Lebanese Nationals Reportedly Gain Monopoly over Export of Liberia’s Cocoa
MONROVIA – Liberia’s cocoa sector is conflicted; the local exporters are unhappy. New policies being introduced by government is not going down well with them. They are dismayed by plans to monopolize the sector – especially, turning it over to a Lebanese-owned firm.
The cocoa sector, according to reports, has over 30,000 smallholder cocoa farmers and if monopolized, it will destroy the investments made in the sector over the last decade by smallholders, cooperatives, the Government of Liberia and the international donor communities.
The plan to monopolize the sector was announced by the Deputy Director General for Technical Services at the Liberia Agricultural Commodity Regulatory (LACRA), Musa Konneh.
He told the Liberia News Agency in April this year that when LACRA came into effect a year ago, there were 17 exporters of cocoa; but that number was reduced to nine and now the government itself might step in to secure a competent firm to do so on it behalf.
He said Liberia sadly exports between 15 to 20 thousand metric tons annually worth around US$50 million despite having the same climatic and topographic conditions as neighboring Cote d’Ivoire which is the world’s biggest exporter of cocoa.
According to him, the Authority is confident that export aggregate of cocoa in Liberia can be pushed up to 60 thousand metric tons per annum in the next two years with sight on US$160 million market value “because a lot of people now have interest in growing the cash crop.”
He added that the monopoly would only be granted through a competitive bidding process in keeping the public procurement concession law.
“This means we will have one exporter in the country and the rest could be agents, who will sell to that exporter. Like that, it will make it easy for our own record system, quality and quantity control of the commodity leaving the country,” said Konneh.
However, the National Liberia Cocoa Exporters Association (NALICEA) raised red flag over the pronouncement to monopolize the sector. According to the president of the association, Sheik Turay, the proposed monopoly would destroy all hope of the revitalization of the cocoa sector and put fear into Liberians, who have invested in cocoa, oil palm and other cash crops.
According to Turay, the Liberia Cocoa market was liberalized to empower ordinary citizens, “but it was in 2008, when only Lebanese were given the opportunity to export cocoa beans from Liberia with the registration fees of US$10,000 per annum, which denied Liberian exporters from participating in the sector.”
NALICEA condemned LACRA’s action, it also called for the timely intervention of President George Weah by denouncing and ensuring that the sinister plan of LACRA to monopolize the sector be aborted.
“We called on the Agriculture and Forestry Committee of the Legislature to rescue their voters by joining us to condemn the plan of LACRA,” Turay said.
The exporters expressed their dissatisfaction and condemned the act of LACRA authorities considering it unpatriotic, diabolical and undermining the development agenda of President Weah.
Lebanese National – Weah’s Interest?
The local importers were optimistic that Pres. Weah would have intervened and overturn LACRA’s decision. Their optimism was based on Pres. Weah’s inaugural promise when he said, “We will do all that is within our power to provide an environment that will be conducive for the conduct of honest and transparent business. We will remove unnecessary regulatory constraints that tend to impede the establishment and operation of business in a profitable and predictable manner.
“As we open our doors to all foreign direct investments, we will not permit Liberian-owned businesses to be marginalized. We cannot remain spectators in our own economy. My government will prioritize the interests of Liberian-owned businesses and offer programs to help them become more competitive and offer services that international investors seek as partners.”
However, FrontPageAfrica has learned that President Weah is a key motivation behind the monopolization of the cocoa sector.
“The government gave exclusive rights to Aya Group which is a part of Sidani Enterprises (Lebanese) to export cocoa. The same group that has a lot of road contracts. Everyone must sell to them and they will control the foreign exchange coming in,” a source close to the developments informed FrontPageAfrica.
This mean, all local producers would sell to the Lebanese at a price they [the Lebanese] would determine and then export. In so doing, Aya Group, which is owned by Bassam Sidani and his son, Hassan Sidani, would control the foreign exchange earned from the export of cocoa.
In Ghana for example, only the Government’s Ghana Cocoa Board exports, thus they control foreign exchange derived from export earnings. Cocoa is a major contributor to Ghana’s economy.
Ghana generates about US$2 billion in foreign exchange annually through the export of cocoa. The cash crop is a major contributor to Ghana’s revenue and GDP.
Who’s Behind the Sidanis for Cocoa?
FrontPageAfrica gathered that a Dutch firm, Theobroma Chocolate Lounge, is the off taker the would finance the exports cocoa via Aya Group/Sidani Group Holding.
FPA, has, however, not been able to independently verify this information.
Theobroma International (part of ECOM Group) has been a leading independent trader and market maker in cocoa products and cocoa beans since 1922. The company is a long-standing buyer of cocoa in Cameroon and was the first to certify Cameroonian cocoa farmers in 2012. The company applied for funds from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Benin to expand certification and to improve on its sustainable supply of cocoa.
Who are the Sidanis?
With the inception of the Weah-led administration, the Sidanis Enterprises became a major implementor of government projects. Bassam Sidani is the owner and CEO of Hotel Buchanan.
In January this year, local authorities in Gbarnga, Bong County put a stop to the cement pavement of Gbarnga Broad Street. This, according to the county’s Assistant Superintendent for Development Anthony B. Sheriff was due to poor implementation by Sidani Group Holding.
Sidani was also awarded the contract for the construction of the Fairground road in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County. The Lebanese firm implemented the reroofing of houses in Gibralta for Pres. Weah and also the construction of the Doe Community road, amongst others.