— Former Rubber Planters Association leader urges Gov't, in order to sustain struggling sector
As thousands of local rubber farmers still experienced the lack or limited market access for their natural rubber produce, the former president of the Rubber Planters Association of Liberia (RPAL), Williamina Mulbah Siaway, has called on the government to invest into rubber processing as a way to find a sustainable solution to the problem.
“The sustainable solution to this problem is for the government to provide soft loans to rubber processors to mitigate this appalling economic situation that continues to face the farmers,” she asserted.
Report reaching the Daily Observer suggests that currently about 46,000 smallholder rubber farmers across the country are struggling to find a buyer for their natural rubber.
But Firestone, the biggest buyer of rubber in the country, has refuted this claim, stating that the company is still buying rubber — albeit a limited supply — from farmers.
The company in a release recently said that the factory is currently conducting annual maintenance which has resulted in the temporary reduction in the amount of rubber purchased from smallholder farmers.
This is the second time that Firestone has limited the purchase of rubber from smallholder farmers. In 2020 the company limited the purchase of rubber from smallholder farmers.
Siaway, who is also the CEO of the Mulbah Rubber Estate in Margibi County, said many of the local processors are encountering the problems of poor infrastructures, unstable electricity supply and the lack of access to finance to become off-takers just like the Firestone.
“With more investment in local rubber processing, farmers can get a sustainable market. We have other concessions in the sector which, if strengthened, could help mitigate the current challenge,” Siaway reiterated.
She said the government has since recognized the need for value addition in the small-scale rubber sector to address the issue of the market constraint, but not much has been done.
The natural rubber sector has and continues to be the single most economically viable agricultural commodity in the Liberian economy.
Statistics show that the country exported natural rubber valued at 193.7 million United States dollars in 2021, ranking as the eleventh largest natural rubber exporting country worldwide.
The small-scale rubber sector provides thousands of jobs for Liberians, but it still remains underdeveloped since the end of the country’s civil war.
Currently, the low price of rubber is severely impacting the business of many smallholder rubber farmers whose plantations still have not yet improved.
The Rubber Development Fund INC (RDFI) policy calls for the rehabilitation of smallholder rubber farms and the need to invest more in value addition.
But Siaway said the government has failed to prioritize the policy over the years and, as a result, smallholder farmers continue to suffer.
“The prevailing circumstances where the Firestone Rubber company has limited the purchasing of rubber from farmers, thereby causing serious economic problems in the small scale rubber sector, should be taken seriously by the government,” she said.
“For the past six months, Firestone has been unable to take the products from the farmers. Farmers really find it difficult when the company says it has surplus rubber in their warehouses and they can’t have any more space to get the rubber from the farmers. This is a disaster in the sector as farmers in distant areas find it very difficult to market their rubber,” she sadly mentioned.
The former rubber association president said the farmers do not know how long this situation will last.
“This situation makes us understand that we the farmers have to see the importance of adding value to the rubber by doing minor processing. We must get involved in producing ribbed smoked sheets (RSS). Drying the rubber to be able to sell to Firestone or export outside of Liberia is the way out, or else it will continue to become a challenge,” she explained.
Siaway said that the farmers are paying their taxes to the government and so there must be a reason to find a solution to the current situation.
“This will continue to remain a very serious challenge for the farmers and the government when it comes to revenue collection. The sector has a larger population that creates employment opportunities,” she added.
She stressed the need for the country to also get involved in the manufacturing of rubber.
“We as a country can also share a greater benefit for the international community — the world — to have some breakthroughs. But here we are only exporting the raw produce and adding no value. [Meanwhile] the cost of tires is very much expensive and the raw materials taken from here to manufacture those materials are bought cheaply from the farmers,” she explained.