By A Saj Mathews :

There is currently a growing realisation of the rubber might of the African region where most countries still have massive unexploited areas highly conducive for natural rubber. This is likely to lead to the dawn of a new era of fresh investments in NR without affecting the environment and interests of the local population

Africa accounts for around 5 per cent of global natural rubber production, the main producing countries being Nigeria (300,000 hectares), Liberia (100,000 ha) and Cote d’Ivoire (70,000 ha). The French tyre giant Michelin is a major NR player in Africa having rubber plantations in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Benin. Japan’s Bridgestone/Firestone Corporation has plantations in Liberia. Another NR plantation major is the Singapore-based Golden Millennium Group (GMG) owning 18,000 hectares of plantations in Cameroon.
According to projections by international NR plantation experts like Dr S Sivakumaran, Executive Director, Research & Development, Greenyield Berhad, Malaysia, the global scenario for natural rubber is very encouraging with projections of increasing demand till 2020 and possibly beyond. Attention is now turning to West Africa as a source of production growth. Like South East Asia, West Africa too has a highly suitable climate for rubber cultivation and a large pool of economically-priced agricultural labour.
Though Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire are both potentially important producers, today they account for only around 2 – 4 per cent of global output. Liberia has some 10 million hectares of land available for agriculture of which oil palm developments are now expected to use at least one million hectares; but rubber plantations account for only 200,000 ha today, something the Government of Liberia reportedly would like to see changed.
According to statistics of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, among the African countries, Côte d’Ivoire ranks the 9th in global rubber rubber production with an annual output of 312,029 tonnes followed by Nigeria at 151,104 tonnes, Liberia at 75,371 tonnes, Cameroon at 55,769 tonnes, Gabon at 23,161 tonnes, Ghana at 22,427 tonnes, Ecuador at 18,901 tonnes, Democratic Republic of the Congo at 11,714 tonnes, Papua New Guinea at 7,292 tonnes, the Republic of the Congo at 2,305 tonnes and the Central African Republic at 1,509 tonnes. Most of these countries have massive unexploited areas highly conducive for natural rubber

Recent developments

Sierra Leone in Africa has recently signed a $1.2 billion land investment project with a Chinese firm and which is said to be the largest yet in the country’s agriculture sector. The agreement with China Hainan Natural Rubber Group envisages the development of a 35,000-hectare rubber plantation and the cultivation of rice on a 100,000-hectare farm.
The Republic of Sierra Leone, is a country in West Africa. It is bordered by Guinea at the North-east, Liberia at the South-east, and the Atlantic Ocean at the South-west. Sierra Leone has a tropical climate, with a diverse environment ranging from Savannah to rainforests. Sierra Leone has a total area of 71,740 km2 and a population of 7,075,641. The joint venture agreement was signed between the firm’s visiting delegation and the Ministers of Finance and Agriculture.
Rubber production lost its glory in this West African country after the bumper production decades of the 1960’s and the 1970’s, before being decimated by an 11-year Civil War. But prices of natural rubber are now reported to be rising, pushed by brisk demand by China and India.
Until now, the Sierra Leonean Government provided little support for private sector investment. But the two-phased project with Hainan Natural Rubber Company will provide 100,000 jobs for the Sierra Leoneans, says Samuel Sarrey, the Communications Officer at the Ministry of Agriculture.
Sierra Leone has an agriculture-led economy; but its development has been hindered by the Government’s more focus on the mining sector. The new deal announced would be the single-largest ever investment in the country’s agriculture, according to sources. “Rubber used to be in the Southern region, so it is high time now we introduced it to elsewhere in the country,” Sarrey says.

Ghana, major NR exporter

Ghana, a major rubber producer of Africa, is confident of earning nearly $250 million from rubber export by 2020, increasing the country’s foreign-exchange revenue from the crop. Presently, 35,000 hectares of land, expected to produce 63,000 tonnes of rubber, are under cultivation. As of 2009, approximately 11,255 hectares of land was under cultivation, producing over 16,000 metric tonnes.
The country has increased its rubber plantations from 1,200 hectares in 1995 to 35,000 hectares in recent years, helping to create employment for some 100,000 people. About 95% of the country’s rubber production is exported to France, Turkey, East Africa and South Korea. Ghana also exports to neighbouring Burkina Faso.
Currently, the traditional rubber-growing regions are the Western and Central regions, but the Northern parts are also being explored for their potential to cultivate the crop. According to official sources the rubber sector is doing fairly well due to the ready market for the raw material, coupled with the Government’s support for the farmers.
The Government has identified the rubber sector as holding tremendous potential to create jobs and reduce poverty and is giving the sector the necessary support to enable it contribute to the development of the economy. Recent trends in world prices suggest that rubber production, when properly nurtured, could easily become a major foreign exchange earner for the country.
A total of 7.4 million euro has been disbursed to the National Investment Bank (NIB) to finance the cost of development of out-grower plantations, while 757,400 euro has additionally been disbursed to the Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) to maintain and ensure sustainability of the farms.
The contribution of rubber cultivation to employment-generation is enormous. It currently provides employment for over 37,083 farmers through the Rubber Out-grower Scheme. It has a potential of employing an additional 2,250 tappers for every 9,000 hectare, of which 25% will be females.

Lingering problems

Rubber and oil palm plantations are likely to expand in Africa. However, until now there has been –- with some few exceptions — little organized opposition to both oil palm and rubber plantations in Western-Central Africa in spite of the severe problems these plantations entail at the local level, observes an UNCTAD study. Investors are also faced with language and networking issues in many African countries.
The first issue to be noted is that the establishment of industrial plantations of either oil palm or rubber is preceded by deforestation and the appropriation of land that previously provided for the livelihoods of the local people. Those most affected are the indigenous forest-dependent people as well as all other local communities who lose all their means of livelihood through the loss of land and lack of forest resources. To a large extent, resistance from affected communities is not expressed in open opposition movements.
Once the plantations are established, some local people may be hired as workers, with the exception of “pygmies” who are excluded. But in many cases workers are brought in from outside the region. Working conditions are usually harsh and, in many cases, can be described as near slavery. Such situation is made possible through the Government support to the plantation companies. That has put in place preventive and repressive mechanisms to avoid organized resistance by local communities and workers. “This also may help to understand why there are few cases of organized workers’ struggles for improving working conditions –- with Liberia being the most well-known exception,” says the study.

Turbulent rubber legacy

Historically, Africa has a turbulent legacy of rubber cultivation and trade. Africa had five leading producers of rubber — French Guinea, Angola, the Gold Coast, French Congo, and probably the most important of them all was the Congo Free State. Ivory Coast and German East Africa also experienced boom times of their own. As the production of rubber grew so did the demand for it. Products such as tubing, hoses springs, washers, and diaphragms were in wide demand.
Rubber, booming from 1890 to 1913, was the greatest income earner for the African countries. Even though rubber was their main income, their economy, social class, and governments took a negative approach. Congo Free State was the worst victim of this approach. Most of Africa’s rubber came from trees and vines. Areas where rubber was being harvested were constantly threatened by exhaustion of supplies. By 1875, countries like Angola had no more rubber to harvest. Dahomey’s peak production was 14.5 tonnes of rubber per year. By 1901, it had declined to 5.9 tonnes a year. Once all the vines died there was only 1.9 tonnes produced per year. Likewise in French Guiana rubber was completely used up in 1905.
With the clouds of that turbulent legacy receding, the continent is waking up to the challenges of the modern era marked by globlisation. There is a growing realisation of the rubber might of the region which, in turn, may lead to the dawn of a new era of fresh investments in natural rubber without affecting the environment and the interests of the local population.