The new leadership of the Rubber Planters Association of Liberia (RPAL) said it has strategized a plan to revive the country’s already “struggling” rubber sector.
The association’s new president, Mrs. Wilhemina G. Mulbah-Siaway, informed development partners and stakeholders that her leadership envisions an approach to change the dynamics of the sector by introducing technology to process and manufacture rubber-based products.
Madam Siaway, who is also RPAL’s first female president since the organization was established in 1966, made the disclosure last Friday during programs marking the installation of the new RPAL’s leadership held in Sinkor, Monrovia.
Siaway said in addition to introducing processed and manufactured rubber-based products, her leadership will also establish a rubber research institute to enhance the manufacturing capacity of Liberians in the sector.
According to her, large-scale selling and exportation of unprocessed rubber could undermine the vision of rebranding Liberia’s rubber sector; therefore, “your Excellency, we attach great importance and request for the extension of the Executive Order #50,” she said, a in an open message to President of Liberia, George Manneh Weah.
Executive Order #50 states in part that there shall be no exportation of unprocessed natural rubber until otherwise ordered. “So we [Liberia’s rubber sector] have been part of the country’s economic heritage for over 80 years, providing a high source of annual revenue for government and more employment nationwide than any other single sector. But we are currently affected by the large-scale selling and exportation of unprocessed rubber,” said Madam Siaway.
Also, the association’s vice president, James E. Cooper, Jr., who made a presentation on the “Prospect of Rubber Manufacturing,” outlined job creation, revenue for government and increase income generation for farmers as part of the value addition to the line of rubber.
“At the 2018 world rubber submit that was held in Sri Lanka, RPAL successfully negotiated with manufacturing partners to operate in Liberia on a joint venture basis,” Cooper said. “There are manufacturers from Sri Lanka who are willing to come to Liberia and partner with processors to form a joint venture.”
“Moreover, let us think about the opportunities it will bring for farmers to either sell their rubber to concession processors or to local processors, and then add value by making different finished products,” Cooper said.
He said another opportunity the exercise will bring is to allow farmers to form small manufacturing corporations to produce finished rubber-based product.
“In this direction, RPAL’s partners will provide technical assistance to small farmers’ manufacturing corporations to ensure that value addition is the way forward for the rubber sector, and we are unapologetic about that,” Cooper said.
He spoke about a future plan to establish five demonstration sites and product lines in Bomi, Margibi, Nimba and Bong counties, “although RPAL’s ten-year goal is to facilitate the establishment of rubber processing and manufacturing plant across the 15 counties.”
The five proposed product lines will manufacture rubber gloves, hospital rubber consumables, rubber boots, rubber belts and new rubber tires that will be sold on the Liberian market, in the ECOWAS region and in the 44 countries of the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) that are signatories to the agreement.
Agriculture Minister Dr. Mogana Flomo described the vision of RPAL as revolutionary and assured the ministry’s commitment to the vision.
“This is the direction that Liberia wants to go. This is the way forward for us, but we must be committed to this change that we want. We want to be called to a meeting where we will be discussing ways to process car bumpers and other rubber products in the near future,” said Minister Flomo.
But observers here say the call by RPAL’s leadership on the national government to maintain the ban on the export of raw rubber plays into the hands of Firestone and the big companies who are allowed to export raw rubber, like latex, for example. According to a local farmer, Mangblin Dahn, rubber farmers living along the Liberia-Ivory Coast border, for example, are prohibited from selling their rubber across the border into the Ivory Coast at more competitive prices.
He said local farmers are required to pay taxes to the Rubber Planters Association which, according to him, is not in the interest of Liberian rubber farmers. He said a surcharge is imposed on every ton of rubber sold and the money goes to the RPAL, which has yet to account for such taxes paid.
But Mr. James Cooper, vice President of the RPAL, speaking in a telephone interview with the Daily Observer, said the Executive Order issued by former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, placing a ban on the export of raw rubber is intended to provide a source of supply for local producers of finished rubber products, a practice which, according to him, is observed in other countries to protect their industries.
Addressing questions on why Firestone and the big rubber companies are exempt from the ban, Mr. Cooper explained that Firestone has a concession agreement with the Government of Liberia and such may be covered under the agreement.
On the issue of the tax imposed on rubber farmers when selling their rubber to any of the large buyers like Firestone, Mr. Cooper confirmed that a tax of US$2.00 is applied against every ton of rubber sold. He could not, however, give an account of how much has been collected over the years, neither could he say how this money is being accounted for as he has recently resumed office.
Observers say the amount collected over the years since former President Sirleaf took office in 2006 hovers close to US$1 million, but no one can say how this money has been appropriated over the years or how it is being accounted for. A former government official says the fund has been a virtual cash cow for corrupt government officials and a fight over the money could have been a causal factor in the murder of Keith Juba, head of the association at the time.