It’s difficult to take many more than 15 steps in Monrovia without passing someone selling ground pea. “Ground pea” is the local name for Arachis hypogaea - the legume known in much of the Western world as a “peanut”, but elsewhere as earthnuts, goobers, goober peas, pindas, jack nuts, pinders, manila nuts and monkey nuts. Ground pea are roasted and wrapped in small pieces of plastic on the side of the road. A pack of roughly 20 grams costs 5 Liberty Dollars (LD), about 12 cents, US.
Eggs, though slightly less ubiquitous, are sold on many street corners for equally marginal cost. Hard-boiled, at a registered grocery store, a half dozen eggs may cost 60 LD, or $1 US. Hardboiled, on the side of the road, two eggs costs about XX LD.
It seems logical to assume that products such as ground pea and eggs are sourced locally. Logistics in Liberia are complex enough, that I assumed sourcing products from any distance would make such cheap prices impossible. Perhaps neighboring countries have a comparative advantage in growing ground pea, or producing eggs, but wouldn't the transportation costs render local production more economical? Moreover, there are enough chickens in the streets of Monrovia, and there is arable enough soil throughout Liberia, to imagine an abundant, local supply of ground pea and eggs.
I held this assumption for months, until a recent stock out of eggs in the local grocery stores. What in the world would cause an egg shortage? I posed this very question to Roger, the owner of our local Stop and Shop (yes, there is a Stop & Shop in Monrovia, and no the discount cards to not work).
“Many people lost entire consignments this past month,” replied Roger.
“They were mishandled and cracked during shipment,” explained an attendant at Monoprix Grocers as he weeded out the cracked from whole eggs.
Monrovia’s eggs, as it turns out, are not grown locally. Nor are they sourced from within West Africa, or even elsewhere in Africa, for that matter.
Monrovia’s eggs are shipped from India. How, precisely, is a question for a later day. But, if the eggs are from India, what is the origin of other basic, cheap, core products? Like the ground pea?
The ground peas sold on Monrovia’s streets are a somewhat more local flavor than the Indian eggs. While ground pea does grow in Liberia, the majority of those that we pack in 5 LD packs come from Guinea, Liberia’s neighbor to the North.
The ground pea is harvested in Guinea, wrapped in plastic bags or stored in barrels, and trafficked through Nimba or Lofa counties down to Monrovia’s “Red Light” District. Red Light is a major intersection between Roberts International Airfield and downtown Monrovia; before the war it was home to the largest market in Montserrado, a title held in recent years by Waterside market. At Red Light, market women purchase ground pea by the can before packaging the small snack in plastic purchased at local Monrovian stores. The market women are expert bargain shoppers and purchase the ground pea in such bulk that they can turn a profit on 5 LD per pack.
Nutritional staples, cheap products, surprisingly complex supply chains.