Sierra Leone is one of the wettest countries in sub-Sahara Africa, with 75% of the land classed as arable land, but only 20% of the land is cultivated, making the country heavily dependent on food import.
Rice and palm oil are the two most popular, daily staple foods consumed by most Sierra Leoneans, with each person consuming an average of one kilo of unprocessed palm oil per month. With such high consumption level, the expectation is for palm oil to be cultivated in industrial scale to meet local demand and export.
But in reality, palm oil is produced largely in Sierra Leone by small plantation owners and family subsistence farmers, using traditional methods. Commercial palm oil farmers seriously lack the technical skills and finance to increase production and meet local demand. Hence, about 50% of palm oil consumed in sierra Leone is imported.
Successive governments have attempted to promote the development and modernisation of agriculture to create job opportunities and meet the country’s food requirements, especially local vegetable oil demand.
The lack of skilled workers, poor access to finance and poor road infrastructure have impeded the achievement of these efforts.
To address the problem of poor access to finance and technical skills, successive governments have focused their industrial development policies towards encouraging and attracting foreign investors to Sierra Leone.
So how did Socfin Agricultural Company get to Sierra Leone and what are they up to?
In 2009, After visiting Socfin’s plantation in Liberia, Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Agriculture officials called on the Socfin – a member of the French group Bolloré, to help develop industrial -scale palm oil plantation in Sierra Leone, so as to reduce dependency on imports and increase export earnings.
Both the government of Sierra Leone and Socfin mutually agreed on a suitable site at Sahn Malen in the Pujehun district, South of Sierra Leone.
A bottom-up consultation process was initiated with all stakeholders: growers, landowners, traditional chiefs, and community leaders. After receiving the formal consent from the majority of local people in the Sahn Malen community, 18 000 hectares was identified for the project, of which only 12 500 hectares would be planted.
An agreement was concluded, which states that certain plots of land surrounding the villages and existing dwellings would be maintained, to enable landowners who do not wish to be involved in the project to keep their land.
Once the project was in place, agricultural works started in 2011: nursery development and gradual replanting of 12,500 hectares of palm plantations. In 2015 the oil mill was constructed, with the aim of becoming the main palm oil supplier on the domestic market and one of the country’s biggest employers.
The cooperation between the government and the Socfin Group enables the introduction of new agricultural techniques, which ensures the implementation of a soil fertilization program, including the introduction of cover crops on depleted soils and agricultural capacity building.
According to Socfin only 60% of its acquired land concession has been utilised, so as to preserve the wetlands – which most likely have significant flora – in order to create high conservation value areas.
But a few local environmental activists are accusing Socfin of land grabbing and for conducting what they refer to as an unethical investment policy in Sierra Leone. There have been several attacks on the company’s property and threats of violence.
A recent strike action by workers was resolved by the government, after a series of meetings with the company representatives and stakeholders, chaired by the country’s vice president Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh.
Socfin Agricultural Company has responded to these accusations by Malen Land Owners Association (MALOA) and other Non-Governmental Organizations such as Green Scenery. But reporters of the Sierra Leone Telegraph were unable to talk to the activists about their concerns.
According to the company, on the 15th March 2014, Green Scenery started a campaign against the company by bringing a delegation of 27 Members of Parliament including the Chip Whip to Sahn-Malen, in an effort to bring the company into disrepute.
But the delegation unanimously agreed that the claims against SAC where without any basis and called on all sides to work together in the interest of the community.
Recent visits to the community by the vice president and the Council of Paramount Chiefs in the country in the wake of an ultimatum given by MALOA to the company, have helped in amicably resolving what was fast becoming an explosive situation.
However, a new threat is now surfacing from another dissident group in the chiefdom known as ‘Tiger group’. The group which is faceless is also demanding urgent action from the government or they will cause havoc within the operational areas of the company. Socfin is calling on the government for protection and intervention.
Sahn Malen was home to an old palm plantation belonging to the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB). When Socfin arrived, the plantation had little commercial value. The trees were over 50 years old.
The local authorities headed by the Paramount Chief expressed interest and willingness to work with an investor to develop the chiefdom and the district as a whole.
The plantation has developed around employing local people from communities to work in the plantation, initially in 2012, and 2013 it was very difficult as the various communities had been compensated for their land.
The company has adopted several measures to protect high conservation value areas by means of implementing a non-planting policy in the swamps – away from villages, creating a green belt around every village, and respecting protected forests.
Since its arrival in Sahn Malen, Socfin has not only increased production of palm oil in Sierra Leone, it has created jobs and invested in a range of community development projects, such as health, education, recreational activities and the local economy.
The company has funded the construction and running of a Community Health Centre and staff quarters, powered by solar electricity. It has recently rehabilitated the source of water supply.
Socfin provides funding for the costs of medical care for workers and families and has recently built a new wing which houses administration office, stores, laboratory and doctors consulting room.
An emergency phone number has been established by the company (099:602000) providing 24hrs access.
Socfin has been instrumental in supporting access to education across the chiefdom. In 2013, the company established a scholarship program to support students in pursuit of their career aspirations.
The Malen Junior Secondary School is the only Junior School in the chiefdom, and in 2013 only attained one pass for a scholarship. The company provides stipends for 9 teachers and 2 security guards, as well paying for the feeding and transportation of students during examination.
The company has funded the rehabilitation of the school and teachers’ accommodation quarters.
Socfin sponsors local sports competitions, inter-school kid clubs, cultural shows, remedial classes for BECE pupils, summer school debates, and world teacher day events.
Local roads network in the chiefdom is second to none, as the company continues to maintain trunk roads within and around the plantations. An example is the Pujehun and Koribundu road. The company is spending over $120,000 on the maintenance of these roads.
“The road network is well established within and outside the concession improving the communication and access between villages, improving access to the towns and health centres,” sources close to the chiefdom authority explain.
“Safety on the roads is prioritized in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority by the placement of road signs, the creation of speed bumps and the development of dust control measures.
The 42 Km of roads rehabilitated by the company between Sahn-Malen and Koribundu, including culverts and 20Km to the south between Malen and Pujehun – including four culverts, continue to attract more businesses into the chiefdom.
Also, telecommunication in the chiefdom has improved immensely and is covering the whole of the chiefdom. The company has engaged Africell to install two antennas (35 meters high).
The chiefdom speaker in Malen Chiefdom – Chief Robert Moiguah, was pleased to talk about the intervention of Socfin in promoying the sustainable development of the chiefdom.
According to the chiefdom speaker, one of the most important initiatives supported by Socfin is the implementation of community programs to ensure food security, through mechanized farming.
Sierra Leone Telegraph: 30 December 2018: