By Alvin Worzi and David A. Yates
Mahmud Johnson, the entrepreneur who turned palm kernel oil into skin, hair and cooking products that are sold around the world, applied for the Private Sector Development Initiatives (PSDI) loan in 2014.
But officials at the Ministry of Finance and Development of Planning, which managed the secret loan fund, told him that all the loans had been given out, and encouraged him to wait until people start repaying the loans.
Johnson, founder and chief executive officer of J-Palm Manufacturing Company, said he was disappointed and shocked to learn that the majority of the business owners who received loans have not repaid a penny, and that some of them created ghost businesses that auditors could not locate.
Mr. Johnson said the process was not transparent or open to all Liberian businesses, thereby giving the opportunity to non-beneficiaries and leaving out the people who should have been the direct beneficiaries.
Mr. Johnson was one of several small and medium sized business owners who expressed outraged about the failed loan scheme.
“I don’t believe that such a huge amount of money can be allocated for Liberian businesses and the impact is not being felt. This money would have created jobs and empowered and changed the face of some communities that these businesses would have been established in,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson, who started the business in 2013 currently employs 34 individuals, and plans to have his products across Liberia. He has participated in the most talked about MSME conference intended to showcase Liberian made products. The conference has brought hundreds of businesses together, with a recommendation to take it to other counties.
Meanwhile, according to the auditors, between 2014 and 2016, the project disbursed US$2,274,400 to forty-six (46) borrowers. The report revealed that Dr. James F. Kollie, former Deputy Minister for Fiscal Affairs (MFDP), signed all the loan approvals while serving in the position.
Out of the 46 borrowers, only Garson Incorporated, located on 11th Street, Sinkor, believed to be owned by Dr. James Kollie, paid its obligation of US$150,000 plus US$10,500 interest, amounting to a total repayment of US$160,500. Garson Incorporated’s account statement reveals that the institution has only an US$11.00 obligation outstanding.
News of the failed loan scheme broke last week when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered Dr. Kollie to cut short his overseas trip and come back home to account for the money.
Kollie was deputy minister for fiscal affairs at the MFDP when the fund was created.
Mrs. Eyvonne Bright-Harding, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Sharks Entertainment Incorporated, has been fighting to get the government to protect the 21 businesses earmarked for Liberians under the Liberianization Policy.
Bright-Harding produces ice cream, one of the protected Liberian businesses. But in the past year, two foreigners have opened ice cream manufacturing businesses, and a third is underway.
“To find ourselves in a situation that money was earmarked for Liberian-owned businesses and find out that the money was not used for the intended purpose is shocking,’’ she said.
It is disheartening that the government paid out such a huge amount and have nothing to show for it, she said. Sadly, she said, there is no penalty for people who mismanage public funds.
“They will move around and get all the invitations to attend some of the big programs or functions acting as if nothing happened,” she said. “We are waiting and listening to hear what the results will be, and what others will learn from this sad situation,’’ she said.
Bright-Harding, who has been in business for over 20 years, said it is important that people repay their loans, because it is good for business and the economy. The fallout from the loan scheme is another indication of the lack of patriotism among Liberians, she said.
“Liberians are not being patriotic when they can’t implement the policy that protects businesses earmarked for Liberians,” she added.
Bright-Harding wondered whether the Ministry of Commerce and Industry knew about the loan scheme, as it should have informed the small and medium sized businesses that it has been showcasing over the last few years.
Kokpor Daynuah, CEO and founder of PANZSIR Cosmetics, a Liberian-owned business, was sad when he heard about the failed loan scheme. He said he applied for the PSDI fund, but didn’t get it. He was shocked to learn that government officials gave loans to themselves instead of small businesses who are struggling to expand.
“These are people who don’t own any business and they took something that was intended to change some of our businesses and put us in a better position to put us on par with foreign-owned businesses; and it has been mismanaged by our own people,’’ he said.
The government, he said, issued loans without putting regulations and guidelines to determine the criteria for qualifying for the loan. The loan should have been given to existing businesses, he said.
“People often complain that Liberian-owned businesses don’t want to expand, but how can those businesses expand when they don’t get the support they need?” he asked. “The failed loan scheme could scare donors away. Donors will be reluctant to support Liberian businesses because it’s been proven that government will give the loans to their friends and relatives, instead of the struggling businesses.”
The Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI) has been working with many small businesses through the Small Business Administration (SBA). “Why did MFDP create a loan program when there was a structure at MOCI?” Daynuah asked further.
Another businesswoman who spoke to our team of reporters yesterday in the Paynesville community said the behavior of the government officials has caused serious problems for businesspeople.
Angie M. Howard, Chief Executive Officer of Falama Inc, told this paper that she knew about the loan at the Ministry of Finance but those who were leading the process told her that there was no money in the PSDI account.
She said because of the long bureaucracy in obtaining the loan, “I decided to forgo it and invest my own personal cash into my business. I was fed up with being told ‘go come back tomorrow.’”
Fortunately, all four of these Liberian businesses have improved over the last four years, much against the odds. Noteworthy among them is J-Palm, which has won multiple awards because of his insightful business model and the innovation that it pursues. Sharks Enterprise (Bright-Harding) is a diversified catering service – they don’t sell only ice-cream and pop-corn. Falama (Howard) is now into packaging coconut water and Panzsir (Daynuah) moved its production line from a small workshop in Brewerville, Montserrado County to Nimba County, where expansion has improved production and safety standards.