Liberia’s Lone Rubber Processor Sets Sight on Manufacturing
Bomi County – Four years ago, James E. Cooper embarked on revolutionizing Liberia’s lucrative rubber sector – moving away from selling to foreign concessions to processing cup-lump cultivated from his farm for export to Asia and the United States.
Report By: Alpha Daffae Senkpeni / [email protected]
Now, his sight is set on value addition despite the insistent distractions spurting from political and economic uncertainties in the country.
As the Chief Executive Officer of the Cooper Rubber Farm in Bomi County, many industry observers perceive him as a tenacious game changer – the kind that is making several international rubber companies in the country edgy.
The former California Police officer returned to Liberia in 2005 after over three decades in the diaspora. His first task was to revive the over 400 acres of rubber farm he inherited from his parents. Illicit tappers had slaughter-tapped almost all the trees, ravaging the farm but he was keen on resuscitating it.
His second task was to nurture what is now a beaming relationship with local farmers across the country. He now buys raw rubber from farmers in 11 counties including Bomi, Nimba, Bong, Margibi, and Grand Cape Mount Counties.
“Part of our relationship is that we provide option – we are the only Liberian rubber processor who is buying, processing and exporting at international standard,” he explains.
By 2012 he began replanting up to 100 acres per year and at the end of 2014, several hundreds of new trees were already replanted. Now, he is also planting Maringa – dubbed the tree of life due to its medicinal content -, oil palm and at the same time intercropping with cocoa.
His farm has employed approximately 150 persons – 25 percent women. He says he places key interest on empowering women.
When major concession companies froze the purchase of rubber products of local farmers in 2017 due to uncertainties on the global market, the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning turned to Cooper Farm to fill the void.
That plan included a US$1 million non-interest loan to upgrade his processing facility and augment his purchasing power.
Before that, Cooper had successfully obtained a US$1.3 million loan from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) through the Liberian Enterprise Development and Finance and Finance Company (LEDFC). It was a loan with an 18% interest rate.
OPIC is a United States government’s development finance institution that mobilizes private capital to help solve critical development challenges across developing countries.
Inside his processing plant, several high tech equipment are neatly position across the production floor. Two female employees careful arrange pieces of processed rubber along the production chain. Vapor teems from the wood-fuel dryer to aerate coagulated crude rubber stockpiled on several bunkers.
On the other side of the production line, four men packaged loads of brownish processed rubber wrapped in transparent plastics. Thirty-six bales are loaded on a single wooden pallet, and 16 pallets are being loaded into a 20 ft. container, ready to be loaded on a truck and transported to the Freeport of Monrovia for export.
It’s a production installation any Liberian entrepreneur would savor based on the competition it poses to bigger firms in a small economy like Liberia’s.
But Cooper wants more. He wants to turn processed rubber into finished products for export. He wants to begin with the manufacturing of re-treaded tires, gloves and other products.
“All of the crops that we have planted are crops that once they have grown we can do manufacturing. The whole thought process here is to create manufacturing opportunities, sales and exports with the various crops that we have here,” he explains.
Cooper is optimistic that because Liberia produces and exports the highest quality of rubber, it must now transition into value addition – a means of diversifying the economy.
“We are not inventing the wheel, we are simply doing the same thing – pardoning it after those that have successfully built their manufacturing and middle class in their country in the same way here in Liberia,” he picks his words carefully, trying not to sound as an opposition to foreign direct investors.
“We are not saying that we should dishonor the concession agreement [with multinational firms]; what we are saying is that Liberians need jobs, our economy needs revenue – we need to plan for our children and grandchildren’s future.”
He says when the factory is up and running it will create more jobs, raise more revenue for the country and widen the rubber ecosystem.
An initial 250 person would be hired, and hundreds of additional indirect jobs would be created through the purchase of old tires from across the country.
“We will take these tires, re-tread them here, put a tread on them that is safe, competitive in price and we can clean up the environment off all these old tires and at the same time create jobs,” he said.
“Anything that comes from out of there will be re-used and produced into several other rubber products including rubber hoses, gaskets, bumpers, mats, slippers and other rubber products.”
As much as his venture sounds ambitious and new to the country, Cooper is showing no glumness. He is already luring foreign expertise and investors to nurture his plan.
But this would cost him a whooping US$7.5 million to leap into the future of Liberia’s rubber sector, he says.
Cooper is pretty aware that being revolutionary comes with a price. His thoughts are already ruffling the feathers of several multinational rubber plantations that have failed to move into value-addition despite staying in the country for decades.
“Big concessions have failed. Big concessions in the country have shown the world that Liberia has quality raw rubber but they have failed to add value but they rather opt to supply and sustain their industries in their country,” he says bluntly.
Liberia’s Commerce Minister Professor Wilson Tarpeh toured Cooper’s Farm couple weeks ago, assuring that government is looking to step in.
Cooper says his fingers are still crossed as he also seeks investors from overseas.
He’s engaging several Asian manufacturers, pitching a plan about the tremendous potential of expanding the rubber sector – which is one of Liberia’s primary exports and revenue generating sector.
“We are telling them to not just come and take our raw product [we are telling them] come partner with us and open manufacturing plants here in partnership with Liberian processors. We want them to do skills and knowledge transfers so that in the long run we can take control of our economy.”
“We don’t have to apologize for that, we need to know that our people are suffering economically and the government needs the revenue… this is how we build our economy and a country for our children and grandchildren.”
The Government of President George Weah has declared its support for Liberian business, something Cooper relishes but with some dubieties.
“Liberian business should be the core, and primary focus, that’s what other countries do; they don’t support foreign business at the detriment of their locally owned businesses, ” he said, while stressing that his business module is in sync with the government’s pro-poor agenda that focuses on “job creation and a Liberian-driven manufacturing”.
“So that’s why it makes so much sense for the government to assist and come along and work with us because they [the government] can’t employ all the people that need jobs.”