Sierra Leone: Sierra Tropical Limited was established by Japan’s Itochu corporation, which acquired holdings of Dole Foods, one of the world’s oldest commercial growers of tropical fruits, especially pineapple.
Located in Bo district in the southern region an area very suited to cultivating pineapple, the company’s farm site can be found in Sumbuya, Lugbu Chiefdom. The farm is a sustainable and socially conscious community project.
In one of the farm locations, you can see rows upon rows of pineapples being grown outdoors, blessed with a naturally perfect soil and climate ideal for growing pineapple. The arable land where the fruit is grown is about 4,335 hectares.
The company first came in 2014 when they were scouting for the plantation site. They liked the proximity of their planting area and that of the Sewa River and at some point they will use it for irrigation but not now as the soil they say is good for the planting of pineapples.
On the sidelines, President Julius Maada Bio made a stop at one of the farm sites where he tasted one of the pineapples. The President was welcomed to the site by the Managing Executive Officer and Chief Executive for Africa, Toshikazu Otani of TOCHU Corporation.
General Manager, Patrick Blake, said that the US$42 million project included a processing plant that will be in operation in about a year from now and the objective is to produce pineapple juice concentrate and cut products.
The produce he said will be packaged in country and done fully with added value bearing the name as a product of Sierra Leone and sent to distributors worldwide, mostly to the east coast of the United States of America, the European market and the Middle East and hopefully other parts of Africa.
The company he said is planning to produce up to a hundred thousand tonnes of pineapples in three years from now and product wise they have about five to six containers a week and that he says will grow.
It takes 18 months from the time it is planted to the time the fruit comes up. They will start harvesting next year as they are in the extension phase of growing the nursery and commercial planting that will come online for commercial production by next year.
“We hope to grow this plantation up to 200,000 tonnes, at this point we have 4,335 hectares that we have leased from the land holders. We completed the lease of close to 3,000 hectares, what you see here is about 300 hectares, so we are roughly about 10 percent of the total future size of our plantation” he said. “We have to meet the planting period, roughly 30 hectares a month in order to meet the production for the long term and that will grow, so next year we will be doing 50 to 60 hectares a month.”
They work with the community people to provide semi-skilled workers who work closely with their supervision staff. Currently there are 1,250 people employed from the community.
According to the GM, the land was leased directly from the land owners and they were informed about the future of the project, the benefit and impact and they made their decision whether to agree or not.
“4,000 hectares have been offered by 300 different land owners, they all have individual leases, so that is more complex but I believe that is a good one as I believe that we have set the stage for the future, they receive their payment from us directly into their bank account” Blake said.
As part of their Community Development Action Plan (CDAP) as contained in the ESIA given to us by Environment Protection Agency (EPA), geared towards four main activities, assistance in health, water and sanitation, education and agriculture.
Previously, they dug water wells in three communities and another three will be added this year. Schools are also being provided with chairs and desks. They work with local farmers in the inter valley swamp areas providing them with technical assistance through Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) with good quality foundation seeds to improve on the overall food generation in the area.
“We have 22 communities that are involved in the project, we have touched about 11 of those communities, we focused our efforts on our social responsibilities to those communities in priority to which we have impact, as we grow more communities will be involved” said GM Blake.
The company he said has built a Clinic which primary responsibility is for workers and their dependents. “We have a doctor from Japan, a Neonatal, our objective is to make sure that any woman in Lugbu Chiefdom has access to proper health care. So, for any baby or mother at risk we will be offering that to any mother in the community, so that is a goal for us to reduce the maternal mortality in Sierra Leone which occurs due to prenatal or maternal issues and to bring it to zero in the chiefdom” he hoped.
Responding to issues around sustainability of their support to the community, GM Blake said that they have a fixed budget, so the Community Manager works with the Welfare Committee that works with the Chiefdom authorities and elders to look at all of their needs, yearly. Other communities he said will be included in the next four years.
He added that “It will evolve as our resources improve and we start having returns on our investment. The company he said projects returns on their investment by 2025. We have set up a foundation for the company and we hope to use that foundation to bring in additional aid and help.”
He said that one area they will be looking into in the future is education, as they need to hire more skilled people in the community but they are faced with challenge of not having the required skilled labour force.
“Two years in a row now the school has not been able to have a single graduate to go on to vocational or university training. If we are going to be able to hire people or to develop people in the community to work in more skilled positions in the factory or the farm, we need to help them to get that kind of education, so we are looking at ways on how to address that” he said.