At the end of the feeder road: assessing the impact of track construction for motorbike taxis on agrarian development in Liberia

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This research will answer questions which directly fall under the remit of 2 of the 3 research questions of the ESRC-DFID Poverty Alleviation Research call, focusing on 'factors shaping pathways into and out of poverty ...' and 'measures that can be taken to reduce the risks and impact of violence and instability on the poorest...'

Some of the world's poorest people are found in isolated African villages. Lacking market access, rural producers typically earn little from whatever they produce, and this perpetuates subsistence production. Many of these farmers are women. Their poverty results from a combination of factors, some of which interlock in a vicious circle comprising lack of labor, finance and market access. Even though farmers may be willing to produce more for markets, better roads are a pre-condition for agricultural development, but are not forthcoming given the small volumes that are actually traded. Is it possible to break this trap and kick-start a virtuous cycle of market-led agricultural growth and poverty alleviation?

We propose to answer this question in relation to a burgeoning locally-driven rural transport revolution based on the motorbike taxi.

Even in the poorest regions of Africa, cheap Chinese-made motorbike taxis have now become part of the rural landscape, navigating roads too narrow or muddy for 4-wheel transport, and loaded with bags of rice, groundnuts and cocoa beans on it. In the war-affected forest region of Upper West Africa these bikes are a relatively new feature. Riders are often young men (occasionally young women), who a decade ago were handling a gun rather than a bike. In an effort to avoid exploitative traditional agrarian institutions, rural youths have embraced the transport sector as a means to earn a living. The penetration of bike taxis deep into isolated rural communities has spread spontaneously and created direct and indirect employment opportunities for low-skilled youth. There is little information on the consequences of the recent spread of bike taxis for poverty alleviation and market integration, let alone information on what interventions might further support and stimulate this development. Preliminary observations in Sierra Leone and Liberia suggest that farmers experience particular limitations where it concerns the transportation of agricultural produce from farmstead to village/roadside, with many farmstead tracks not even navigable for motorbikes.

Upgrading these tracks so that they can be used by motorbikes is extremely cheap (as compared to more conventional rural road construction) and can largely be executed by the community. But without hard data on impact relevant state actors and international donors remain reluctant to allocate funds to rural track-building/upgrading, preferring to stick to more conventional (but expensive) 4-wheel vehicle accessible rural roads construction/rehabilitation. In Liberia, Global Communities – an American NGO – is building 25 kilometres of tracks in Nimba County, Northern Liberia. This is funded by the German Donor GIZ under its Ebola Recovery Scheme. We propose to conduct a qualitative study of 2 village clusters to collect socio-economic data to:

1) understand the impact that motorbike navigable track building from farmstead to village/road/market has on lifting (semi-)subsistence farmers out of poverty by reducing costs to produce for markets, as compared to more conventional 4 wheel accessible feeder road construction;

2) study the socio-economic impact of improved access and mobility through the construction of conventional rural feeder roads versus 2 wheel accessible only tracks on villagers;

3) document the level, nature and issues arising of community involvement in the decision making process and actual building of conventional feeder roads and 2-wheel accessible tracks.

We specify several levels of beneficiary groups we believe will benefit from the proposed study.

1: (semi-)subsistence and cash-crop farmers. We will study to what extent low-cost community driven track-building helps male and female farmers to move out of (semi-)subsistence farming associated poverty.

2: Motorbike riders and Bike Riders Associations. The motorbike taxi riders will directly benefit as more becomes known about the impact of rural transportation and how to kick start/further enhance this. Track building/upgrading creates a niche for motorbike transport where riders are not in competition with 4 wheel vehicles.

3: Women and children. Transporting harvest from farmstead to village/road/market is a cumbersome and time-consuming task that most often falls on the shoulders (or heads) of women and children. A low cost alternative, such as transport by motorbike, will relieve both women and children of this task.

4: Rural youth. The post-war exponential growth of motorbike taxis has already opened up rural areas and connected these to regional towns, reducing isolation of rural youth. Further penetration of motorbike taxis into rural areas by track-building will only add to this. In addition, track-building can generate direct employment for youth (contrary to the more specialised road building up to international standards) and indirect employment opportunities: village-based bike repair shops, road-side restaurants for travellers, trailer construction sites. Moreover, farming in itself becomes more attractive to rural youth who have a particular interest in producing for markets, but often cannot command labor to transport the harvest to roadsides/markets.

5: Liberia Ministry of Public Works and Ministry of Agriculture. Studying the implications of different types of infrastructure on market-led agricultural growth will offer guidance to both Ministries in formulating effective, context-dependent rural transportation and agrarian development policies and interventions aimed at enhancing rural development and poverty alleviation.

6: International donor community. Rural road building and agricultural development as a pathway out of poverty remains a key focus of the international donor community with significant budgets allocated to it. Finding answers to the risks associated with large groups of socio-economically marginalised and unemployed (rural) youth has recently become another key area for the donor community. This research will yield new information on which more effective policy can be formulated.

7: Local NGO. The Lofa Integrated Development Association (LIDA). This research project will further strengthen the research capacity and knowledge base of LIDA in the area of rural development and infrastructure. Given an increasing focus on track/trail construction by the international donor community and the Ministry of Transport, LIDA will be able - through the experiences and research of this study - to deliver evidence-based policy recommendations to these two actors.

8: Research community. See section 'Academic Beneficiaries' to appreciate how we will involve both the current as well as future research community(s), internationally and within region.

- There is ample scope for scaling up. The best practices in rural track construction could be applied to the large number of other localities in all four counties, more widely in Liberia and Africa, with similar problems of seasonal accessibility and poor market linkage.

- We will engage key representatives of beneficiary groups 5 to 8 through a seminar in Liberia at the start and end of the project to set out the aims of the project and receive feedback, and to disseminate findings and discuss evidence-based opportunities for further interventions respectively. In addition, stakeholder seminars involving representatives of beneficiary groups 1 to 4 will take place at the start and finish of the project in each of the 16 villages.

Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
ES/M008908/1
Project Status: 
Active
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Lead Organisation Department: 
School of Arts and Humanities
Fund Start Date: 
Monday, June 1, 2015
Fund End Date: 
Thursday, May 31, 2018
Fund Currency Code: 
GBP
Fund Value: 
134268
agricultural-development
bike-taxis
cash-crop-production
community
community-labour
educational-and-livelihood-opportunities-for-young-people
farmers
Liberia
livelihoods
market-access
markets
motorbike-navigable-track/trail-construction
post-conflict
road-construction
rural-feeder-roads
Rural-youth
semi--subsistence-farming
socio-economic-impact
Sub-Saharan-Africa
women-and-youth
Continent: 
Region: