By Jean Pierr Gonani |
The gradual departure of Sime Darby Plantation Liberia (SDPL) last year from Liberia and later sold out to Mano Factoring Company(MANO), still remains a dream to many, but seen as a setback in the country’s investment portfolio by others.
Sime Darby Plantation Liberia signed a sixty three years (63yrs) concession agreement in 2009 with the Government of Liberia to develop over two hundred twenty thousands (220,000) hectors of land within four counties in Liberia, Bomi, Grand Cape Mount, Gbarpolu and Bong counties.
The company employed over four thousand workforce and provided schools, healthcare and other social benefits to the communities. Buses transported students to school and an employee had seven dependents on healthcare and provided rice as well.
The planting of the first palm was performed by former vice president Joseph Boakai. Its presence led to the employment of several thousands of Liberians and boosted the country’s economy. It also attracted other companies to move into Liberia.
Upon resumption, the operations were affected in so many ways ranging from theft, encroachment on their land, inability to expand, conservation issues among others. For years, it informed the previous government to act, but little was done.
So, without any remedy, the trigger was pulled. On January 16, 2020, the final concession bottom was removed from the country. A statement was issued by the company in Malaysia informing the world that its investment in Liberia has come to an end and sold it out to a company in Liberia-Mano Palm Oil Industries Limited(MPOI), a subsidiary of Mano Factoring Company(MANO).
SDPL was not happy with what many people called a premature departure from Liberia.
This was somehow expressed by the company through its Group managing Director. According to Mr. Mohamad Helmy Othman Basha, since the operation in Liberia in 2009, SDPL has only managed to plant on just over 10,300 hectares of land due to various operating challenges.
But its departure has made many people shift blame either on this government, previous government and other stakeholders.
“The leaving of SDPL should be put at the doorstep of the previous government, headed by Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It was her influence and the good business climate that led the company to come here. So, the onus was on her to do all in her power to protect the company,” Boima Koroma, a university student from Bomi county told a gathering at an intellectual center recently.
He was buttressed by another speaker, Anthony Peters; “we missed a golden opportunity. Do you know what it means for Sime Darby to leave your country when other people are begging for that company to go and invest in their countries?”
Liberia’s Finance minister, Samuel Tweah, who was at the center of seeking ways to help the company remain in Liberia said this recently.
“Surely, their presence helped the country’s investment climate. Largely, its presence reduced the level of unemployment in the country. We have helped them and have done everything for them to remain, but they have to leave. It is regrettable that they have to leave,” he told an international media recently.
He went on: “The government did all it could. We tried as a government to help them, but you know most of the things they told us could have been done years back.”
He continued; “We just have to live without them, but we do hope that one day, the best will happen for all of us.”
Former president, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf whose during her administration signed the 63 years concession agreement with SDPL was not amused when the news of the sale. A source close to her told this writer that she was sad.
“I think it was such a good investment that we have lost. It is just unfortunate that they have to leave. We hope whichever company that will take over, they will be able to build on the legacy that has been built. We hope one day they can think about this country,” the source quoted her as saying in a private conversation with some business people at her residence in Monrovia.
Madam Sirleaf, former speaker Edwin Snowe, senator Sando Johnson, former Finance and Development Minister, Amara Konneh and others have oil plantation in the region SDPL concession covers
But the presence of SDPL made a great mark on the minds of many people. The representative of Bomi County, Hon. Edwin Snowe, where SDPL operated, told a local talk show radio recently that it was sad that SDPL left Liberia. “Sime Darby happens to be one of the world’s largest oil palm company’s plantation. It is quite regrettable though for our investment portfolio- direct investment”, representative Snowe said.
He admitted that MANO is not a big company as compared to SDPL, but they have their own way of doing things.
The downside of MANO, he said, the salaries are not as attractive as SDPL.
“The wages and salaries are not as attractive as SDPL. But what they are doing so far that has impressed me is their community engagement.
Some of the employees, who are master degree holders are taking less than 300 per month. I hope as time goes by and MANO improves their production, they will be able to increase their salaries,” he said.
According to him, one area which he thinks the new company is working on is the out growers program. “We can create middle class people. That is what MANO is trying to do.”
He said, SDPL did not go into such program. He hopes that MANO will continue with such activities.
Some residents said this: “we think that SDPL did a lot for the people of this country. What we expect from the new company is not taking place. We want to give them little chance. But as we wait, some people are leaving the company and even the Malaysians that used to help are no longer here. This is a concern for some of us,” Mr. Anthony Kromah, leader of the Project Affected Community.
Time to act:
But as it stands, it is clear that SDPL may not back now.
“For us from the civil society background, we love action and honesty. This is not time for blame games. The company is gone and the new company and the government should do all they can to help the communities, Alex Khalied Balo, coordinator, CSO, Grand Cape Mount County said.
“This one did this, that one could have done this, or that, will not help. I think all the new company needs to do is to do the best thing that will benefit everyone. Sime Darby did its own. Let they talk about their own and what they will do. Stop the blame game now,” he said.
An official from the Ministry of Agriculture, who declined to be named said: “we missed a golden opportunity. The bird was in our hands. We allowed it to go and then you start to shift blame here and there? For me, I think the new company should do the best. From their performances, people will know if they are up to the task or not.”
However, the some of the pam oil industry expats had left the country when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. “We heard a few of the Malaysians left since they feared for their safety due to covid19 where treatment would not be available in the country..”, an insider at the plantation said. Since some of the Malaysians could not make it back to Liberia due to the global travel restrictions, it is understood that SDPL has continued to offer their advice to MANO and MANO should continue engaging with SDPL.
But whatever the situation, it is about time that the new company institutes all the necessary corporate investment measures that will ensure benefits to them and the country.
This is not time to place any blame on one group of the other. What needs to be done now is to roll out its plan of action that will restore the confidence of Liberians. Perhaps the government needs to sit and look at its strategies applied with SDPL and see what went wrong.
It is about time to learn from their mistakes. The National Investment Commission-NIC needs to go back on the drawing board to see where they went wrong as a government. That is what any serious government would do. With that, they would not repeat the errors.
But if they fail to do such, they would be heading to a non-friendly investment ground and would be contrary to the dreams of President George Weah; who in his inaugural speech said Liberia was ready and open for business. His administration has not even gone four years when such a world class company pulled out.
It is indeed a time to sit and do the right thing and not to put any blame game in the ‘ring’. This is not time for game blame, rather, time to forge ahead in a business friendly fashion for the betterment of everyone.