Liberia's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke at the UK-Liberia Investment Forum in London in June with the tempered confidence of a leader who knows that all the hard work is about to pay off. In a speech that gave start to a day’s dialogue between government officials, private industry leaders and experts in African affairs, the president invited investors to help advance the country’s infrastructure and build on the wealth of its resources, while pledging a continued commitment to make Liberia "a powerful and prosperous country under the rule of law".
The president’s emphasis on legality resounds powerfully within the international community. The Liberian government’s efforts in fighting corruption stand among its finest achievements, ranking among the top 10 least corrupt African regimes, according to the 2010 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Survey.
Yet, the president’s pledge is also a reminder that the road to prosperity is a long and arduous one. What Liberia is looking for, in the words of the minister of foreign affairs Gayewea McIntosh, is “a serious capable partnership” to help Liberia along that road; serious in its commitment to Liberia’s ambitions and capable of exploiting the country’s abundance.
Liberia’s mineral plenitude was a popular topic of discussion, with many of the world’s famous multinationals busy digging for gold or iron ore in the country. Delegates were at one in describing investment in the mining sector as a win-win situation.
Steel company ArcelorMittal grasped this insight sooner than most, investing $900m in the country as early as 2005. ArcelorMittal’s CEO for Liberia, Joseph Matthews, spoke soberly of the difficulty of coping with the dearth of adequate infrastructure, but was more optimistic when it came to describing the company’s current ship-loading work and its ability overcome difficulties.
Infrastructural challenges aside, mining promises to become Liberia’s most prosperous sector. According to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, mining in Liberia is set to grow exponentially in the next few years with a projected rate of more than 150% in 2011 and 2012.
Energy is also a flourishing market for the country. Its oil reserves are thought to be plentiful and various, with companies such as African Petroleum and Simba Energy active in exploring both onshore and offshore reserves.
But energy does not only mean oil. Dr Roosevelt Jayjay, minister of lands, mines and energy, spoke favourably of Liberia’s hydropower potential and of the new projects that were under way along St Paul river, one of six main rivers currently under study.
And Jim Steele of sustainable energy company Buchanan Renewables talked of his firm's sustainable approach to renewable energy in Liberia, in this case working with local farmers to transform aged and unproductive rubber trees into biomass.
Welcome all, big and small?
It would be wrong, however, to see Liberia's development as resting solely in the hands of large multinationals. While the forum saw big names take to the stage, among the delegates were people such as Asatu Shannon from ManoCap, a private equity fund that works with small and medium-sized enterprises in west Africa.
While the challenges facing companies such as ManoCap remain numerous, including overcoming Liberia’s 'brain drain' to develop a competent management team, Ms Shannon is convinced that the investment climate is favourable to all kinds of investors. There remains, however, much work to be done before companies such as ManoCap can realise their potential and if Liberia is to enjoy the full benefits of a balanced foreign investment.
Ms Shannon says: “It is important for the funds to come down and work on the ground to be effective. You need to have a committed management team and you need to be patient. It is also really important for private and public sectors to work together and leverage our resources. While there’s a lot of talk about bringing attention to Liberia, not enough is being done to organise investment.”