Fueling Liberia's future with hope

Once exposed to the nation's worst brutality, former aid worker David Parker has returned to run a business.

Tugela Ridley
Expat on a mission: David Parker's company plans to invest up to $10 million to revamp a palm-oil plantation.

David Parker has seen the worst of Liberia. As a young aid worker who arrived in Monrovia 12 years ago, he got to know the warlords, mercenaries, child soldiers, and businesspeople who kept the brutal conflict here running on and off for more than two decades.

Given the choice, many who have witnessed the horrors of Liberia at war would get away and stay away. But in 2006, Mr. Parker and his Liberian wife came back – with high hopes for the country. In the intervening years, Parker had soured on what he saw as the waste of self-serving bureaucracies. "A billion dollars a year [the United Nations] spends here and we haven't even got decent roads," he points out as he bumps over the potholes in his 4-by-4.

So this time, he is in Liberia for business, to rebuild the country through investment rather than donations.

"There is an opportunity for Liberia to pull itself out of decades of economic disaster," says the Briton. His company, Equatorial BioFuels (EBF), has taken over the 36,000-acre Palm Bay plantation and plans to invest up to $10 million initially to rehabilitate the estate and begin producing palm oil industrially again. This places Parker, EBF's chief operating officer, among the first wave of private investors willing to put money into a post-war, democratic Liberia.

But first, the past has to be dealt with. Last month ,Parker handed over $85,000 to 522 former plantation employees to settle grievances dating back to 1980, long before he or his company set foot in Liberia. The sums may not sound like much, but most of Liberia's estimated 3.6 million people earn only $130 a year. Judging by the smiles on the aging workers' faces as they collected their checks, the money was welcome.

"We want to start with a clean slate," says Parker, who argues that with his development background and hard-earned local knowledge comes sensitivity toward the needs of the people that other businessmen might lack.

Credibility from years as an aid worker

Parker's job as an aid worker with the European Union required him to talk to people from across the political spectrum. He called up then-President Charles Taylor. He went to rural areas to begin disarming rebels – at a time when most international staff would not leave their fortified compounds in Monrovia. In 2003, as American troops on ships off the coast watched the city's final bloody siege, Parker was on the ground directing the evacuation of foreign nationals. It was not until the first UN peacekeepers arrived months later that he left, ending a seven-year stint.

Parker admits that back then for a new guy in town with a high-profile position it was pretty exciting: he tells firsthand stories of Mr. Taylor's dangerously wayward son "Chucky" turning up at nightclubs with his guns and girls. Now, Liberia poses other dangers: Late last year, a foreign manager with an international rubber company was killed nearby in a dispute with local people. So keeping the workers happy – as well as the roughly 3,000 people who live on the plantation – is essential.

With the war so recently concluded, many of the 80 percent unemployed in the country are former fighters with little education. "There are a lot of ex-combatants working in and around the concession area," Parker acknowledges. "We will offer jobs but also adult literacy training to provide not just unskilled labor.

"We have a common interest with the employees to develop the capacity of our future workforce," he adds.

Plans to invest in literacy, health, homes

According to the deal signed with the government at the end of last year, EBF will establish a school, spend at least $25,000 a year on adult literacy, rebuild the old health clinic, and renovate the workers' roofless, moldering houses. As Parker puts it, "It's not expensive to add extra services," and it is pragmatic. "Communities are wiser," he says, "they are the custodians of the resources and they want investments they are going to benefit from."

Before anyone benefits, there is a lot of work to be done: Tens of thousands of acres must be replanted, the encroaching jungle fought back, the trees pruned, and the mill rebuilt. But EBF is in it for the long haul: it has control of the plantation for at least 50 years.

A rise from decades of conflict, decay

Palm oil is a key ingredient in soaps, moisturizers, and the vegetable oils used in kitchens from New York City to Buchanan, this decrepit port town close to the Palm Bay estate.

It is also a source of biofuel, the demand for which is growing as developed countries try to reduce their carbon emissions. Critics have blamed biofuels for exacerbating a global food crisis that threatens to plunge poor people into starvation. But Parker is quick to point out that his product comes from existing palm trees and that EBF will not be demolishing rain forests or displacing food crops to produce biofuel.

A well-managed palm plantation using modern equipment and hybrid seeds can produce up to six tons of oil per hectare per year (around 10 times the yield from soya, another popular biofuel source). Parker describes a future where this small tropical West African state reasserts its position among the world's leading palm oil producers, most of which are in Southeast Asia.

"If we can contribute to the creation of thousands of jobs and an equitable distribution of the benefits from investments in natural resources then there will be less problems and Liberia will have a real chance of rising from two decades of conflict and economic decay," Parker argues.

Such political and economic stability will mean a future for Liberia – and for Parker who, unlike many expatriates, has no plans to leave.

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