By Lansana Fofanah.
As the Agricultural sector continues to boost the economy of Sierra Leone, key investors in that sector under the Commercial Agriculture Producers and Processors Association (CAAPA) met with government officials over the weekend to discuss their immense contributions in the job sector, investment and how they could have a working relationship with the New Direction Administration.
Chief Executive Officers and top management from Socfin Agricultural Company (SAC), Sunbird Bioenergy formerly known as Addax, MIRO Forestry, Ned Oil Natural Habitat, DOLE, Sierra Agra, Sierra Tropical Limited, took this initiative in order for government to have a good knowledge about their operations and activities and for them to be seen as partners in development.
Recently, the team visited His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio at State House where they expressed their willingness to invest in the agricultural sector under the foreign direct investment scheme and also called on government for more cordiality.
Addressing the guests, the Deputy Minister of Technical and Higher Education Dr. Turad Senessie and the Executive Representative and Ambassador of CAAPA, Amarr Kamara said that these companies continue to create great impact in the economy of Sierra Leone and therefore more can be achieved if they work in close partnership with Ministries, Departments and Agencies to create a win-win situation.
He said that such a meeting that brings together the movers and shakers of the economy was vital in bridging the gap between investors and the Government in renewing more confidence and creating more opportunities.
The Chairman of CAPPA who doubles as the General Manager of Socfin, Philip Tonks said that the investment of CAPPA members amounts to Eight Hundred Million Dollars when put together and their meeting with the Ministry of Technical and Higher Education was meant to encourage the Government to produce more graduates that will be employable in the agriculture sector, as most of the graduates don’t have the requisite knowledge to be employed by them.
Mr. Tonks said that most of their cooperate social responsibilities are directed to building primary schools within their operational areas
George Gatterick from MIRO Forestry said that government should introduce courses in higher learning institutions that are related to their demands so that with basic skills, they will be able to learn on- the- job training.
Responding, the Deputy Minister Dr. Turad Senessie welcomed the move as it will help Government institutions to tailor their courses in line with the demand of employers. He encouraged them not to stop such discussions on the table alone, but to implement them for a better result.
Dr. Senessie called on the investors not to limit their sponsorships to primary education, but to spread it to the immediate employees who will be leaving universities and other higher institutions and if they are not equipped with the requisite equipment and laboratories experiences, there will still be job and requirement gaps. “I encourage you all to capacitate institutions near your operational centers as this will bring sense of ownership and belonging. We are working on holistic policies to determine pathways for tertiary and vocational institutions in Sierra Leone as they should not just be limited to gara tie dying or soap making, but to be able to produce graduates that will be employed by your companies,” he said.
The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Technical and Higher Education, Gilbert Copper said that the unbundling of the Ministry from that of Basic and Secondary School was the wisest decision by the New Direction as it seeks to pay more attention to tertiary learning.
He called on the investors to submit their job specifications within the next three to four years so that courses will be introduced in line with their needs. He encouraged them to extend internship periods to students in their companies so that they can learn enough practical skills instead of a limited period of two to three months.
Meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture officials, Mr. Tonks explained that it will take time for each of the companies to start thinking of realizing profits. “Economics work on confidence. None of us here has started making profits out of our investments. If current investors are happy, they will be the spokespersons for the government and the country,” he emphasized.
He called on the government to look into challenges like land issues with community people, non-applicability of regulations at the Sea port, non-applicability of tax exemption laws that are seriously hindering their operations.
Patrick Blake outlined some of the challenges; namely the three weeks or more delay in clearing of seedlings and other equipment at the sea-port and the exporting of his products as impediment for his company that produces pineapple, orange and mango juices for export. “I will be shipping my products to Walmart and if there is any delay on my part, my company’s credibility will be at stake,” he noted. The delegation called on the government to look into power supply in their areas of operations, as running an industry with generators is expensive. Tax exemption for the importation of agricultural equipment and machines was another issue raised by the investors as this exemption is accorded to only few sets of companies which is contrary to the law.
Rajiv Bali, CEO of Sunbird Bio Energy said that for countless times, sensitizations have been done to community people not to burn the bushes as elephant grasses are also another power generating source, but those appeals fell on deaf ears as the practice continues unabated.
Responding on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture, the Deputy Minister, Sam king Brima thanked the investors for investing over Eight Hundred Million Dollars in agriculture and their effort in creating jobs for Sierra Leoneans which has helped reduce some burden on government. He said that all the concerns raised are solvable as President Julius Maada Bio has admonished them to work in collaboration with other line Ministries. “We should have a uniform treatment for every investor across the agriculture sector. One should not benefit from a duty waiver for particular farm tools, while others are asked to pay. Our government is committed to every word we say and our aim is to allay the fears of investors in this country as the private sector has lots of impact on our economy,” he stressed.
On the issue of land tussle, Mr. Brima, said that Government is working on a plan that will put an end to disturbances, adding that the fees for land lease will be increased in order to lay the long cry of under-payment by land owners to rest.
Mr. Tonks also pleaded that the current status of the sharing of proceeds from lands would also be looked into. “We know that fifty percent of a land proceeds goes to the owner and the balance to stakeholders which I believe needs some consideration,” he said.
Steven Ngaoja of Sierra Agra suggested that since they have Mr. Amarr Kamara as their middle-man between them and other entities, the Ministry of Agriculture should also suggest another person that would be their easy point of contact through whom their concerns will be directed. This was also agreed by the Ministry and Mr. Jack Jalloh, Head of Technical Advisory and Resource Mobilization was appointed to undertake that responsibility.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, CAPPA Members registered their concerns to the Executive Chairman; Foday Moriba Jaward over the high cost of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which they say didn’t favor their status. According to them they should not be placed in the same category with Mining as it has greater Environmental Impact than agriculture. They say that other countries like Nigeria charges $12,000 Dollars per annum, while Sierra Leone pays $71,000 which is five times higher when compared to other countries. Professor Jaward responded that it is a concern he is also looking into, but being incorporated by an Act of Parliament, they are working on protocols through the Attorney General’s Office to table the Act in Parliament for amendments, but that notwithstanding , most of the companies who met the EPA safety standards have realized some drastic reduction.
Dr. Jaward commended Socfin and Gold Tree for their safety and environmental maintenance which other companies should emulate.
Addressing EIA payment plans, Dr. Jaward said that when he took over, there was low level of compliance since some companies cannot afford to pay in bulk their EIA fees. He therefore instituted a mechanism that now see payments being divided in three folds; fifty percent, thirty percent and twenty percent which has led to a total compliance level. “The New Direction is here to encourage investors and whatever concern you raise, we will do everything humanely possible to address them. We know you can’t operate without having any impact on the environment, but what is necessary is to mitigate it. Our children should not grow to ask us questions we cannot afford to answer concerning the environment,” he said.