The oil palm producers in Liberia, notably Malaysia’s Golden Veroleum and Sime Darby, are saying the same thing Harvey Firestone said in 1926, when he established his rubber plantation in Liberia.
Mr. Firestone said at the time that Liberia was the best place on earth to grow natural rubber. The reasons were its climate, rainfall and rich soils, which were abundant enough for successful rubber growing.
This is the exact same thing the Malaysian oil palm companies are saying today—that Liberia is one of the best places on earth to grow oil palm. Liberian soil, climate and abundant rainfall make the country ideal for tree crops, especially rubber and oil palm.
Sure enough, the Firestone Rubber Plantations Company (FPRC) became one of the most highly successful agricultural enterprises in the world. As Liberia’s first major concession, Firestone created thousands of jobs for Liberians and Americans. It further went on to make billions of United States dollars, especially during the Second World War, 1939-1945, the Korean and Vietnam Wars of the 1950s and 1960s through the mid-70s.
But what was most unfortunate, even pathetic, about this highly profitable investment –which made the Firestone family permanently rich – is that the company has, for over 90 years – 10 years shy of a century – consistently refused to add a single value to the rubber it produces in Liberia. The company, during this entire period, has shipped from Liberia to Akron, Ohio – Firestone’s headquarters – and to world markets, latex, block rubber and smoked sheets. This pure raw material is then converted into manufactured products, notably rubber tires for army jeeps, planes, trucks and tanks, and other automobiles like commercial and other aircrafts, and rubber-based warfare materials like gloves and gasmasks, and items for hospitals, laboratories and industries.
And we in poor Liberia, having produced all this rubber, trillions of tons of it, cannot yet, after nearly a century, make a single rubber band!
It must be said, however, that Firestone could not have accomplished this rabid exploitation without the blind, unpatriotic complicity of Liberia’s officials. How did this happen?
Firestone has over the decades, since the late 1920s, also made many Liberian officials rich, including President C.D.B. King, during whose administration the company came. King planted his rubber farm in Careysburg, while his Interior Secretary, James (Jimmy) Francis Cooper, developed his own plantation at Cooper Farm on the Kakata Highway. Scores of other officials, including the Coopers and Dennises, Tubmans, Tolberts and Shermans, as well as many private individuals, including R.S.S. Bright, and so many others, became very rich. The rubber magnate, Harry L. Morris, the largest rubber planter of them all, planted his farm in Todee, Montserrado County. These farms were planted mostly in the center of Liberia’s rubber belt, Montserrado, Margibi, Bong, Nimba and Maryland counties.
The Liberian government never bothered to demand that Firestone add value to Liberian rubber, but allowed the company to export all of its – and the Liberian planters’ – rubber purely as raw material.
LET THIS NOT HAPPEN TO LIBERIA’S OIL PALM.
Commerce and Industry Deputy Minister Ellen Pratt, in a highly patriotic tone, recently told a reporter, “If only 25 percent of concessionary land were planted, oil palm exports could equal iron ore exports.”
Should this be true, it would be wonderful news! It would mean that soon the Liberian economy could bounce back from the steep slump it suffered when iron ore and rubber world prices plunged two years ago. These two commodities have comprised the lion’s share of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings.
We remember vividly when these two companies, GVL and Sime Darby, at the onset of their investments in Liberia, pledged that they would create value-added products from the palm oil they produced in Liberia. They promised to manufacture processed cooking oils, Vaseline and other cosmetics products.
What Commerce Deputy Minister Ellen Pratt, her boss, Minister Axel Addy, Finance Minister Boima Kamara and Central Bank Governor Milton Weeks should now do is to find out, through research, what value added products can be manufactured from palm oil. The places to begin are Malaysia and Indonesia, the two leading producers of oil palm-manufactured products. The question is: what besides edible oils can be manufactured from oil palm?
There is the huge cosmetics industry. A young Liberian entrepreneur, Mahmud Johnson is making waves locally with his Kernel Fresh body lotion, made from palm kernel oil. And there are in New York City two young Liberian entrepreneurs, M. Richelieu Dennis and Nyemah Tubman, who own and run a multimillion dollar cosmetics manufacturing enterprise. We suggest that they should be immediately contacted and invited to invest in this highly lucrative industry, teaming up, possibly, with the oil palm producers and others.
There is yet another young Liberian woman who established a successful cosmetics industry in the USA. She is Ms. Maisie Dunbar, CEO of Bluffajo Cosmetics, who last week launched the brand in Liberia. She should be immediately contacted and encouraged.
The abovementioned officials, beginning with Ellen Pratt, should go find these Liberian entrepreneurs and tell them the good news of oil palm’s vast potential that could help transform the Liberian economy.
Are our presidential candidates taking note? What plans do they have to correct our 90-year mistake and ensure that it never happens again?