Libya’s neglected agricultural sector has been shrinking through the years, making it more vulnerable to the numerous challenges it faces. The impact of climate change has been felt through droughts, higher temperatures, and more frequent dust and sand storms, directly impacting the sector. The insufficient policies and the long-lasting conflict left the country even more exposed to those climate conditions. In addition, due to these factors, the agricultural sector provides minor economic stability for workers, leaving many seeking other stable sources of revenue. The grim reality of the agricultural sector requires major efforts to revive it again, and some innovations that are seeing the light in the sector could have high potential in helping achieve this.
As a direct result to this neglected sector, Libya imports about 75 percent of its food needs, including wheat, maize oil, and milk, ranking 90th out of 226 countries in total imports. In 2018, cereals were the leading agricultural product imported in terms of value, exceeding an investment of around $204 million. The WFP estimated that 1.3 million people, out of almost a total population of 7 million, are in need of food assistance in Libya. With the increasing inflation due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, making imported products more expensive, food security has become an urgent concern and accordingly, more must be done to support the country’s agriculture.
A lack of clear strategy for the agricultural sector
The sector used to play a bigger role in the economy: its contribution to the GDP was 26 percent in 1954, but in 2008—the last available data—it was only 1.8 percent. This figure clearly indicates the lack of a clear vision and strategy for the sector, despite the former regime’s grandiose projects, such as the implementation of the Great Man-Made River Project (GMMRP) which officially was set to make the desert green. In reality however, 95 percent of Libya is a desert, and less than 2 percent of its land has enough rainfall to support agriculture. This percentage is likely to decline further due to creeping urban expansion in the northern coast of the country, and will be amplified by the increasing impact of climate change on the land and soil with rising temperatures and drought.
Conflict and the frequent closure of roads have also caused a drastic decrease in farming activity. Farmers and farm owners saw their properties damaged, sometimes destroyed, in 2014, 2017, and 2019, due to armed conflict. In addition, according to interviews with stakeholders in Tripoli in 2020, there have been frequent closures of roads between cities, especially the cities of Gemayl, Ajilat, and Zuwara, located to the west of Tripoli—all areas that are important markets for farmers.
In addition, there are no active agricultural associations or government programs that support farmers. As a result, farmers do not receive guidance on the appropriate products to grow, or financial support to cultivate sustainable produce, since severe climate conditions and low rainfall rates over the years have heavily affected water availability for crops, leading to limited production.
With the increasing neglect and lack of support from the ministry of agriculture and the authorities in general, cultivated lands and green areas mainly located in the Jafara plain in the west and the Jabal Al-Akhdar region, known as the “green mountain,” in the east became targets of other investment projects. These included turning farms into residential areas, or cutting down trees to manufacture charcoal, which will eventually lead to the erosion of what is left of the green belt.
International organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP), have provided support to municipalities and launched projects in different areas around Libya to support agricultural activities impacted by both climate change and political instability and conflict. The WFP has been working on school feeding programs since 2019, which aim to provide nutritious meals for public school students and raising awareness among students around nutrition, health, and the agriculture sector, in coordination with the ministry of education. In 2017, Libya signed a $3.5 million agreement with FAO to strengthen its technical and functional national capacities in agriculture.
Regardless of the efforts made by international entities, this assistance could be considered as short-term, with the country’s overall instability and the lack of clear and well-defined food security strategy by authorities to compliment any projects and initiatives. The gap between the efforts of international entities to support local farming and the neglect of local authorities continues to expand with the absence of stable monitoring programs to ensure the development of the sector.
Innovations could be the solution
Still, in recent years, there has been an emergence of agricultural entrepreneurship projects led by people already engaged and experienced in the sector. There is some hope that these attempts, by incorporating business with agricultural activities, could unlock employment opportunities locally and help alleviate some of the food security concerns, if applied at a bigger scale. It is important to note that agribusiness involves farming and farming-related commercial activities that not only focus on the production aspect of the supply chain, but extend to innovative projects supporting the agricultural sector to preserve local production.
One example that has shown some success regardless of existing conditions is Green Paradise Libya, a project founded in 2020, that began producing local produce using hydroponic farming. By the end of 2021, the start-up in cooperation with the WFP provided supervision and training on their technology to expand it in the country’s southern region. This initiative has encouraged people from different parts of Libya to use the technology in active farming regions and spread it across the country.
There are numerous challenges for such agricultural ventures. The biggest one, mostly due to the country’s political and economic instability, is the lack of external funding for projects in Libya while there are many funding programs and opportunities for related projects in other countries in the MENA region. In addition, applying for funding in the form of loans from banks can take a long time, leaving many projects either on hold or postponed until further notice.
There is a pressing demand to focus on agriculture in Libya by detailing the field’s situation, such as quantifying existing farming activities and agribusinesses in the country, and updating all data related to the matter, before even dealing with stagnant governmental decision-making schemes.
Among the solutions to revive the agricultural sector would be to explore numerous types of agribusiness models. There are plenty options, such as hydroponic farming that create specific growing conditions using technological advances like machine-learning and software systems, or vertical farming which is the agricultural process in which crops are grown on top of each other, rather than in traditional, horizontal rows. Such techniques have high potential of providing consistent annual production, unlike traditional agriculture which only provides seasonal products according to the climate condition. Using similar technologies and innovations has high potential in tackling the challenges imposed by climate change, and more countries will be forced to invest in these solutions in the long term to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Climate change’s direct impact on agriculture viability and food security indicates that agricultural business development is a solution for Libya’s struggling agricultural sector. The available innovations in the country, even if relatively in small scale, are examples of the potential they could bring if rightly invested in and implemented. However, in order to do so, it is vital to encourage communication between the public and private sector including key local investors who can break the status quo of agriculture in Libya.
Malak Altaeb is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on food security in North Africa.