News about Liberia being a horrible place to live, least to mention investment, was fast spreading on news organs, like wild fire. Potential investors were scared away as they would have no security to both their lives and properties.
Braving the storm
According to Dr. Richard Tolbert, former Chairman of the National investment Commission (NIC), in 2003 Liberia was considered by a report conducted by the UK based Economist Magazine and the US based Atlantic Monthly magazine as the worst place on earth to do business.
Five years after, in 2008, following a few reform strategies put into place by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf after her inauguration on January 16, 2006 as Liberia and Africa’s first female head of State, another report was conducted by the World Bank Business Survey, this time ranking Liberia among the 10 best reforming countries and among the 20 best places to do business in the world. A welcoming development!
Notwithstanding, business experts and economic analysts still had a gloomy picture about how much to invest and period over their investment before getting profit. However, some of the most reputable investment companies around the world, decided to take what risk management experts term as “Maximum Risk.” This was after the Liberian leader had travelled extensively around the world and pleaded with companies that had left the country during the war and new ones to come back and invest.
One of such companies that listened to President Sirleaf’s plea and amidst huge challenges was the Malaysian diversified multinational oil palm company, Sime Darby, a company with a great reputation and decades of experience in the oil palm sector.
Living on a Legacy
Living on a legacy as being a company that promotes sustainability and has helped to transform many economies where it has operated, in 2009, Sime Darby Berhad signed a 63-year Concession Agreement (CA) with the Liberian Government to develop 220,000 hectares of land into oil palm and rubber plantations.
The company agreement with the government was clear with specific terms. But as a company that has lived within the orbit of strict policies and guidelines, it decided for the betterment of the ordinary Liberian people to act upon some of the clauses within the concession agreement to meeting company’s global operational standards.
For instance, in section 9.5 of the Concession Agreement (CA), the company is required to build employees housing, with each employee and his dependents to occupy a two-bed room house, but the company decided to provide a three-bed room house. The minimum wage rate according to the Liberia labor laws for unskilled people is US$3.50 a day –the rate used by the Liberian government and other concession companies to pay workers’ salaries. Sime Darby decided to do it differently - a US$5.25 per day for unskilled employees, the highest in the country so far.
As part of the 2009 CA with the Liberian government, Sime Darby also assumed the responsibility of retaining within its workforce a little over 2,000 ex-combatants even though it had the right to reduce its workforce as a means of enhancing efficiency and productivity.
According to the company’s General Manager, Mr. Azmi Jaafar, the company took the decision to reduce tension and the level of volatility that was within the area that was formerly occupied by the Guthrie Rubber Plantation. Mr. Jaafar said the old rubber trees were no longer economically productive. Hence, keeping such a huge number of people on their payroll was a sacrifice that the company decided to make for the good of the peace and stability of Liberia.
Gbah Town, a little town that lies across the famous Lofa River just about 40 kilometers away from Monrovia, is remembered today for some of the worst atrocities committed during the war. Gbah was an area that was feared greatly by anyone who cared to live, since it paid host to rebel fighters during and after the war. But times are changing in this area for a little over two years since Sime Darby began its operations.
The once economically dead and dreadful town that falls within the company’s concession area on the main highway that leads to the Liberian border with Sierra Leone seems to be experiencing a new face. Life there is taking a new shape. Young men, who used to carry guns are now transformed into productive citizens, trained and working with the Sime Darby Plantation, either on the nursery, at the clearing site, in the field planting oil palm or perhaps spraying the palm against pests’ infestation. Some are permanent workers while others are contractors. They take home two bags of rice, get treated free at the company’s medical facilities and get a monthly salary. There is dramatic increase in the size of the market, which is staged every Monday of the week. The numbers of young men with motorcycle have jumped, and the town is getting alive, and fast becoming a major economic center for the region.
Like the men, the women too are a major contributors to the livelihood of the family in western Liberia. Instead of using chemicals to get rid of weeds, women are used and they are paid by SD. This action by SD is a major boost to the economic growth of the communities in Bomi and Grand Cape Mount Counties.
Like it is with any company around the world, setting foot into a completely different business environment, Sime Darby is not free from similar challenges. Challenges range from explaining the concession to the people as well as explaining its development plans to the citizenry most of whom are unable to read and write; as well as a huge challenge of doing business in a more organized and internationally accepted way. The latter is a serious challenge because the civil war tore apart every system and pattern in the country. People always look out for handouts rather than work to earn a living. This is practiced everywhere in the country.
Issues of right to land and land ownership are some of the biggest challenges face by both the SD, which is a Malaysian company and the government itself.
During President Sirleaf and Cabinet’s visit to the SD Concessional area last December to settle some misunderstanding the people of Grand Cape Mount had with Sime Darby Plantation Liberia (SDPL) over the land ownership, the President remarked: “When I was running for President in 2005, you asked me to bring back those companies that left Liberia during the war, that is why you see I brought Sime Darby. So my people let us support this company so that our country can get better.”
The Liberian leader acknowledged that the huge unemployment problems faced by the country today are due to the absence of many companies that fled the country during the events of the war. She says the private sector was the only hope to ease the unemployment challenges faced by Liberia today.
President Sirleaf then emphasized that it has to take time before most of the issues raised by the people would be addressed, especially when it comes to infrastructure development.
“We must agree to give the people the land to develop it then we will expect benefits, but if you say that you are not giving the land then what kind of development do you expect?” the President asked.
Today, not many days after the President’s departure, the people of Bomi and Cape Mount have taken a much positive and supportive posture to the company’s operations then they have ever done. Thanks, to a Presidential Committee headed by the Land Commission (LC) helping to create awareness in the two counties about the operations of Sime Darby. More information and awareness about the work of Sime Darby will pay off-well now and in the years to come.
Clearing and planting are well on course. All is not well as yet but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Therefore, if the citizenry, Liberians in general failed to open their eyes to the reality of time by encouraging investors in this new dispensation, we ourselves could practically be taking our country to the gallop.