Monrovia - Businessman Amin Modad is taking a major risk on Liberia. But one he hopes will pay off in the long run.
The Bella Cassa Hotel owner is on the verge of modern history with a major beverage production company that promises to not just create jobs but also introduced locally-produced resources to the world. It is an initiative he says will only work if embraced by Liberia.
In this exclusive interview, Mr. Modad tells FrontPageAfrica how the project came to fruition, his expectations and challenges he hopes will shed a positive light on Liberia’s investment climate.
FPA: You have invested US$1.2 million in a beverage production plant here in Liberia – huge investment – how did the vision come about?
Atlantic Foods Company is a 100% Liberian owned investment. Our primary objective is to add value to domestic grown or produced foods.
Our initial focus is on producing healthy quality beverages for domestic consumption as well as export.
The plant is all modern and automated, utilizing state-of-the art machines for the full operation of the plant from producing our own bottles to filling and labeling.
The entire process begins with a five-stage water purification system to ensure quality and to meet international standards:
- Quartz Sand Filtering
- Active Carbon Filtering
- Precision Filtering
- Reverse Osmosis
- Ultra Violet Sterilization
The juice production also goes through stringent processing that includes homogenization and pasteurization.
The desire to develop a beverage plant really evolved from a number of goals and some moral obligations.
From a business perspective, it is diversification venture from my investments in hospitality and real estate. However, I wholeheartedly believe that the investment would be great for the country.
Coming from a trade development background, I believe that one of the most inhibiting factors affecting our sustainable growth and ability to decentralize wealth creation is the fact that Liberia is still a net importer, the economy is not really supported by our exports, and Liberian entrepreneurship (as it relates to our influence in the economy) is still not where it must be.
We have not been able to turn the table around where we are able to produce our necessities and competitively tilt our balance of trade.
We've been focused on our traditional more volatile exports of unprocessed rubber, iron ore, and timber without effectively exploiting our comparative advantages. Just imagine, as fertile and available our land is (in terms of per capita), we are still importing rice, processed edible oil, other processed foods, juices, and even bottled water. And yet, our people continue to live impoverished.
I really believe the key to economic growth and sustainability is trade…but trade that is hinged upon Liberian entrepreneurship and investments in manufacturing …beginning with food production.
I’ve been also concerned about the unhealthy ways food and agricultural produce are transported, packaged, stored, and consumed. Our entire population is at risk. That includes my children, yours, and our families.
Go to the Red Light and see how the food our people eat daily are dumped on dirt floors, washed with any kind of water, and processed without proper sanitary measures.
Not only does this pose continued health issues in our communities, these unsanitary practices are barriers for our farmers and producers to take advantage of market opportunities. To export products to other markets, our goods must meet acceptable standards.
It’s no myth or rocket science that cleans healthy food is essential to preserve healthy living and a key requirement for socio-economic growth. A great number of our populations (our children) do not have access to adequate clean drinking water.
This exposes a bulk of the population to poor quality bacteria and virus invested water that are exponentially fostering the spread of diseases (hence, high mortality rate).
I also need not theorize the fact that such a plant will create jobs, provide professional training opportunities, and stimulate agriculture by creating market access and incentives for farmers to produce more of the needed fruits.
Thus, it is my dream that our products, water, juices, and ultimately other essential foods such as Palm oil and Processed Foods, would foster self-sufficiency, support healthier lifestyles, and boost economic activities.
FPA: In terms of production and value adding, what difference are you bringing to the local market?
Firstly, the company is 100% Liberian owned. Our products are for Liberians and by Liberians. In addition to bottled mineral water, the products we intend to produce are healthy alternatives to what we already favor traditionally.
While we will be starting with concentrates of 60% real fruit contents, we will build the capacity of local producers to supply all our inputs for the beverages and packaged foods. You just can’t beat the local freshness.
Our juice brand DAYBREAK, as the name implies, will provide affordable nutritional start for students, kids, and everybody else anytime of the day.
Our bottled Red Palm Oil and packaged traditional ingredients such as cassava leaves, potato greens, bitter balls, smoked chicken, dried fish, etc, will bring our traditional flavors to the people in more healthy and hygienic ways.
For me, the sky will be the limit once our people embrace our investment and support us.
I must say this because it is very important, my business strategy and model does not eliminate the market women and retailers; in fact, we intend to empower them to be ambassadors of our brand and products.
For example, we will save them the time, resources, and risks involved in purchasing crude red oil from the interior, transporting them under hazardous conditions, and manually bottling them in used plastic bottles for few cents profit; we will supply them properly bottled and labeled products at negligible differences in cost.
FPA: What’s your daily production capacity going to be like. Are you prepared to meet up with the demands?
We are looking to start with a daily capacity of up to 36,000 bottles.
The market will determine how we increase production. But, we’ll have the capacity of increasing to 48,000 bottles daily (in the shortest term) and even higher as business improves.
FPA: Do you have a specific targeted market?
We are targeting everyone. Some products such as the Bubble Berry will specifically target kids while others like the Ginger Beer is already a traditional beverage in Liberia and the Sub-region.
The various flavors were strategically selected through sample testing. I believe with the nutritional values, freshness, and affordability, our products will certainly be better alternatives to imported beverages and sodas. We will open distribution points in every major city and aim to make our products the beverage of choice for the people.
FPA: Can you name of the products or brands you’ll be putting out on the market?
We are starting with Bottled Mineral Water, Juices (Orange, Citrus Ginger, Ginger Beer, Mango, and Bubble Berry), Health Drinks such as Moringa Tea, Bottled Red Oil, and other Packaged Foods.
FPA: Our local market is dominated by important goods, some of which are of course very cheap because of low quality, how do you intend dealing with an already flooded market?
That’s a very good question. We will aggressively fight for market dominance.
I guarantee that we will supply the market with affordably and quality products comparable to the best you’ll find imported and better than most of those that are on the market without any quality references and substantiation.
As we do our part, we will seek the support of the Government to afford us the leverage we need to succeed and compete with our foreign counterparts who dominate the import arena. I remember in April 2015, Pres. Sirleaf launched the FABRA Rice Processing project which we are all proud of.
She lamented the fact that was still focused on the traditional exports and encouraged Liberian to venture in manufacturing and food production.
She challenged us and specifically pointed to fruit juices. I heard and I responded. The onus is on the Government to protect such an investment (especially in its infant stage) that has dared to start during such trying period.
Taking the net social benefits of the venture into consideration, it should be appreciated that this will positively impact the society and support the country’s poverty reduction goals.
Surrounding communities and the economy in general would benefit in a number of direct and indirect ways; these include job creation, positive effect on Liberia’s balance of trade, reduced mortality rate, improved health (access to clean drinking water and nutritious fluids), advancement in Liberian entrepreneurship, and creation of a new value chain that other Liberian enterprises could benefit from (such as retail outlets, transportation, etc).
I believe 10 more FABRA and Atlantic Foods Company will have greater long term socio-economic impact than 50 more import conglomerates.
FPA: In terms of job creation, how many jobs will this plant be able to produce for Liberians?
We will employ Liberians at every level of the corporate structure; at least 60 persons directly and 100s indirectly.
Just imagine the ripple effect this will have in the surrounding communities.
Such an agricultural related project will provide livelihood for farmers, farm helps, other skilled workers and service providers such as truckers and loaders.
But Henry, it goes beyond just employment, Liberians will immensely benefit from the training opportunities and the transfer of knowledge. Liberians will be trained in mechanical repairs and the operations of the relevant plant equipment, sales and distribution, lab technology, and many other related fields.
FPA: How challenging has it been to reach to where you are today, taking into consideration the challenges faced by local business people who strive to grow as a result of Government bureaucracy and huge foreigners influence on the Country market sector?
It has been very challenging. However, I don't take exception to it because it is the same environment all of us have to thrive in.
Throughout my life I’ve responded to challenges with even greater resolve to succeed. And, I’ve learnt that when everything is so good, there wouldn't be room for ingenuity and opportunities.
Let us be realistic, Government bureaucracies will always be there. The issues of taxes, bottlenecks, corruption, and the general declining business climate are real and continue to affect all of us.
Equally so, the Government does need taxes to fulfill its responsibilities to the people. What I’m most concerned about is the timing, improper planning, and insensitive methods most often employed.
Ordinary people are really suffering; when we develop and implement actions precipitately such as increasing taxes and administrative fees, it is the ordinary people, the children and elderly, who suffer the most and are compelled to make the most compromises for survival.
The burden on the importers stops at the point where they increase the prices of their goods to maintain their profit margins.
These costs are transferred to the public. Truthfully, we up here (including most government officials) do not feel the pinch as must as the majority of the people.
There are some external factors that are affecting the economic decline and the urgency government has to raise revenue.
However, the signs were evident long ago and I don't believe most agencies did what they should have done to circumvent the anticipated decline.
I also don't believe that undue pressure on the already bleating and agitated business community, without those incentives to thrive (especially for Liberian entrepreneurs) does any good.
The strategy should be - increasing the number of profitable small and medium Liberian businesses; improving government’s revenue will lie in the number of tax paying Liberians.
At the end of the day, considering all the other barriers to doing business in Liberia (limited access to adequate financing, high costs of power, inefficient transportation, etc), only the large foreign businesses can survive.
It is also a fact that while much has been done in developing good policies (such as the trade, agriculture, and industrial policies), we’ve done poorly in implementing them to stimulate Liberian entrepreneurship in critical sectors such as manufacturing and food production.
Yet, these are the sectors that have the most potential of improving the economic indicators that are declining (such as the value of our currency, employment rate, capital flight, trade deficits, and deficits in our national budget).
Regarding foreign influences on the economy, we've got no one else to blame but ourselves. Foreigners (regardless of origin) naturally fill the voids citizens create by not standing together and venturing into critical sectors and fields. I believe that foreign businesses or investments are essential for any economy.
On the other hand, the Government must afford Liberians who try to invest the incentives and playing field to compete with our foreign counterparts.
Liberians must be positioned to take control of key sectors because we have real vested interests in the long term growth of the economy and society.
Look what happened to the emerging oil sector, Liberian entrepreneurs were sidelined and most of the blocks were awarded to foreign firms.
Yes, I do anticipate a serious struggle with importers of juices and water or any other food products they we get into producing. They are not only foreign importers, there are Liberians involved in importation too. That doesn't mean we need to stop trying.
They will naturally employ every strategy (including dropping their prices) to impede a local company’s ability to gain a profitable market share; they can afford to.
Don't forget the large importers also have more efficient distribution channels and logistics. I know many Liberian’s such as Monie Captan, Mai Urey, and Elias Saleeby, who ventured into manufacturing or food processing. They were fought and in some cases pushed out because they could not compete.
The advantages the importers have are just insurmountable. Just to name a few, the costs of production in countries where their products are being imported are far less than in Liberia (look at power and water supply); most agricultural based countries provide subsidies that are not available here for our farmers.
But again, I’m ready for the challenges.
We will do our part to ensure that we can supply the market; we will reach out to the Government for the support and protection we need; we will appeal to our people to embrace our products and appreciate our investment.
FPA: Do you have the train human resource capacity to run the production plant if yes are they Liberians?
Yes, we do and recruitment is ongoing. We’ve tried to ensure that all positions are filled by competent Liberians.
Unfortunately these machines require specific experiences, education, and training. For those areas where we cannot find Liberian expertise, we will have to bring in foreign professionals to start and train our brothers and sisters.
As of today, we’ve only brought in the engineers needed to assemble the plant equipment.