Global Policy Forum

Liberians Drop Rice for Spaghetti


By Kate Thomas

April 22, 2008

Standing behind the wooden counter of his roadside restaurant, Emmanuel Biddle heaps piles of Liberian-style bolognese onto the plates of customers.

When the Liberian chef first added pasta to the menu of his traditional chop house, he didn't expect much success. But as surging rice prices threaten to halt progress in fragile countries like Liberia, local people are changing life-long habits and switching to cheaper staple foods such as spaghetti. Liberia imports 90% of its rice from Asia and the US. In the last six months, the price has more than doubled, making it unaffordable for many ordinary Liberians.

Spicy spaghetti

Spaghetti shacks like Mr Biddle's are springing up in the Paynesville district of Monrovia, a working-class neighbourhood rarely visited by expatriates. "To encourage customers, I prepare my spaghetti the Liberian way, with lots of African [chilli] pepper. I cut the spaghetti in two to make it easy for my customers to eat" he says. He serves more than 60 customers every day and prices start at less than one US dollar. Customer Tarr Sayeeh is sitting at the counter, showing his girlfriend how to twirl strands of spaghetti onto a fork. "Spaghetti is a cheaper option than rice. It's my fifth time at this restaurant and I like the flavour. I used to have problems eating it but now the fork helps me," he says.

A few metres away, Viola Nelson's traditional rice restaurant is shrouded in darkness; a casualty of the rice crisis. She has been serving traditional Liberian dishes such as jollof rice for 14 years, but price hikes have halted trade. Ms Nelson charges customers $2 for a plate of jollof rice, but she says she barely covers her own costs. "I'm not making a profit these days. I should be raising my prices but I don't want to lose any more customers. If the food crisis gets worse I will be left with nothing," she says.


At the buzzing Old Road Market on the outskirts of Monrovia, the price of a 50 kg bag of rice has shot up to $34. A crate (40 packets, which provides a similar amount of food to 50kg of rice) of maize or millet-based spaghetti, imported from the US, is sold for $12. Rice vendor Augustus Geepo, perched on a pile of unsold bags, says sales have dropped dramatically as a result of the food crisis. A year ago, he could easily sell 40 bags of rice a day. Now he is lucky if he shifts 10. But the trade in pasta is increasing. Commercial radio stations broadcast advertisements for spaghetti and in the canteen of the United Nations base in Voinjama, northern Liberia, rice pudding has been replaced by spaghetti pudding. Even Liberia's Minister for Agriculture Chris Toe has caught onto the new trend. "Liberians traditionally only eat rice with sauce. This might be an opportunity for us to diversify our diets," he says.

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