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YALI Voices Podcast: Joseph Lavela Saysay Talks Agribusiness in Liberia with Nawsheen Hosenally
November 26, 2018

Growing up on a farm in Liberia, YALI Network member Joseph Lavela Saysay was inspired to study farming because of his parents. But Joseph was interested in advancing farming beyond the traditional practices.

Joseph, who has a Ph.D. in agricultural studies, now works as an agricultural economist in Liberia’s Ministry of Agriculture, where he designs and implements policies to integrate farmers into the national economy. “If you look at agriculture right now in Liberia, it’s mainly small-scale subsistence farmers,” Joseph says. “But where we are going now, we are transcending from that level to a level where we are looking at agriculture as a business.”

Man digging in dirt
Photo courtesy of Joseph Lavela Saysay

In the aftermath of Liberia’s long civil war, Joseph says, there is a pressing need to transform the agriculture sector to make it less dependent on government subsidies. This is especially important because approximately half of all Liberians are under 18 years old. Joseph sees this youthful population as a big economic opportunity, and he is working on policies to create employment for young Liberians in the agricultural sector.

“My advice for youth is: You have [to have] a vision,” Joseph says. “Once you have vision, you have purpose. If you have a purpose, you have passion; and if you have passion, you can do anything.”

On this episode of the YALI Voices Podcast, Joseph is interviewed by another Network member, Nawsheen Hosenally, who co-founded the web-based platform Agribusiness TV in her native Burkina Faso. Both Nawsheen and Joseph are also 2017 Mandela Washington Fellows.

To hear Joseph’s ideas for Liberia’s agricultural business sector, listen to this edition of the YALI Voices Podcast.


YALI Voices Podcast: Nawsheen Hosenally & Joseph Lavela Saysay



♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪

VOICE OVER: Welcome to your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices Podcast on iTunes and Google Play. And visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI.

This edition of the YALI Voices Podcast is hosted by and features two Mandela Washington Fellows with an interest in agriculture and entrepreneurship. Nawsheen Hosenally from Burkina Faso interviews Joseph Lavela Saysay from Liberia.

Nawsheen is the co-founder of Agribusiness TV, a web-based platform that features success stories of young agricultural entrepreneurs in Africa.

Joseph holds a Ph.D. in agricultural economics and serves at the Ministry of Agriculture in the Republic of Liberia. He focuses on designing agricultural policies on a wide range of issues that affect crop and livestock production, and marketing. Joseph has also volunteered his services, leading a project in rural communities to improve public health and the lives of rural dwellers in Liberia.

Nawsheen and Joseph discuss the state of agricultural business and policy in Liberia and the opportunities for farmers in a country where more than 70 percent of its people rely on agribusiness.


NAWSHEEN HOSENALLY: Hi, my name is Nawsheen Hosenally. I am a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow from Burkina Faso. I am the co-founder of a web-TV called Agribusiness TV.

I’m happy to be hosting this edition of the YALI Voices Podcast.

JOSEPH LAVELA SAYSAY: Hi, my name is Joseph Lavela Saysay, from Liberia. I have a Ph.D. in agriculture economics, and I work as an agriculture economist at the Ministry of Agriculture, Liberia.

I’m happy to be sharing my story with the YALI Network.

NAWSHEEN: So why did you choose agriculture? Was it something that you always wanted to do, or something you chose later on?

JOSEPH: Coming up as a young boy, growing up on a farm with my parents because they were farmers, and farming at the most traditional level, I decided to get into agriculture at the advanced level. So, as a change the way of farming, to change the way of doing things, because I knew that that sector was a sector of growth for my country. Looking at a country where over 70 percent of the population livelihood depends on agriculture.

NAWSHEEN: So can you tell us a bit more about your work at the ministry? What do you do specifically?

JOSEPH: My work actually focus on designing policy and programs that affect crop and livestock production, value chain analysis, marketing, program implementation, monitoring evaluation.

NAWSHEEN: So in terms of policy, how is it like in Liberia? How policies are made?

JOSEPH: Liberia, if you know the struggle, Liberia — we have fought 14 years of civil war. And after the war, the agriculture sector more or less was like giving handout to farmers. And in Africa, looking at just giving handout, people feel that maybe things that are given free actually is not worth. We transcend now from emergency, we go to development. Now our policy, we — I designing, what you call, the LASIP [Liberia Agriculture Sector Investment Program] tool, that is our NAIP2 [National Agriculture Investment Plan] tool, which is the Liberia Agricultural Transformation Agenda.

We are actually looking at agriculture as a business. The policies that we are actually looking at agriculture as a business and as such, even though government is subsidizing some of these inputs given to the farmers, like our redemption process, where if we are giving input to farmers, the farmers are responsible to pay 10 percent of the total cost of the inputs and government pay 90 percent. You can just recall maybe a little farmer in the village that is having maybe an input worth of 100 U.S. dollar and they are paying 10 U.S. dollar. They are gonna value the 10 U.S. dollar. They gonna take the input as their own then just getting it free. Because they always gonna say, it gonna come free. But if they are putting some resources into it, they gonna take ownership of it. So we are changing that because they’re gonna put money into it and as such they going to want to maximize profits. So if they are putting something into it, they want to get it back. So they gonna start focusing on the business aspect than just getting handout.

Also creating other avenue that going to produce the amount their commodity can be taken to the market and we also look at the consocial aspect, what people need before you can produce. Because you can’t just produce without really being marketable.

NAWSHEEN: So what is the youth population in Liberia? Approximately.

JOSEPH: Our youth might be close to 50 percent of the entire population.

NAWSHEEN: So it’s a youthful population.

JOSEPH: It’s a youthful population, because most of the old people were killed, and then they — we also have some huge problems in terms of youth, because the war created a blank generation. Can you imagine 14 years of civil war? Young people were fighting. People started fighting at … People became child soldiers at the age of like from 7. Add 14 to 7 you are almost like 21 years. Without going to school, just fighting. So what can we do with these people? Most of these people can find job into the agricultural sector only if maybe we give them basic knowledge and develop the agriculture value chain. Because these are not people you can send them back to formal school, to go back to school to go get college degree, be an accountant. Some of them can be mechanics, that can work in agroprocessing factories. Some of them can be just farmers. And also find other things to do along the value chain.

NAWSHEEN: So at the level of the ministry and the government do you have policies targeting youth in agriculture?

JOSEPH: The ministry has lot of training center for youth. They have the Timbutu camp working alongside with the Ministry of Youth and Social Welfare, where youth are acquiring training and from there they are empowered to get self-employed.

NAWSHEEN: And how’s the picture of agriculture like in Liberia? According to you, what are the different opportunities that are there for anyone, for youth and also for anyone who also wants to get into it?

JOSEPH: If you look at agriculture right now in Liberia, it’s mainly on small-scale subsistence farmers. Because most of the farmers, they are small scales that use rudimentary tools to do farming. And as such they are just doing farming to feed themselves. But where we are going now, we are transcending from that level to go to a level where we are looking at agriculture as a business. There are a lot of opportunity into the agricultural, along the agriculture value chain, there are a lot more opportunities.

NAWSHEEN: So from what I understand, it is yet to be explored, like how more youth can get into processing, service provision and this kind of thing.

JOSEPH: Exactly. Right now there are very few people that are getting involved into processing, and we are trying to expand. One of the projects I am implementing, we are trying to operationalize the cassava industry subsector and also the rice subsector. I took a couple of our champion in the cassava processing sector. We took them to Nigeria to do a study tour. As I speak to you right now we have IITA installing flash dryers, a minifactory for cassava processing in Liberia. So there are a lot of opportunities, because most of what we produce are not being processed, even if you look at on a large-scale level. I can assure you we have, like, Firestone Liberia who is — they are producing rubber. Who have one of the biggest rubber plantations in Liberia, but no value being added to any of the product in Liberia. They are taking out of the country and process, coming back into the country very expensive for us.

But if we now looking at this new paradigm shift, where we are trying to do value addition along the agriculture value chain — maybe from production straight to consumption — there are a lot of things that gonna take place. That they’re gonna be a huge employment. Youth gonna be employed into these factory. There gonna be — revenue gonna be regenerated for the country as well. A lot of influx of business is going to take place.

NAWSHEEN: So apart from your work at the ministry are you involved in other projects? I saw something like the Moringa Project.

JOSEPH: Yeah, I work with the Moringa Project when I was doing my honor graduate. Seeing the importance of the treaty, and by then we are just from war. There were high rate of malnutrition in my country. And to help community solve some of these problem, I volunteer my service to work with the Moringa Project, at the university level, with one American missionary.

NAWSHEEN: So in Liberia, how is the business environment like? If someone, a young person wants to start a business, is it okay? Like, is it easy for the person to register their business, getting a loan from the bank? How does it go?

JOSEPH: Business in general or agriculture?

NAWSHEEN: In agriculture, agribusiness.

JOSEPH: Registering the business, there are procedure actually in place in Liberia that you can register your business. But in terms of getting loans or funds for agriculture business, basically it’s high, because there are lot of risks in terms of agriculture. Lot of uncertainty, so people are not really willing to give loan to young people to do agribusinesses, especially at the production level, because at the production level they are not even sure what are you gonna produce. But maybe at the manufacturing level when they develop where people see your products are being taken out of the country, sent to maybe places that are direct business link, it’s gonna be easier. But right now most of these farmers they are basically into production, and the banks are not really accepting about the pay back.

NAWSHEEN: And alternative finance system that exist, like microfinance.

JOSEPH: Yeah they have microfinance. What normally farmers are doing, they have the core savings and loan, which in Liberia of course is a club. It’s just like a community get together to put the money together, and if you need the money you come to the group and the group give to you. Maybe like for 15 percent or 25 percent over the time period, and you pay back.

NAWSHEEN: So according to you, what really are the challenges that you face in agribusiness in Liberia?

JOSEPH: That’s one main thing, I finance, to give finance. And then we lack a lot of business social amenities, like road network, electricity, pipe-run water. Those are the issues that actually need to be solved, if and only if young people would find it easier to get into agribusiness. Because if you are getting maybe into a minifactory and you don’t have electricity, obviously you are using generator, and overhead cost will be high. No businessperson want to have a high overhead cost. And as such, people just sit and watch. They want to get in there but after doing all the analysis, they feel that nothing will be achieved later. But if these … like you see in America, you see a lot of people will get into a lot of agribusinesses because there are business social services that are available to their need at all time.

NAWSHEEN: So from your experience, what advice you have for youth? For the YALI Network for example.

JOSEPH: My advice I have for youth is you have a vision. Once you have vision, you have purpose. If you have a purpose you have passion, and if you have passion you can do anything you have passion for.

NAWSHEEN: And is there anything else you would like to share that I did not ask you? Something that we don’t know about and we should know about Joseph or about Liberia?

JOSEPH: About Liberia … Liberia is a country with a lot of opportunities. Even Liberians and other national can farm. There are a lot of business opportunities that young people can collaborate, partnership, to do better in Liberia. So we are welcoming all our YALI family all over the world to network with us in Liberia, to make Liberia a better place and Africa a better place for every one of us. Together we can all achieve.

NAWSHEEN: I’m looking forward, really, to visit Liberia. So thank you, Joseph. It was a real pleasure talking to you.

JOSEPH: You are welcome.

NAWSHEEN: Thank you.

JOSEPH: I hope to see you in Liberia.


JOSEPH: Thank you.

NAWSHEEN: Thank you.

VOICE OVER: Thank you Nawsheen and Joseph for that great conversation on agribusiness in Liberia.

Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.

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The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.