National Investment Commission Chairman
Richard Tolbert Highlights Investment Opportunities In Liberia
In An Interview Conducted By Sam
SZA: What brought about this one stop shopping
RT : The President had initiated actually that we’ve been in office for one year, and she gave us the mandate to do everything possible to promote Liberia, the Private sector, that’s why she gave me that job at the National Investment Commission, and she said we need to reach out to the world, to tell the world about Liberia, about the investment opportunities, so as a result of that for the first time, she decided that after the two days donors conference, we’ll have a one day investment forum, and she charged me and the Minister of Commerce with organizing it, and we went ahead and did so, in conjunction with the Corporate Council on Africa, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank; and I think so far there has been great success as you saw from the turn out. We had expected about 150 to 200 people maximum, we had over 400 sold out, and we had to turn people away. This is a very great testament to the turn around to the image of Liberia as been brought about primarily by our leader President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
SZA: what kind of investors were you targeting?
RT: The donors conference as you know was a non-paying event, but in order to make sure that we attract serious people, the organizers from the American side told us to even charge $350 minimum for people to attend this event. So we were looking for people who had serious investment interest in coming to Liberia. And I think we found those people. We are looking at investors in all areas to attract to Liberia. From minerals to manufacturing, to exporting, to agriculture, housing, construction, Information technology, you name it; we need business, we need jobs we need the private sector in Liberia.
SZA: Which areas are economically potent to
attract investors to Liberia?
RT: First of all, you may know that we have special comparative advantage in terms of our mineral resources. So mining of gold, possibly diamond, and certainly iron ore, is an area that investors are scrambling to come to now. The demand out of China and India for goods has driven the prices of natural resources through the roof. In fact the Billion Dollars Mittal Steel deal which I participated in re-negotiating is strictly a function of the high price of iron ore which has doubled or tripled in the last few years because the demand for steel out of China and all natural resources prices have gone through the roof as a result of that. So LAMCO which was shut down and the iron ore left there then of low grade were economically unviable 10-15 years ago. Now it has become viable again with the price of iron ore at such high levels. So we’ve got an opportunity, and once you have a credible government in place people are willing to come and put their money at risk. Without confidence in the government, I can tell you, no matter what you have in terms of natural resources, serious investors will not come into your country. Serious Investors need stability, they need transparency and they need to be dealt with professionally. And I think that’s what they now see in Liberia. First and foremost, we have the natural resources; secondly, there is a belief that we have stability and thirdly there is the belief that we have good governance that makes investment climate viable.
SZA: With so many investors coming from around
the world, are you targeting any specific countries
RT: We are not targeting any specific continents or markets. This is the first of many what we call “Road Shows” that we hope to put on. I have traveled to so many countries and continents. We’ve been to Europe, all over Africa, to the Far East, the United States, and the President has also been to Europe. And everywhere we went we saw tremendous amount of interest in Liberia. We don’t target any specific country at this point. We are trying to get the message out to the world that Liberia is open for business. As time moves along, we will begin to target specific markets, specific countries and specific industries. That’s the nature of investment promotion. But initially we are trying to let the world know. Many of you may realize that few years ago Liberia was not a place that serious investors could even consider. Today it’s a place that serious investors are interested in. And once that window of opportunity is here we will get the word out to the world that Liberia needs investment and investors are welcome.
SZA: As Chairman of the National Investment Commission, how do you intend to promote investment in the country through exports, so that investors will benefit from the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) and the General System of Preferences (GSP), which the United States has offered for the promotion of trade and commerce between Liberia and the USA?
RT: The Minister of Commerce and I have been working together. We’ve brought Liberian businesses together and explained to them that they need to look at the export sector. Our balance of trade is very much in-balanced. We import much more than we export. Besides minerals, rubber and timber, we are really not doing well with exports. AGOA is a new opportunity for Liberians to get into the exports business. There are so many opportunities. Take for example cassava. There is a huge demand for cassava in the world today. Cassava is used in many different areas. Oil Palm also is used in cosmetics, it’s used in soap manufacturing, and it’s used in foods. We have citrus fruits. Things that you and I buy here in the States pay a dollar or two for; like mangoes that you can get for five or ten cents in Liberia. Plantain that you and I fight to get in the markets here are in the bushes getting rotten in Liberia. There is a huge export market opportunity once Liberians get to know these opportunities. We are trying very hard to identify AGOA opportunities. We’ve had meetings with US government Representatives, and we are putting out information, and we are trying to also form the Liberian Exporters Association that will promote export oriented businesses. This is a key area for Liberia in the future.
SZA: What are you doing to bring empowerment to Liberian businesses, especially to produce and trade in local products?
RT: Very Good Question. Since I returned
home, one of the biggest constraints I have learned
from Liberians in doing business is capital. They lack
capital to compete. One of the first things we tried
to do at NIC was to bring capital into the Liberian
business community. We did it last year in a small way
with a group such as the African Development Foundation
(ADF), which came in and loaned $1million within less
than six months to ten Liberian businesses, and made
a commitment to do the same thing for the next six years.
That means a million dollars each year for Liberian
businesses. We also, with the LBDI Bank set up a small-medium
enterprise fund for Liberian Businesses. They are going
to pledge to try to raise funds for Liberian Businesses.
But even more significantly Mr. Robert Johnson at the Private Investment forum in Washington DC, declared that, he and OPIC have launched an amazing initiative for Liberia. Rob Johnson has pledged to raise $30m for Liberia. He did it Last year, and the money has now been raised between him, OPIC and the African Development Foundation. He is putting in $3m of his own money. The ADF will commit another $3m and OPIC, whose President was at the forum has also pledged $20m. This is all going into the private sector in Liberia. The fund has been launched; The Liberian Enterprise Development Fund and this money will become available not five years from now. But by the end of this year they will be set up in Liberia and they will begin to receive applications for loans from that fund. So we are out there trying to attract foreign investors, we are also concerned with stimulating the Liberian business sector and their major need is capital. So we’ve gone and sought capital for them which the banks locally are not able to bring in, and as we found this money, we are going to find more money for Liberian businesses.
SZA: How can you relate your own success as Chairman of the NIC to the increase in National revenue during the past year as announced by the President?
RT: Well, we all played our small roles. I can tell you, I participated in the re-negotiation of the Mittal Steel agreement. These are things that people don’t see or hear about on a daily basis. But I can tell you that what we were able to re-negotiate for the Liberian government, would bring in additional millions of dollars in revenue; hard dollars, starting with this year or next year. We participated for weeks and days, and hours on end, re-negotiating that contract based on our experience on the Wall Street and elsewhere, and we were able to get better terms for the Liberian people, and in addition to that, we have signed businesses; we have also brought businesses into Liberia in the last 12 months. We’ve received as I mentioned earlier over 150 business delegations. We have processed almost over 20 business applications for new businesses based on our incentives. Basically, we have created the environment for investors to come and feel comfortable to do business in Liberia. There are many more businesses in the pipeline that are coming and we are working daily to see them through, and we will continue to do so. We believe that we will bring dollars into the economy and jobs to the Liberian people. And that’s what our mission is.
SZA: What assurances can you give the Liberian people that indeed this government will not fail their hopes of a better and brighter economic future?
RT: One thing I will tell the Liberian People and to beg them is that we must hold together and unite. We need unity, we need peace. If we don’t have unity and peace, all of our hard work will go down the drain. That’s all the outside world is looking for. They are looking for the Liberian people to be united and to be at peace, and then they will do their part. So let’s hold together and the people will rebuild this country. I can assure you.
SZA: What do you expect of those in the Diasporas?
RT: The Diaspora is critical to our development. As you’ve seen from these conferences we have organized here in the United States. We set up specific panels to bring Liberian businesses together with Diaspora businesses. We organize specific panels to find partners for Liberians in the Diaspora, and as the President herself has said, there is a huge business community out there waiting to be attracted Liberians abroad to come home. And it’s a very valuable asset that Liberia has, and we look forward to welcoming the Liberians in the Diaspora back home. It’s not easy but we have to do it.
SZA: So how did you get to Know Robert Johnson?
RT: I have known him for a number of years. From my years on the Wall Street. I knew him when his company (Black Entertainment Television-BET) first went public. I wish I had the foresight to have invested in it. I wish I had the fore sight to have invested in it because he put $500,000 in and he ended up with $3billion. If I had put my $5,000, I would have gotten a couple of millions. But I have known Bob for 15 – 20 years. This just goes to show how relationships can pay off. I maintained a good relationship with him. Just as My President came to the US last year, I picked up the phone and made one phone call and he came over to see her within a matter of hours. And as a result of that introduction, he has now made a pledge of $30million, which he says is only the tip of an iceberg. He is going to bring a business delegation to Liberia in April, he will set up an advocacy group for Liberia in America, and we think with his connections in the business world, he will do a lot more for Liberia.
SZA: some people might want to do business in Liberia but they are afraid of several constraints including land ownership by foreigners and others. What is the government doing to remove many of these hurdles?
RT: That is a sensitive issue for investors and us Liberians need to be very honest about it. You may be right. It keeps to some extent certain long term investors away. There are people who are willing to invest in Liberia on a short term because if all they want can be obtained on a 20 year lease, they will make investments that will return in a short period of time. At the same time, there are investors who say if they know that they can own real estate, they could make longer term commitments and bigger commitments. So it’s not up to me. I think it’s up to the Liberian people and the government to decide what’s going to be done about this in the long term. But it is an area that we need to look at very critically, objectively and seriously. But besides that, I think, for the Liberians themselves, we have a huge problem right now with land ownership as far as registry, titles, etc which also need to be looked at soberly.
SZA: In your quest to bring investors into Liberia, are you considering taking some investors out of Monrovia into the rural parts?
RT: Oh absolutely. When we examine investment proposals at the National Investment Commission, one of the criteria we look at seriously is the regional diversification of the business. Where are you going with the business outside of Monrovia? I have accompanied investors as I mentioned outside of Monrovia, to Buchanan, to Bong Mines and to several other counties. We are looking for investors that will diversify on the basis of the population. If you have been to Monrovia recently you will see that we have a huge problem of over population in the capital city, unlike anything that would have been thirty years ago, so we need to get businesses out of the capital city to the rural areas where the bulk of our population should be living. It is the President’s priority as a matter of fact, as she said to us recently; that she is going to start having cabinet meetings in the rural areas to get all of us out of the capital as well. And this is one of the factors we look at when we are evaluating investment proposals; regional diversification of investment in Liberia.
SZA: Where did you get the “one stop shopping” phrase from?
RT: That’s the name that many of us hope we can really become; “One stop shop for investors”. It is a popular title for investment promotion agencies. We have a big sign out there that says that. It’s not easy to implement. But we are doing our very best to make it remain our focal point for investors coming into the country. If they have any problems, be they Liberians or foreigners, you have any problem with government as a private sector investor, you come to us at NIC, and we will be on your side
SZA: Thank you Mr. Tolbert.
RT: It’s a pleasure for this interview and we hope it will help stimulate more investors to come and do business in our country.