President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was visibly impressed by what she saw during her visit yesterday to Firestone’s US$15 million rubber wood processing facility.
“This is a wonderful thing,” she told journalists, “so we want to encourage Firestone to expand the facility. And we also want to encourage our local carpenters who are engage in wood processing to use these products and make things that we can sell on our local markets so we can stop importing furniture, plywood. By doing so we expand our economy.”
The rubber wood processing facility, named Hevea Wood, makes use of Firestone’s expired rubber trees by treating the wood and making it useful for furniture. Before just over a year ago when Firestone began this activity, the wood was most of the time left to rot or be used for making charcoal. At one point, the erstwhile Buchanan Renewables company offered to dispose of unproductive rubber trees from farmers who could not afford the expense of doing it themselves, chop the trees into wood chips and ship them off to Europe as fuel, for lucrative sums of money.
“The diversification into the processing of rubber wood is a very welcoming venture,” the President said, because that rubber wood, when it is dead, it is usually left to decay or used for charcoal making, which has some environmental problems. But by processing that wood into what we see here, tables doors, desks, this is a major, major contribution to our economy. And the jobs that come with it are also a good thing that is laudable.” She later autographed one bar of the treated rubber wood.
The president and general manager of Firestone Liberia, Edmundo Garcia, said he was very happy to host the president and that she could see what rubber wood is all about.
“We are promoting this product so that we can encourage local wood workers and carpenters and local Liberian businessmen to move into the furniture making business,” Garcia told President Sirleaf. “Rubber wood is beautiful for furniture making as you have seen displayed here.”
Hevea Wood makes what it calls ‘eco-friendly’, sustainable hardwood value added products. The wood is kiln dried and treated. In terms of the quality of the of the rubber wood products, the Firestone boss said, “The rubber wood is unlike most wood that you find around, it is something that can last longer. It basically keeps its warmth. If you go to the United States and look at the much furniture that is imported today, a lot of them are made of rubber wood.” Many people think that rubber wood is not good, he said. “In the past it was [converted] into charcoal or was just allowed to rot in the field, but the process and technology that we have brought here will make rubber wood a valuable one. We have been able to convince the local market that it is a beautiful wood.”
Mr. Garcia said Hevea Wood is already exporting some of the products. “The local market cannot take everything thing that we produce, but if the local demand for the product increases, then we will decrease our export because our primary market is the Liberian market.”
According to him, Hevea Wood employs 500 local workers in the factory and three foreigners. “The three foreigners are the ones who have the expertise and the technical know-how and they are also training the local staff on the job to be able to do the work in their absence.”
President Sirleaf wants Firestone to give technical assistance to Liberians who are interested in establishing in similar business.
“I was telling Firestone that we need to give technical helps to some of our people who can establish the same kind of facility outside of the Monrovia area, in places like Bong, Bassa, Nimba, Lofa counties and other places so we can have productions in these places and create jobs ffor the people. I’m very impressed with what I’m seeing,” she said.
She expressed happiness that Firestone company is now gaining back its pre-war status and interestingly working with some of the private farmers, helping them to replant and with finances, an endeavor that the International Finance Corporation is also engaged with.
Some has already been packaged to be exported to India through the port of Mundra. “We invested US$15 million to build this factory and next year we will be investing addition one million for the purchasing of machines.”