A recent business look of Gbah Town
Madam Ester Karnwhine, mother of five children remembers vividly her life in the past. Then stricken with poverty caused by a devastating civil war fought in Liberia, her life today has taken a dramatic turn. Madam Karnwhine is full of praises for the oil palm plantation industry, which according to her, has changed lives and turned poverty into prosperity.
“I grew up on the plantation when it was called the B.F. Goodrich plantation, which was later turned over to Guthrie Rubber Plantation”, she said with a smiling face, as several residents look on.
According to Ester, life on the plantation was affordable in time past-until the civil unrest in late 1989.Despite several breakthroughs and ceasefire agreements signed; it lapsed into war in 2003.
She feels life got worse after the crisis which shattered the economy and forced many people into exile.
Today, through the oil palm plantation project, Madam Karnwhine is making full use of her C’ certificate earned. She now serves as a teacher in one of 16 schools operated under the plantation project which enables her to put bread on the table and at the same time operate a mini shop in Gbah Jakeh, like many others.
”You know this place played host to several wars-leading to the destruction of human lives and properties. Honestly, we lost everything we ever had, but thank God for the day that Sime Darby came,” said Ms. Karnwhine.
She recognizes the fact that not much land bank has been obtained by the oil palm plantation here in Liberia, but the company is today devoted to lifting the lives of many Liberians, including herself.
Unlike daily wage earners, Madam Karnwhine as a teacher is covered by the entire month while being employed at the company. She makes far better earnings than most people, and shares her dream of becoming an entrepreneur; which led her to open a shop in Gbah Jakeh.
“Sime Darby is here, and more people who work with the company come right here to get purchases, and so, I had to invest into something myself, that is how my business is today being run here,” Ester said jokingly.
Today, stability in activities and people’s lives can be seen in that part of the country, since the plantation company Sime Darby Plantation Liberia Inc (SDPL) took over. Prior to that, there had always been crisis in the area, once run by the Rubber Planters Association of Liberia (RPAL) and later the Interim Management Team.
Acknowledging this recently was Bomi County’s Senior Senator Lahai Lassana, when he said during the Sime Darby Plantation School System’s (SDPSS) secondary school graduation, which was held on July 9, 2012, that SDPL has done a great job in making that part of the country safe and secure while placing emphasis on growth of the investment.
This was clearly evident, in the area, said the Senator with the company employing teachers, nurses, accountants, administrators, engineers, drivers, planters, plant caregivers and securities, a workforce totaling more than 3,700.
Some of these very employees who were the people who instigated fear and trouble in the past; are the same ones today who are helping with rebuilding efforts of their nation and they are now tax payers whose tensions have ceased and burdens lifted.
‘Old-man’ Bondo, an employee of SDPL, explains that he sharpens peck used to mark, demarcate and set lines in areas where new planting takes place.
He tells of a story about how he enjoys doing such a job, which he manages to earn USD 5.51, get medical benefits for him and his dependents, a monthly two bags of rice, housing allowance each month and you name it.
“Before I was employed, I was serving as a contractor and today I am employed,” said Old-man Bondo.
Morris Ballah, tapper turned employee of SDPL, says he sees the project as a blessing in the west of Liberia.
As was mentioned by another interviewee, Mr. Junior Savage a former security turned General Worker at the plantation main yard said; “things are now better with me with the coming of Sime Darby”.
Savage, a former combatant, stressed “I am determined now, to do things for myself. We can’t continue the path of war [hooliganism], because those kinds of way of life destroy human life and properties and so I don’t want to partake in any eventuality”.
He praised the company for the level of betterment to his present life and expressed gratitude for the level of training given to raise his knowledge and expertise.
Oil Palm is a commercially grown crop widely sought by many. Today it is playing a leading role in both emerging and stable markets; with its yields proven to be 11 times more productive than soybean, ten times more than sunflower and seven times more than rapeseed. The crop produces edible Crude Palm Oil (CPO) which is the cheapest and most versatile oil currently available in the world and can be turned into several other products. However, the growing demand for palm oil around the world is today more than just for cooking purposes. A visit to any big supermarket or just a dry goods center, will lead to the discovery of at least half the products in such places contain palm oil; as one of several ingredients.
Known for being “One Tree with Many Uses”, products with palm oil range from confectioneries, creamers, noodles, chocolate substitutes, cosmetics, shampoos, soaps, vitamin E etc.
As one interviewee put it, Sime Darby made the right choice to come and invest in a ‘living-dead-place’, which for several decades was hit by a long period of civil unrest and life of illicit rubber tapping, when rebels used guns to terrorize and instill fear and sometimes unwholesomeness.
As is being witnessed today, the Bomi and Cape Mount regions under Sime Darby’ concession are beginning to see light, after the 2009 takeover by SDPL, on remnants of the Guthrie plantation that remained. .
Subsequently came the first planting of oil palm on May 19, 2010, which was symbolically done by Liberia’s Vice President, Joseph N. Boakai, an action some pundits have said led to one estate (Matambo-3, 000 ha) already completed by the multinational company.
The SDPL management says it pays USD 5.51 as daily wage, medical benefits, education and in addition gives out two bags of rice to employees for a month, as well as monthly rent fees, things we verified with the workers themselves.
The company is still in the infancy stages of the investment. Oil palm seedlings have to be put on nursery for 12 months at which time they are transplanted in the fields; thereby, spending 36 months (three years) before maturity and fruiting of palm bunches known as Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB).
When he was quizzed on economic activities in Gbah Jakeh Town, Tamba Sheriff, a gas peddler in the area, who is also a secondary school11 Grader said “my living condition here is good now, because I get benefits from the company [to my business].”
For him being a resident of Gbah Jakeh Town, Senjeh District, Bomi County was nothing cherished in 2006, but the coming of SDPL brought additional value.
“You know, back then; Gbah Jakeh was a dark town with less people, but now, you see lots of people moving in, whereas more homes are being built alongside businesses and shopping areas, these are things lighting up this area,” states Tamba.
Accounting for his commercially sold gas, Tamba said; his business is now growing in sales, and where he used to sell 5-10 gallons a day, he now sells 25-30 gallons, and sometimes far more on Monday’s which is that area’s market day.
Remembering, Tamba hurriedly said his father is within the employment of Sime Darby, benefitting members of his family with not just salary, but also a monthly two bags of rice including educational benefits, rent fees and you name it.