Grand Royal hotels include breakfast in the price and have coffee/tea pots in the rooms with the Nescafe instant coffee packets and teas provided. The Royal Grande Hotel is about the plushest hotel I can remember staying in anywhere. Even a new toothbrush every morning when they clean the room. The Monrovia hotels had 24 hour power, cable tv and wifi internet. The upcountry hotels had power from dusk to an hour past dawn or so, some tv, and wifi internet everywhere except for Vonjo.Grand Royal takes Mastercard and Paypal, but I couldn’t get my paypal to work. Might have needed to clear it for overseas beforehand. They also take Visa Debit but not Visa Credit Card. Cell coverage was just about everywhere I went, so if you have a smartphone you can get internet wherever you’re at. You can get a sim card from either Lonestar of Cellone and then buy time just about everywhere as you need it.
A high end taxi ride (Solo Cab Co) was $15 to places near the Royal Grand to $25 when they had to take me across the bridge to the charter fishing place on the road to the old Hotel Africa. I never had to take the local taxi, which was only a few dollars or less from what I remember.I bought Sara two gifts. The first the bigger size wicker chair hand made in the country to take home as one of my checked bags for $2.75 without bargaining, along the roadside between Klay and Monrovia. I gave him a $5 cause that’s too much work for $2.75. I also bought her a pair of earrings for $5,00 at the Royal Grand Hotel. She bought me a 20’ Hewes craft for my birthday that I have to pick up Monday morning off the ferry from friends of ours that moved to LaConner. So we’ll call it even.
Lots of imported grapes and apples now from South Africa, but don’t know the prices. Also a lot of local cucumbers sold at roadside stands. Rice was $1.50 per kg for a farmer, but not sure what it cost to buy in the market. Only got country rice my last day in Monrovia. Everywhere else was white rice. The fishing charter I went on was with Captain Flash at Extreme Liberia Charters – $200/day, and that includes everything to drink and eat, starting with coffee when you arrive to home made sandwiches, water, beer, hard cider, pop, munchies – they even brought cold Lebanese style pizza. We were out all day and I had the feeling whether I and the other paying client went or not, the captain and his friend deckhand would have been out there fishing as they loved it Both of them are in construction/real estate for their real jobs and just do the chartering on the weekends, although Flash said when the tuna are in, everyday is a fishing day. The $400 they got from us barely covered the fuel and food/drink. They have quality gear – we fished 8 rods with out riggers and all topwater teasers (I think that’s what they’re called ) with artificial bait behind the teaser. We got in a pod of about 100 spinner type dolphins. They also see killer, humpback and pilot whales. They also have a restaurant that is open on Sunday, at least and I think you can get your catch cooked there. Flash let us take some of the sailfish, which I gave to my host Patrick and driver Tamba, but I didn’t get a report yet on what they thought of it. The road to Gbarnga was perfect. North to Senaquellie was the red laterite clay crap, as is the road to Voinjama from what I heard. The road to Tubmanburg was paved but lots of pot holes.
The trip home started with the flight late by 5 or 6 hours out of Monrovia. Luckily the flight from Brussels to Chicago was delayed about 20 min, and I just made that flight. Then Chicago to Seattle delayed another 2.5 hours but with all the delays, I got home to pouring rain on top of a foot of snow in Juneau. Lovely.
Have to pick up the boat off the ferry this morning and see if I can squeeze in a day of work before I crash from jet lag again.

Liberia: Sunday Dec 11: Getting Reel

Went fishing at Extreme Fishing Liberia with Capt. Flash, and deckhand Hasaan, I was worried about finding the location and getting there on time, so the hotel got me a $25 cab and then myself and William the driver set off. We passed through Monrovia and the market area that the day before had taken us 1.5 hours in about 30 minutes. No market and no traffic this early on a Sunday morning.
I was the first to arrive at Extreme Fishing. A guard was there and let us in. I paid the cabbie and left him a $5 tip. I also left my tablet in the car when I realized it later and called back to the hotel to ask them to see if William the cabbie found it and can leave it at the hotel for when I return.
Only one other paying customer – Steve – went with me. Capt Flash offered us coffee as we signed the liability waivers and paid our $200 charter fee. He questioned my long pants so I took off the lower legs of the convertible pants. He also said no shoes on the boat- we all left our footware at the dock. We were off.
We headed about 20 miles off shore and put the gear down in about 250 feet of water. The fishing is all at the surface, with lures that mimic flying fish, I think, with a lure and a hook trailing behind. We put out 8 rods with out rigger poles to keep the gear spread and fished at about 7.5 knots.
We fished all morning without a strike. They had sandwiches on great bread, chips, cookies, and pop, water, beer and hard cider to drink. Later in the day they broke out some nice Lebanese cold pizza. We finally got a fish on about 115. Steve was on the rod. I’m guessing he fought it for 15 minutes or less – about the time a good king salmon might take. I saw the fish come to the boat and it looked brown. Then I saw something poking out of the water and thought I heard someone say it was a tuna and so thought that it was hooked by the tail and that was the top of the tail. Then Flash grabs the thing sticking out of the water and he hauls aboard a 60 lb sailfish over the rail. It’s as wide as the boat deck. What a beautiful fish. It almost looked more like a painting or a fish mount than a live fish. Somehow, he’s able to put a towel over it’s head and he gently held it on the deck. It hardly flapped. Then it was calm. I cut the gills and it never kicked or anything. I don’t know what he did. He says he lands his fish that way without a club to knock them out. It’s his way of honoring and respecting the fish I think.
We had several more strikes and fish were on for a second or two but we caught no more. We also got in a pod of maybe a hundred cool dolphins with rosy colored bellies. Some of them would come out of the water spinning around gracefully, and others would come out spinning sideways and sort of bellyflop ungracefully into the water. It was really a great day and neat to learn another kind of fishing on my first ever deep sea fishing trip. Flash said he has trouble selling all of his catch and that tuna, in particular, don’t freeze well so I’ll see what I can think of for having him move more of it. He could hardly have made any money today after paying for gas, but that’s why it was great going with a guy like him and Hasaan – they’d have gone anyway, paying guests or no.
We returned to their dock, and I thought Tamba was waiting for me. He said he was. Back at my hotel. We crossed wires. So, I sat down and bought a few beers at Flash’s Bar. Sunday is family night there where his restaurant is open and the mix of Liberians and Lebanese was most pleasant, along with us two Americans and Flash’s wife, who may be Russian or Eastern European. I watched a worker butcher the sailfish filleting it with a dull paring knife. I wondered why the skin didn’t just come off like a salmon, so I grapped a piece, showed him how to do it so it would all come off, then he went back to doing it his way. Oh well. We got a few loins from it that I”ll give to Tamba and Patrick.
Tamba and I left about sunset so drove most of the way to Tubmanburg in the dark. We arrived without incident to some rustic, clean accommodations.

Good Lunch

Started the day with checking in to my hotel. Yesterday, this hotel had to send me to the hotel next door because they were full and weren’t able to contact my host before they dropped me off. No problem. Check out there was noon and check in at this $200/night hotel is 130pm. So I figure I better put some shorts and a t shirt on as it’s gonna be hot.

I’m waiting in the lobby and getting lots of stares. And not good stares. Stares like- how long are you staying here – stares. I get those alot, but that’s usually when I’m in Jeff’s kitchen. The hotel clientele are mostly suits and dresses and high heels. I have on Keen slip ons, shorts (nice ones, though!) and a Carhartt T shirt that’s clean and no holes. And my red Taku River Reds hat. The best part I found out later when I got to my room with the full length mirror was the black dress sock action going into the black slip ons under snow white limbs. Dems are some tasty legs, my friends.

I drank a cup of $3.00 coffee and refilled at the thermos. I was then told no refills. So now I’m $6.00 into coffee I don’t really like. Whatever, people. I look at my guest sheet after checking in and see there was free coffee about 10 feet from me in the restaurant next to the coffee shop. Got it.
I worked on my training manual most of the day, and got a hankering for some chop. Of course, this place ain’t exactly serving the food I’m looking for. I start to walk out the gate to the street and stop and talk to the security dude. I said hey, I want to find a cook shop as I found out that’s the local name for “chop shop” that we used in Sierra Leone. He says there’s a restaurant in the hotel. I says I want rice. He says “you want African food?” I says yes. That immediately made him happy. He escorts me about 50 yards from the gate and says “under the plum tree”. I said thanks and head over. It was across the main street and down a side street about half a block. And boy howdy, you gotta watch your nylons crossing the four lanes of traffic here.
I’d paid anywhere from $3.50 to (gag) $10.50 for a plate of rice and sauce upcountry. I arrive at the lady, who is on the side of the street with two big cast iron (maybe aluminum now?) pots. One is on top of a local charcoal stove and the other on the street. Behind her are plates and a bag in a container that has the cooked rice. I ask the lady what she has and she shows me. Granut pepper soup with chicken and pork. She tells me the price but I can’t really understand. And don’t really care. My mouth is already watering after seeing the soup. I ask what’s in the other pot and she shows me. Green leaf sauce of some kind but it looked pretty done for the day. I didn’t see any ring of palm oil, and didn’t want to be disappointed so made note to self- get here earlier tomorrow.
She piles rice in the bowl and puts on a few pieces of meat. I think she said $1.30. I give her $1.50 hoping I heard right. Apparently I did. She offered no change and I didn’t ask for any. As I went to sit on a bench in the sun next to her she said to go sit across the street on a bench in the shade. Her son was laying there with ear buds on listening to music on a smart phone. She tells him to move. He goes to get up and leave and I said no- stay here. There’s room for both of us to sit. So he sits back down and is lost in his music again.
Then I dig in. Of course it’s incredible. As I eat, Liberians pass and seem incredulous – in a good way – the large white man is sitting on a little bench enjoying his rice and the day while the young boy next to him vegetates to his music. Even the street hawkers don’t bother a man eating street food.
The cook was happy for me to ask what she was going to have tomorrow, which indicated I liked what I was eating and that I’d be back. I then ask her where I can get bananas and she escorts me down the block to the next cross street. We see a woman with a tray of bananas walking away half way down the block and the cook hollers. The banana vendor returns. Up country, bananas were 3 for ten cents. Here, they are 10 cents each, which seems about right. So I give her 50 cents and she selects what she sees as the best bananas, probably because I didn’t bargain with her. Bananas (but not plantains) here are always sweet – whether they are green or yellow skinned. They are my favorite African fruit. When I arrived in Sierra Leone in 1986, I could not eat much of the rice at first because it made me full right away. But then I was hungry 30 minutes later. So I befriended a street vendor and learned the language buying bananas every day to get me through till I got used to the rice. Now African food is my favorite, along with the bananas.
I walk back to the swanky hotel feeling like the Anthony Bourdain must feel on his show. Even when he’s not filming. Got the real food I was looking for and the cook looks she’s doing alright if her 10ish year old son has a smart phone. Good food, good service, and low overhead. The secret to success just about anywhere.

Liberia Dec 7, 2016

We wrapped up the marketing workshop in sweltering heat in Gbarnga.  I hope the participants got something out of it.  Each day started with a prayer, and then a church song or two that everyone seems to have sung since they could walk, with everyone clapping.  Then we’d start the day.  They again had fish soup – an African bonytongue from Estelle’s pond in soup with fufu (I had rice instead – but Patrick loves fufu).  The fish was great.   The other was bean sauce with pork, which I also tried.  Of course, it was great.  It’s already hot and the hot pepper in the sauce makes you sweat more but then you’re out in the sun and you dry.   We made our way back to Monrovia.  I noticed one thing – although people have cell phones, they aren’t drones walking around looking at them all the time like we in the US.  You can’t and drive a motorcycle and certainly can’t and drive a car – or even when you are walking most of the time – in the controlled chaos that’s life along the road in West Africa.   Of course, Juneau is getting it’s first cold snap of the season and the oil heater line froze up.  Must be water in the tank that froze the filter.  I wrote a long narrative to several of my friends on how to fix it and they are on it.  We love our woodstove and it’s our back up now till the oil stove is repaired.  It can hold a fire all day and keep the house warm and the wood is good and dry. 

Liberia Dec 6

Had the workshop all day in the sweltering heat.  It’s funny to talk to the Liberian farmers and they say it would be too cold for them in Alaska whilst we bake in the Africa heat.  The workshop went well.  Lots of debate and conversation as this group finds it’s feet as an association.  We were going to harvest for the former Leprocy community but they’ve (smartly) moved their harvest to Christmas so it looks like today is the last day for the workshop.  I put together some closing notes and hope the farmers got what they wanted from me for fish marketing and fish processing.  Like Bara in Mali, I feel like I’ve made some long term friends with Mohammed and Estelle. 

Liberia Dec 5

Monday, Dec 5. Had a spate of the trots last night. Maybe the fish that was in the cassava leaf for dinner. I took a Cipro just in case as would not want to be running out of a presentation and not make it. Doing my laundry by hand every day in the sink. Nice to have that option to keep my clothes clean and in rotation each day.

We got the fish marketing workshop underway. We had 27 fish farmers from all over Bong County in attendance. I set up the projector and could not make it work and went back to my room for an adapter I hoped would work and was relieved when it did. They cranked up the portable generator, and away we went.

After I gave a brief summary of how we live off the land in Juneau, I started in on the history of the Alaska Wild Salmon Company and how we got to where we are today. Not far into it, there was about a half hour or longer discussion on fish quality and selling fish and how the rural farmers at the meeting had it different than the town farmers. All perfect topics and what I wanted to hear. I came for a one or 2 day workshop I found out to be 5 days when I arrived, and now they really got things rolling. One farmer would bring up a problem, and another would counter with a solution, even if it wasn’t the solution the farmer with the problem was looking for.

We took a break about noon, and then came back about 30 minutes later to wrap up my slides after lunch was late. By now it was hot. Really hot. And not just for fat boy. The Liberians were feeling it too. I wrapped up my slides and lunch came. Potato leaf greens, palm oil, bullion cube, and pork sauce over rice. So good. I’d long since drank my 1.5 liters of water and was glad there was more water for drinking.

As the meeting had gone along I put up some topics we could discuss later. After my slides were over, Estelle took charge. She, Mohammed and I came up with 5 topics to explore in the market and town – feeds, nets, fish products, refrigeration avaiaibility, and smoking/drying of fish availability. Then they broke up into 5 groups and went to get information and present it at the meeting tomorrow.

Mohammed, Estelle and a few others went to the former Leprosy village to talk to the farmer there to see if we could do a harvest with them on Thursday. We passed some buildings near the compound that Estelle said were used for Ebola testing. Kind of eerie. About 300 people live there, and they are the children of lepers who originally lived there. The farmers talked together about all the aspects of the harvest. These people know what they’re doing. We decided to do the harvest on Thursday, and it would be the job of the workshop attendees to market these fish by then.

Estelle pointed out plots of land and an area over a hill formerly owned by Charles Taylor, the warlord that started the civil war in Liberia that spilled over into Sierra Leone and changed or ended so many lives here. More kinds of eerie.

So, that is gonna fill the week up and by Friday, we’ll hopefully have time to wrap things up before everyone has to leave. I’ve learned an unexpectedly large amount about fish farming here in 2016 and really enjoyed the day.

Oh, and I looked up Tamba Hali, the linebacker for the Chiefs. And it was as expected. He is indeed from this little burg of Gbarnga, Liberia.