When President Ernest Bai Koroma assumed office in 2007, he rolled out his developmental blueprint called “Agenda for Change.” One of the key pillars of that agenda was agriculture and the ruling All Peoples Congress [APC] quickly moved into action, acquiring tractors and embarking on nationwide mechanised farming.
This effort has been complimented by multi-national agricultural companies that have joined the fray, investing in bio-fuel as well as food crop production. There is ADDAX Bio Energy in the northern district of Bombali, engaged in ethanol production and also SOCFIN Agricultural Company in the southern district of Pujehun, doing palm oil cultivation.
It is particularly the capital-intensive investment of SOCFIN, in the opposition heartland of Pujehun that is most striking. The Belgian-owned company, which started effective operations in Sierra Leone in 2011, has commenced the cultivation of 7,000 hectares of palm oil plantation with the ultimate goal of hitting its projected target of 12,000 hectares.
While the nursing of palm trees is underway, the company has embarked on the construction of a US$ 25 Million palm oil mill, in the Sahn Malen chiefdom in Pujehun, the operational site of SOCFIN. Projected to be completed in a year, the mill is expected to be the biggest in all of Africa and one of the largest in the world.
Once the mill starts operation, Sierra Leone will no longer have need for imported edible oil. Reports say the country currently spends about $US 150 Million annually on importation of edible oil. SOCFIN is expected to produce enough oil for local consumption as well as for export purposes.
With the influx of multi-national companies, both in the extractive industry and the agricultural sector, there has been no let up in the negative campaign waged by so-called environmental and rights activists. There have been claims of land grabbing, environmental degradation and neglect of corporate social responsibility.
These have often led to confrontations between mining companies, backed by the police and locals in the host communities. Fatalities have been recorded in some cases. However, SOCFIN seems to be clearly making a difference, especially in the area of meeting its corporate social responsibility.
The company has constructed the dilapidated and rickety 42 kilometre road, from Koribondo to Sahn Malen and also a 31 kilometre road stretch within Malen chiefdom itself.
The Paramount Chief of Sahn Malen chiefdom, Brima VS Kebbie who doubles as a Member of Parliament, could not hide his feeling of appreciation and joy when he spoke to this writer: “We requested SOCFIN to come in and help our community. Talks about land-grabbing and exploitation are preposterous. In fact, the company has done our roads, which have been long neglected, built schools, created employment for our people and most amazingly, provided us with electricity, something we never dreamt of. They also pay local taxes for all adult residents of the chiefdom as well as awarding scholarships to deserving school pupils”
Land-owners said they were not coerced into giving out their lands. Emmanuel Kuyateh said he and his family willingly leased out their land to SOCFIN for 50 years and that they are satisfied with the deal. ”We are happy today because we are seeing development coming to our community. After all, our lands were a waste and a habitat for dangerous animals. We just can’t utilise the land so SOCFIN is a blessing,” he lamented.
In reply to critics who claim land-grabbing and taking away of land from subsistence farmers and leaving them hungry, impoverished and desolate, the company has planted rice covering a vast and sprawling acreage of land, for the community people. When harvested, the yield is expected to feed the entire Sahn Malen chiefdom and surrounding villages and towns.
Recent attempts by opposition politicians to undermine the activities of the company have been thwarted by the community people themselves. The former SLPP Member of Parliament from the area, Siaka Musa Samai was most vociferous, inciting the people to rise up against the company. But locals say they support the SOCFIN investment and credit the government of President Koroma for taking such a massive agricultural investment to their community.
By Lans Fofana