Liberia has, since its establishment as Africa’s first independent republic, been considered one of the world’s poorest countries.
It remained that way even after we got our first two major concessions—Firestone Rubber Plantation Company in 1926 and the Liberian Mining Company (iron ore) in 1946.
Firestone, founded by Harvey S. Firestone, Jr., remains the nation’s largest private employer. Harvey, the entrepreneurial and industrial visionary, made billions from his Liberian investment; and in 1990 the company was sold to Bridgestone of Japan.
In its 90 year history in Liberia Firestone has made a serious impact on the Liberian economy, for it has always been one of the nation’s leading employers and taxpayers—both corporate and employee withholding.
Liberians have many gripes (complaints) with Firestone. First is the company’s persistent failure to add value to the trillions of metric tons of rubber it has shipped out of Liberia only as raw material. After 90 years of operation Liberia still cannot make a rubber band or ball, not to mention automobile tires. That is sad, and we hope that some Liberian administration will be able to induce the company to start manufacturing from some of its rubber in Liberia, products for home consumption and export to the West African sub-region through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Having said that, we find ourselves compelled to admit that Firestone alone did not make money from rubber here. From the very beginning in 1926, Harvey Firestone convinced many Liberians to grow rubber, which he bought from them and put lots of money in their pockets. Many Liberian rubber planters became multimillionaires, beginning with James (Jimmy) Francis Cooper, grand and great grandfather, uncle and cousin of most Liberian Coopers. Though some of his grandchildren said they had never heard it, Jimmy Cooper was reputed to have been the first Liberian to “cry millionaire.”
The American archives named him in the mid-1940s as “the wealthiest Liberian.”
Many other Liberian rubber planters followed. The most successful among them was Harry Lyons Morris, who created the world’s largest rubber plantation owned by one man—Morris Farm in Kakata and Todee. That already in the 1950s earned him the title “the rubber king of the world.”
He and many other rubber planters became leading Liberian entrepreneurs who did not have to depend on government or any concession for a job.
But Firestone had several terrible advantages over Liberian rubber planters which remain until this day: it has duty free privileges and tax breaks that no Liberian rubber planter enjoys. The government should examine this toward sharing some of these privileges with our rubber planters.
But becoming independent entrepreneurs, from rubber and whatever else, is precisely the point which American Ambassador Deborah Malac made in her address to the African Methodist Episcopal University (AMEU) last week. She said Liberians should depart from the concession syndrome and start creating entrepreneurs to build a successful Liberian economy. She mentioned agriculture as one of the prime avenues through which this could happen.
The Daily Observer gave the background to that story to prove Ambassador Malac’s point. We mentioned that the Liberia Mining Company (LMC) in Bomi Hills, Bomi County (1946-1988), LAMCO in Yekepa, Nimba County (1960-1990) and Bong Mining Company in Fuamah Chiefdom, Lower Bong County (1964-1990), when they departed, left their concession areas and the people there in the same poverty they had known for over a century. There was nothing to show that major industrial enterprises had once existed in any of those places.
That was why the Ambassador said concessions cannot in the long term help Liberia. But the creation of a Liberian entrepreneurial class, just as it has happened in other countries in Europe, America, Asia and right here in Africa, is the better way out for Liberia.
The Daily Observer since our beginning in 1981 has consistently called for the encouragement of a Liberian business class. But various administrations, dating as far back as Tubman’s, have not taken this seriously and many have opposed it. We have, however, always argued that so long as Liberians continue to be sidelined in business, so long will we remain poor in our own rich country.
Let us all, therefore, Liberians themselves and their government, do everything possible to encourage our people to go into and stay in business. This will be the basis not only of our economic success and prosperity, but more importantly, our peace.