By: Reuben Waylaun
KON TOWN—When the Malaysian oil palm giant, Sime Darby Plantation planted its investment seed in Liberia in 2010,little did the people know that it would go through some turbulence and later bring smiles to the communities.
Today, those who once used to place road blocks, burn tired and threaten workers, are now beaming with smiles as a result of improved community relations which has led to strong capacity building and self-financial empowerment scheme.
The company signed a 63-year concession agreement with the Liberian Government to develop 220,000 ha of land in four counties; Bomi, Bong, Gbarpolu, Grand Cape Mount, into oil palm and rubber plantations.
At the moment, 10,508 ha of land has been planted in five estates.
Developing the land from its onset, started on a rocky ground with series of attacks from local and international NGOs that accused the company of land grab and invasion of sacred sites. So, the problems do not really seem to exist, according to some community members who spoke to this reporter last week.
As part of its quest of alleviating poverty from the country and communities where it operates, Sime Darby Plantation Liberia (SDPL) has setup Village Saving Loan Association (VSLA) in communities in the concession area.
The company trained, organized leaderships from those communities in the concession area to start managing their own resources which is also gear toward bringing unity in communities and harmonious relationship between the communities and the company.
The company believes that such initiative would help empower the communities. Established three months ago, the program is already moving smoothly with citizens, majority of whom are women expressing happiness.
At present, the project is in nine communities in Grand Cape Mount and Bomi Counties. They include, Mukpasan Kanballa in Seinii, Mutambu VSLA in Timbo, Taja VSLA in Lain, Kawefin in Johnson Town, Mua-Nu-Wa-VSLA in Kon all in Garwula district, Grand Cape Mount County.
Others are Damafea VSLA in Klaymontuah, Measuagoon VSLA in Gbaisumon, Sia-Mui-Bui-Nia VSLA in Bomon, Gyeefa VSLA in Zarmeyan all in Senjeh district, Bomi county respectively.
After the training, the communities are raising their own capital where they can save and allow others to get loans at low interest rate. This allows them to be self-reliance and do away with dependency syndrome.
In Kon Town, Garwula District, Grand Cape Mount County
Maima Diggs, the chairlady of Mua-Nu-Wa-VSLA
(meaning it belongs to us in the Vai vernacular) in Kon was filled with total excitement during their gathering at the town hall.
Miss. Diggs said unlike in the past where they used to look for money just to eat without saving, the introduction of the VSLA program has changed everything for the better.
According to her, organizing them into group has also united them and they now speak with one voice and execute plans together for their money thereby relieving the burdens.
“Our members can come and collect our money and we can be very happy about it. We already have 133 members for the saving credit union. We are very happy for the idea Sime Darby has given to us,” she said.
Ishmael Pusah, Secretary General of the group recounted that since their establishment, they used to operate without training, but Sime Darby has intervened by providing training for them in managing their money.
“Based on the training, we have been able to properly manage our own money. People have started discussing having their own bank accounts. The company gave us box for saving and we are making proper use of the box,” he added.
“We always make sure our social fund, our shares, registration deposited in the box and lock it by giving the keys to designated people. We currently have 133 members and we have a total amount of 173, 700.00 (Close to US$2,000) Liberian dollar just in two months,” he noted.
Momodu Kiazolu, the co-chairman for the group commended Sime Darby Darby, a statement that received huge applauds from the assembled members of the group at the Townhall.
Kiazolu was joined by the town chief, Varney Goe and chairlady of the town, Miatta Kromah.
Seinii Town, Garwula District, Grand Cape Mount County
Located in the remote part of Lower Garwula district, in the concession area, citizens of Seinii are also beneficiaries.
Mukpasan Kanballa( meaning let us depend on God , in the Vai vernacular) is the name of the VSLA in Seinii. Members of the group ranging from youth to adults usually assemble at the Seinii Townhall to discuss the growth of the loan scheme.
Alieu Touray, the Secretary General of Mukpasan Kanballa in Seinii recounted that it used to be tough in managing their resources prior to the arrival of Sime Darby with the training.
“We started with low members, but the training conducted by Sime Darby has help us allot and now we have more members. We have clear understanding of how to manage VSLA. Before, we never had such knowledge on how to make recommendations, but today we have received that knowledge and today we have 127 members with over 103,000.00 Liberian Dollar,” he said.
Citizens of the town with great ambition said in the next two or three years, they can reach one million Liberian dollars through the guidance of Sime Darby.
Maima Nuah, the chairlady of the group said her dream is to see how women of the town can be empowered to help their husbands in sustaining the homes.
“We will start crediting during the next sitting. After that we will be able to do something for ourselves. More women are joining the group. We want to have plenty business people in the town,” he added.
“Sime Darby has brought proud to us in this town. It used to be very difficult on us. We are impressed with the knowledge Sime Darby has given to us,” Othello Touray, co-chairman of the group.
“We used to think that when you have cash you must put it under your bed. Sime Darby told us if you don’t do that, rogue will steal it, fire can get on the building anytime, so our little money we can go and put it in our cash box. Sime Darby told us to use our money properly,” Touray further indicated.
Citizens of the town are also dreaming of constructing their own structure for the credit union and the chairlady of the town, Maima Nyei prayed that this dream becomes a reality.
“Before we use to look for money to buy chicken feet. But this time we can keep our little for saving. This time we not thinking about just buying food to eat, we are saving,” chairlady Maima Nyei said.
Mutambu(It is for us) VSLA in Timbo, Lower Garwula District, Grand Cape Mount County
Timbo town, a remote village in lower Garwula is also part of this great program carried out by Sime Darby.
Gbassay Mulbah is the chairlady of the VSLA in the town with over 115 members. The association currently has over 60,000 Liberian dollar in its deposit just within two months following the training by Sime Darby.
For his part, the Access to Finance Consultant at Sime Darby, William Saye Menzee said the willingness of the community members to form part of the VSLA is unbelievable.
Menzee said the VSLA is part of the pilot project currently being implemented by Sime Darby Plantation Liberia (SDPL).
He said to ensure success, they carried out community mobilization awareness in the project affected communities within the concession area explaining the importance of saving and organizing into association for the common good of the community through a training.
“The momentum in those communities is high when it comes to saving. The citizens raised the money by themselves. If you cannot manage your own money, you cannot manage someone’s money. As I speak, people are saving regularly during every sitting,” he said.
According to Menzee, it is the dream of the company to see citizens in the project communities get more money and grow their businesses.
Surely, if the citizens continue with this project, it will have positive impact in a long term.