Last week Friday, I climbed up the narrow almost dark stairway to the sixth floor office of the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Company on 11th Charlotte Street, in downtown Freetown. (Where SLPP’s former education minister, Dr. Alpha Wurie, and current SLPP Chairman, John Benjamin, used to have their private company offices).
Two of the open-door outer offices seen from the corridor with black marble tiles were unoccupied. I pounded on the closed white-painted doors. A dignified ‘Kenema-looking man’ (don’t ask me what a ‘Bonthe Man’ or ‘Koinadugu Man’ looks like) in subdued-coloured well-below-the-knee traditional Nigerian-cut top, with same coloured trousers, greeted me with that ‘Islamic dignity’ which typifies ‘Kenema’s Islamic elite’; and in silence walked me to the Secretary’s office; and the Secretary, after I had introduced myself, almost hurriedly ushered me to the office of the Managing Director of the SLPMC, Henry Yamba Kamara. I joked that the location of his office, without a lift, was ‘discriminatory against over-50s’. He smiled uneasily at that. (He appeared embarrassed when in the middle of our interview the electricity from the national grid switched off; and, all efforts to get electricity from the SLPMC’s generator failed. He showed concerned as I had to leave his office and walked on the stairway that was lit by candles – like it would be 18th Century England).
The symbolisms of the scenario I describe above; the name of the company – “Produce Marketing….”; the emphasis of President Koroma’s government on ‘agriculture’, and his avowed aim of ‘running the country like a business’; the erudition and enthusiasm of the academically-and-professionally-qualified Henry Yamba Kamara (Master of Science in Management and Quality Control, Leicester University Center for Excellence, in 2004; from Liverpool’s John Moore University, a Masters degree in Corporate Governance in 2006; from the world’s No 1 university, Harvard University, a diploma in Practice of Trade and Policy, in 2007; and, currently, a doctorate degree student in International Trade, University of Wales, United Kingdom. From 2000 until he took up his present position a year ago, Henry Yamba Kamara played a pivotal role in the formation and management of the Standards Bureau, the Sierra Leone International Export Promotion Agency; and was Director of Export Development in the trade ministry for several years in the early 2000s); the daunting challenges that Henry Yamba Kamara is enmeshed in (World Bank/IMF ‘trade liberalization’ panacea of the 1980s which many of Africa’s elite would argue when imbibed would be liking committing ‘political and economic hare kare’; the Big Powers-imposed elixir of ‘privatization’ on the poor nations – which was like selling off the prized million dollar jewellery of the family for a few dollars; the deep-seated inferiority complex of most of the Sierra Leonean governing elite that make to see nothing wrong with nearly all the real wealth of the country being taken over by foreigners, or, ‘citizens’ who don’t have a vested interest in the political and social stability of the nation) are too scary a combination of problems for a relatively young man, born in Yonibana, Tonkolili District, on 4th March, 1965. Five Lebanese Families Control 80% of Cocoa Export Market The agriculture ‘experts’ in Sierra Leone tell us that about 60% of our people are farmers– hand-to-mouth poverty-stricken farmers.
The government of President Koroma over the past five years has embarked on a blend of Socialist-type system and Capitalist system–in its Smallholder Commercialization Project; in the government providing billions of Leones of materials and equipment in Agriculture Business Centers (ABCs) to rural farmers who are then grouped into capitalist groups, to transform their subsistence farming into commercialized farming. This is going to take time in staple crops like rice and gari. There have always been commercialized farming in the crops grown for export – cocoa, coffee, etc. “What I learned last week was that about 80% of the export of the valuable cocoa export crop is being controlled by just FIVE Lebanese families (or, families of Lebanese heritage); and that these same family businesses that dominate nearly all the rice importation business in the country”.
When these businesses export the cocoa the foreign currency they earn do not pass through the Sierra Leone banking system. Sierra Leone exports about 18,000 metric tonnes of cocoa a year; and this is valued at between $50 million to $60 million annually. The ‘Lebanese’ exporters of our cocoa are not concerned about the image of the country as to ensure that they export quality cocoa. They just want foreign currency as speedily and easily and as much as possible. They are not even concerned much about expanding the agriculture base for cocoa – “for Sierra Leone’s own percentage of the total global export of cocoa, a crop that is essentially a ‘West African crop’, is a laughable 0.56%”. Ivory Coast, No 1 exporter of cocoa, and Ghana, No 2, make up about 71% of total of 3.5 million tonnes of global export of cocoa. Ghana exports 1,000,000 metric tonnes annually, with an export value of $1.7 billion.
Ivory Coast exports 1.2 million metric tonnes annually. Sierra Leone shares similar ecological situation with Ivory Coast and Ghana, and could near, if not equal, their cocoa production. World Bank’s ‘Liberalization of the Market’ Panacea Some forty years or so ago, when the government-owned and controlled Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB) had a monopoly of the agriculture produce exporting market, Sierra Leone was exporting about 26,000 tonnes of cocoa every year. Then, in the 1980s, acquiescing to the dictates of the World Bank for the liberalization of the market, the monopoly that the SLPMB had over cocoa exports was removed from them. That was how the Lebanese merchants stepped in, and dominated the trade.
The logic that liberalization of the market would always be best for a market, for a product, turned out to be false, in the case of the cocoa and coffee export market in Sierra Leone. “But, it was a ‘Bible’ or ‘Quran’ of the World Bank that the governing elite in Sierra Leone would blindly chant from, and stupidly follow ‘divine’ dictates”. By 1993, the military government of the NPRC put the final nail on the coffin of the SLPMB. Over $10,000,000 of the SLPMB’s assets around the country – vehicles; warehouses; machines, etc. – were left to almost rot.
“The SLPMB was thus put among those ‘government businesses’ that must jump up and dance to another ‘holy song’ of the World Bank and other leading Western-dominated agencies: PRIVATIZATION. President Koroma refused to heed to ‘The Gospel of Privatization” When President Ernest Bai Koroma took up office for his First Term he was too business savvy (and not slavish-minded like his predecessors to blindly take any internationally-prescribed ‘economic medicine’) to realize that something was just not right in just privatizing the SLPMB.
He worked out a plan that involved NOT openly challenging the global economic giants, but, having the appearance of dancing to their tune; and with ‘Sierra Leoneans dancing to Sierra Leonean survival music their heads’ – “To have the SLPMB transformed into the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Company (SLPMC”: with government owning 51% shares; and with options for the private sector to purchase 49% shares. The SLPMC still has to compete with the Lebanese merchants in the cocoa/coffee export businesses that have had a stranglehold on the cocoa export business for almost three decades now.
This is a Herculean task for the SLPMC. The SLPMC has no start-up capital Government has not provided any start-up capital for the SLPMC. The Lebanese have the money. They go to the rural cocoa farmers. They even advance them money on cocoa crop not yet harvested. The SLPMC cannot even tap into a fraction of the 18,000 tonnes of cocoa the Lebanese merchants export yearly. A marketing expert developed a hypothetical scenario for me if the SLPMC wants to export 1,000 metric tonnes of cocoa a year – less than 5% of the 18,000 tonnes that the Lebanese export. So, the 1,000 tonnes would cost between Le8billion to Le9 billion; if each container of 200 bags of cocoa cost Le109 million. The SLPMC does not even have enough money to pay more than three full time staff in its headquarters. The SLPMC is finding it almost impossible to raise money from normal commercial banks.
The NPC is yet to hand over SLPMB assets to the SLPMC The value of the SLPMC’s 51% makes sense only if it can get legal control of the assets of the SLPMB, which is put at over $10,000,000. The National Commission for Privatization (NCP) has yet to hand over the SLPMB assets to the SLPMC. “Without these SLPMB assets, the SLMPC cannot raise money from banks; cannot even build up confidence of private investors to invest in the company”. The MD of SLPMC is not throwing in the towel yet. He is being innovative, with the help of an indigenous finance institution, the Finance Trust Micro Credit Institution, an affiliate of Union Trust Bank, whose majority shareholder, and CEO, is the celebrated Sierra Leonean banker, Sanpha Koroma. The SLPMC has worked out a scheme with the UTB’s affiliate where the bank would loan out about Le15,000,000 to candidates vetted by the SLPMC to purchase sorghum crops – which is being used by the main brewer in the country, Sierra Leone Brewery.
The loans to ‘agents’ of the SLPMC to purchase sorghum can be got without any collateral. Henry Yamba Kamara has hope that with such innovative financing, the SLPMC can take advantage of the ‘Content Law’ of the APC government to finance growers, and buyers, of cassava-produced ‘gari’ (for use in the large flourmill producers of bread, etc); benniseed mix; fruit growers and buyers, to supply the Felix Fruit factory that markets concentrates of mango, pineapple, etc. to Europe. “There are lots of gray areas in the SLPMC conundrum at present that would mean more research to throw light on to stimulate a realistic solution”. (Which this writer will continue to hammer home in succeeding editions).
But, one thing is for sure, Sierra Leoneans have for long being like the proverbial poor man sitting on a throne of gold and diamonds. Sierra Leone epitomize the ‘resource curse’ of too many African countries – a disgraceful paradox of an extremely endowed country in terms of marketable resources, yet, its people largely dirt poor. The Agenda for Prosperity of President Koroma can have meaning when prosperity widespread; when, the disproportionate huge number of the citizenry engaged in agriculture control the ‘huge loaf of agricultural wealth’ not just the ‘crumbs’, as is the case presently.
The SLPMC, and our parliament, and civil society, and private sector, need to do rigorous research, and unleash their imagination to not only stimulate wealth, but, to make wealth egalitarian. “We need to consider raising billions of Leones in capital from ordinary farmers, ordinary teachers, ordinary okada riders and petty traders…to invest in the SLPMC”. President Koroma’s government has created the enabling environment for ‘prosperity’, the onus is on all Sierra Leoneans to take advantage of one of this space created by one of the greatest leaders ever in Africa’s history.
Â© Copyright by Awareness Times
Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.