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FIRST Giant STEP For Sierra Leone! For ‘Ernest Koroma’?

Posted by Oswald Hanciles

CEO of Africa Felix Juice, Claudio Scotto with President Ernest Koroma(Photo Credit Umaru Fofana)

 

Sierra Leone is one of the wealthiest countries in the world!!  Fact, that is.  The wealth of Sierra Leone is obvious: the best jewelry diamonds in the world; the best grade of rutile in the world; the billions of dollars of investments pumped into Sierra Leone over the past year by mineral mining giants like African Mineral, London Mining, Sierra Rutile, etc.  Yet, the UNDP still classifies us as one of the poorest in the world.

When President Ernest Bai Koroma last week commissioned FIRST STEP-inspired Africa Felix Juice factory in Newton, about 22 miles from downtown Freetown, I was excited!! (FIRST STEP is a subsidiary of World Hope International [WHI], a U.S.-based non-profit international development agency that is in Sierra Leone to bring ethical direct foreign investment into the country).  On Friday, May 13, 2011, I was at the newly built factory premises at Newton, which the CEO and “co-owner” of Africa Felix Juice, Claudio Scotto, told me was their “very first day of production”.

 

Entrepreneur Italian, Claudio, is Now Fused, Biologically, with Sierra Leone

Claudio did not look like your typical “CEO”.  He was dressed in ‘junks’-looking blue jeans, and almost tattered dark blue and white polo shirt. Claudio’s thin hair on receding hairline gave him a professorial look.  He apparently recognized my name, calling me “a famous journalist”; and, readily started showing me around the factory.  .

 

The manners and speech of Claudio reminded me of ascetic and altruistic Caucasian Roman Catholic priests I have come across in several African countries.   Claudio is married to a Negroid Sierra Leoenan, Rene Thomas, who is the niece of the former Chief Justice, Dr. Ade Renner-Thomas (erudite, author of books, a Creole aristocrat).  They met in London eleven years ago; and got married 8 years ago.  They have a single child, “Matteo” – so, through Matteo, Claudio is now biologically fused to Sierra Leone.

 

Claudio and Rene were on holidays in Freetown in 2003. Claudio tasted the luscious mangoes, and rich pineapples, which were of the high valued ‘smooth cayenne’ species, and realized that they could be marketable.   Almost no local hotel or restaurant was serving fresh fruits from Sierra Leone; and all their bottled fruit juices were imported, Claudio told me in his priest-like even tones.  He asked why, and was told that the farmers would not provide reliable supply for any industry.  He checked.  He found out that if   there are buyers for their agricultural produce, the farmers would be more than ready to provide reliable supplies for any industry.    Claudio has clearly taken an entrepreneurial plunge into Sierra Leone;  without going through the ‘testing the waters’ phase of normal business people and their threshold anxieties of thousands of pages of feasibility studies; Claudio  has been moved by his hunch to raise capital of $4million dollars (the huge complex fruit processing machinery made in Parma, Italy – famous as the ‘Food Valley’ –  by the Tropical Food Machinery, is worth about $2million) in the project,  being the first client in FIRST STEP’s  unique ‘Christianity in Action’ capitalist Economic Free Zone in Sierra Leone.

 

I asked Claudio whether he has dealings with the agriculture ministry in Sierra Leone.   He said he does not ‘like middle men’; and that he prefers to “deal directly with the farmers” – after all, when he decided to raise millions of dollars into the business, it was the ‘expert opinion’ of the farmers, and rural dwellers, that he relied on.   Today, Claudio’s company has trained 1,500 Sierra Leonean farmers.  They are in Moyamba, Bo, Tonkolili, Bombali, Koinadugu,  Port Loko districts; with a few stepping in from Kenema, and Pujehun districts.   The farmers are trained to recognize the species of mangoes and pineapples the factory will need, and when to pluck them, when they are ripe, but, not rotten, and not too hard.  The company also brought in agriculture experts from Ghana to train Sierra Leonean farmers how to grow pineapples in ways that would be suitable for European markets.

“I deal directly with farmers who I trust”

There are 55 staff employed in Africa Felix Juice Company.  Apart from Claudio and Angelo Concari (who, like Claudio, is co-owner of Africa Felix Juice; but, who is the manufacturer, and owner, of the machinery the company is using; and is in the country on a ‘TURNKEY’ basis), all the other staff in the company are Sierra Leoneans.    This includes a small-boned early-30s Mabinty Kabia, who is the lab technician.   There were also six young ladies in the middle of the ‘factory chain’, standing about four feet from the ground, picking out rotten or hard mangoes from  bubbling water as the mangoes go through a conveyor belt.  They are being paid Le3, 000 an hour, which is about Le30, 000 for a ten hours of work.  Fair complexioned Hawa Kargbo, who resides in the old refugee camp in Waterloo, Freetown, and hails from Kissitong area in Magburaka, in Tonkolili District, gave me that figure (which is impressively high for wages for menial jobs in the country).

 

Be Proud: “Product of Sierra Leone”!!!

Claudio showed me the thick mango juice flowing from one of the shiny tubes – unalloyed, much loved by consumers in Europe – which is heated to 120 degrees, and later packaged in huge blue plastic drums, with the ‘green-white-blue’ national flags painted on them, with the enthralling words, “Product of Sierra Leone”.   Claudio told me that when President Koroma commissioned the factory last week, those words were shown to him, and the President was visibly thrilled by them.

 

Would the hope, and the risk, of Claudio be encouraging enough to lure other investors into Sierra Leone to invest in FIRST STEP’s Special Economic Zone idea?   Claudio’s company is a turnkey project.   That is, it is a method for a foreign company that wants to export its process and technology to other countries by building a plant in that country. In terms of technical scope, the turnkey contractor is responsible for the design, construction and installation of a new plant, and in some cases, the maintenance of the plant as well – like it is with Africa Felix Juice Company, a reason why Angelo Concari is based in Freetown presently.   (Such projects are called ‘turnkey’ because at the completion of a contract, a foreign company gives the “key” to the project and it is ready to move into sustainable mode).   In the case of Africa Felix Juice company, the ‘turnkey’ contractor,  Angelo Concari, is also a co-owner.   This could lend credence to Claudio’s words that they are “here for the long haul”.

 

There was palpable excitement in the mainly women who were bringing in bag loads of mangoes to be purchased by the staff in the company; and, even as we sat down in a Spartan office to talk, Claudio had to excuse himself several times to directly handle purchase of goods, as well as take reports from entirely youthful staff reporting to him.   Would there be enough mangoes and pineapples to feed the huge machines all the year around?  “Even in India, the largest producer and exporter of mangoes, it is a seasonal industry, lasting just about four months in a year”, Claudio told me.  Claudio did not tell me how much he was paying the women for the mangoes.

 

‘High Hopes for Low Mango’ in Salone

On October 13, 2010, I wrote in this Column an article titled ‘High Hopes for Low Mango’. And excerpt from this article, published in the Canada-based online newspaper, Patriotic Vanguard, reads: “…. I have pointed out the numerous health benefits of mango.  We take such benefits for granted.  But, what if we don’t have enough mangoes in the market; or, if the SEZ so increase demand for mangoes which will be exported, and gets them to be too expensive in our local market?  That could mean that all those diseases which eating mango has prevented us from being afflicted with will now be our woe.  We could end up spending more money buying medicines for that which we are simply preventing today by eating free mangoes…”

 

On Friday, 29 October, 2011, in the discussion panel of the Patriotic Vanguard, Claudio Scotto  had responded thus:  ‘Dear Mr Hanciles,…..  Be assured that there is no risk of mango disappearing from the markets around Freetown and Sierra Leone in general. This (is) because if the logistic work is properly done the margin for the farmer is higher than if we would buy the fruit for juicing. To compete in this truly global market (with our high energy and supply chain costs) we are forced to pay a certain type of price to farmers. …’

 

This past Friday, Claudio repeated the same argument to me.  We have to have in mind that throughout Sierra Leone, maybe, some 90 percent of mangoes grown wild are over-eaten by children, and most rot, and simply are thrown away.   The profundity of the FIRST STEP-generated company is that it is beginning the process of creating riches from that which has been largely of no economic value, and making the riches egalitarian.   Are there ways that can be explored to make the ownership of Africa Felix Juice Company more egalitarian?

 

Can We Make the ‘Mango Wealth’ More Egalitarian?

Can farmers, and rural dwellers, even, entire local government councils, be grouped into cooperatives to raise capital to buy shares in the company?   The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security is presently actively engaged in establishing rural banks, rural financial schemes, that revolve around rural ownership, and financially-empowering rural peoples.  They can become involved with Africa Felix Juice Company.  Also, Amadu Massaly, the Managing Director of the Finance and Leasing Company (a subsidiary of the Sierra Leonean-owned bank, Union Trust Bank, being managed by banking guru, Sampha Koroma) is the brains behind a concept he calls Direct Expatriate National Investment programme (DENI).

 

DENI aims to get some 150,000 Sierra Leoneans to invest $300 to raise something like  hundred and fifty million dollars – to invest in parastatals which are up to be privatized.  The DENI idea (which political affairs minister,  Alpha Kanu, said two months ago ought to be anchored on local money, and local sub-structure to be successful) can be directed to such projects as the Africa Felix Juice company, not just buying public parastatals which have proven unprofitable anyway.  Then, investors like Claudio can minimize their risks through in the short term recouping some of their millions of dollars investments, and ensuring that the company is owned by as many indigenes as possible (who would help guarantee that there is an environment of social and political stability for the company to be sustainable locally).  Can President Ernest Bai Koroma create the enabling environment for such ideas as his FIRST Giant Step too?!!

 

Female Workers At The Africa Felix Juice Factory Complex

Female Workers At The Africa Felix Juice Factory Complex

 

Juice Concentrate Extract Machinery Costing Over $2 million

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by on 8:02 am. Filed under BUSINESS WORLD. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to FIRST Giant STEP For Sierra Leone! For ‘Ernest Koroma’?

  1. Allieu Tommy

    August 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    This is by far better than political wrangling.

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