By Jefferson Yanquoi
About six years after the Liberian Government granted permit to one of the world’s foremost oil palm companies, citizens are beginning to see the vast difference between true commitment and liability of an investor.
Landing this world-class investment to help bolster its ailing economy after years of social, economic and political turbulence is a milestone breakthrough that came after Liberia had looked West, East, South and North.
Sime Darby, a Malaysian-based Company, with a huge reputation in the oil palm industry, came out strong not for any dubious reasons, but on the basis of its rich and proven records of credibility, reliability and trustworthiness.
The decision by the Company, to invest in Liberia amidst huge global interests from other countries with the needed investment environment and climactic conditions, might not have come on a silver platter, anyway.
Even if West Africa was part of global expansion plans, certainly, Liberia, which might not be the only comfort zone for oil palm business, yet sufficed.
But accepting to invest in Liberia after years of civil war marked the rejuvenation of long running ties the Company has had with Liberia.
Historically, Sime Darby’s involvement in Liberia began in 1977 when Kumpulan Guthrie provided technical and management expertise to the government-owned Liberian Rubber Processing Corporation.
It is noted that in 1980, Kumpulan Guthrie acquired BF Goodrich’s concession area and in 1981, Guthrie Plantations Inc. was incorporated to develop 20,000 acres of concession land into a rubber plantation.
The 63-year concession agreement with the Government of Liberia in 2009 gives the Company 220,000 hectares of land to be developed into oil palm and rubber plantations in three of Liberia’s counties; namely, Bomi, Grand Cape Mount and Gbarpolu.
Since then, Sime Darby has been weathering the storm, standing tall against all forms of bedevilments, to ensure it achieves the goals and objectives of extending beyond Asia into West Africa, spending millions of dollars on moving equipment and other materials into Liberia, setting up offices as well as clearing of land and planting of palms.
In the midst of all this, there have been series of challenges in the concession areas. What has become evident today is the government did not include the communities in the discussions before moving forward. They were excluded. Sooner, it landed into problems with its new host. After series of problems, today, the once unhappy community dwellers have become friends; though there are some issues at times.
“Relatively, things are much better with the company and us today as compared to the time they first landed on the soil. The company even admitted to this fact and they have been working with us closely to move forward,” Samson Kollie, a resident of Gbah once said.
In adherence to the terms of the Concession Agreement, CA, signed with the government, the Company has also given employment opportunities to thousands of citizens- women and men –from different parts of the country, with priority given to citizens of three counties it is operating.
The huge economic benefits of Sime Darby’s investment in Liberia are greatly telling on the structural transformation of villages and towns in the operations area once adorned with shabby homes, besides the unprecedented human development being witnessed over the last five to six years.
Today because of the presence of the company, shinning zinc roofs are visible on the homes of villagers along the main road, bearing testimony to the changing economic conditions of the people.
Gbah, a highly populated busy town in Bomi County, where the company has oneof its oil palm estates, is one of the areas that has seen colossal transformation with booming housing networks.
What more an investor should do to gain holistic approbation, considering the difficulty associated – distance and other bottlenecks – with an Asian nation investing in Africa, mainly Liberia for that matter.
In addition to its already demonstrated and proven records of being a steadfast and unchanging entity, Sime Darby has begun the critical and highly cost-intensive construction of a US$18 million Mill which will be ready for production early January 2017.
The construction of the large Mill, the first on WestAfrican Soil, seems a major breakthrough for the Malaysian Conglomerate in its overseas investment. Company officials have indicated that the mill which will process some 60 tons of Fresh Fruit Brunches (FFB) of oil palm per hour- one of the largest in the country.
Oil palm isnot native to West Africa, especially Liberia that has not been able to turn the fortune of rich soil and good rainfall into economic opportunities.
Abu Samah, project chief engineer has indicated that the Company has no regrets embarking on such gigantic Mill project which is expected to produce about 160 tanks per day.
Whilst the Mill is still under construction, citizens in surrounding areas are benefiting from oil produced from a mini Mill at 80 tanks per day within about ten hours.
The construction of the large Mill also provides additional employment opportunities to more Liberians, given that about 30 persons are currently undergoing training and at the same time working on the Mini Mill.
MohdRiza, Head of Mill Operation, said “Upon completion of the large Mill, more persons will be employed based on their level of understanding of the Mill.”
Currently, he said, “the company has one local buyer who is exporting the products to the outside world.”
All of these engagements, though in line with the terms of the agreement, should be considered basic proof of the company’s resilient investment portfolio spanning over decades.
As enshrined in the concession agreement, Sime Darby Plantation (Liberia) Inc. is presently working with smallholders to develop an additional 44,000 hectares under an Outgrowers’ Scheme designed to assist smallholders and local communities, a programme that is similar to Malaysia’s extremely successful Felda scheme.
Under the Outgrowers’ scheme, palm farms owned by prominent politicians including House Speaker Alex Tyler, Senator Sando Johnson, and Representative Edwin S. Snowe, are sprouting up along the route to Tubmanburg, the administrative city of Bomi County. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is also developing an estate of palm farm in her district in Bomi County as well. According to information from the local authorities, Sime Darby has been instrumental in lending helping hands to these smallholders by providing them palm seedlings.
Most significantly, the speed with which the Company is going about implementing programs as part of its social responsibility surpasses imagination, and even beat the records of other companies that have been in existence decades ago.
These achievements in a short period of time (less than ten years of operations) bear testimony of ‘greater things to come’ in the years ahead; the kind of involvement Liberia has never seen from any investors since its founding.
Sime Darby’s investment in Liberia represents a breakaway from the outlandish and unorthodox ostentation witnessed over the years wherein the ordinary citizens have nothing to show from investments in their communities.
The hostile and hot environment, the frustration and other forms of embarrassment post- conflict investors such as Sime Darby are experiencing from community dwellers cannot be compared to the peaceful atmosphere pre- civil war companies enjoyed.
Logically, had it not been for some of these impediments in the way of Sime Darby, it would have gone far further that where it is in terms of operations and provision of its social responsibility to the community.
What ordinary Liberians need to understand is that no investment thrives in a hostile environment.
The company has experienced bedevilments of all kinds including arson attacks on its facilities in spite the glowing opportunities its investment has brought to Liberia and Liberians in the areas of human and infrastructural developments, not only in its areas of operations but across the spectrum.
These attacks which occurred at the height of the company’s operations including adherence to its social reasonability to the communities clearly bespeak the ugly side of Liberia or even shed light on how threatened future investments are.
Nevertheless these troubling developments with the potential to drive investors out, the Company remains the beacon of hope for hundreds of citizens who are dire need of employment and development of their towns and villages.
For example, citizens of Zodua clan, Garwula district in Grand Cape Mount County have expressed desire to do business with Sime Darby, to expand its investment there, providing over 5000 hectres of land without being coerced to do so.
The citizens said the decision is based on the magnanimity they have witnessed in the operations of the company, noting that “the land has been provided to the company for investment to pave the way for employment opportunities for their children, establish health facilities, education among others.”
Hundreds of children of company employees as well surrounding towns are benefiting from Sime Darby school programs unprecedented in terms of standards in Liberia’s education history.
“It is the willingness of the citizens to offer the land to the company, saying the company did not call for the land,” said AbdullaiSembeh, town chief of Gohn-Zodua town.
“We have invited the management of Sime Darby because we want development which will pave the way for our children to advance themselves positively and bring about lots of development activities in the clan.
“We want our children to work and go to school. We are appealing to the government for this company to come here for us. We want health, education because they are our major problems in the town.”
The expression of interest by a group of people to do business with Sime Darby should, of course, signal to those agitating mayhem against it that they are on a meaningless campaign. With the expression of interest in the well-being of Sime Darby, these people are now realizing that having an undeveloped land is like an unproductive (barren) woman who only occupies space in the life of a man without the wherewithal to change history.
What Liberians need is the spirit of sobriety to overcome situations that could engender irreparably social and economic setbacks to the country in general. Folks, Sime Darby represent the breed of investment that turns Liberia for the better, but the ball is in the court of Liberians to replace depravity with positive reception. What more an investor should do to earn the approbation of the citizens?