By Winstanley.R Bankole Johnson………………
I wasn’t amused by a Public Notice from the Sierra Leone Bottling Company (SLBC) (formerly the Freetown Cold Storage Company Sierra Leonean Ltd) of a proposed five (5) week closure of their bottling plant, so as to enable them install brand new “state of the art” equipments.
Standard best practices allow every corporate organization worth its salt to be committed to a periodic rebranding or generic mutation processes if it is to remain sustainably competitive, and no one should attempt to rob the SLBC of that consideration. My hunch however is that such empathy automatically falls away when ensuing portions of the announcement continues that during the closure period contemplated, production for Coca-Cola, Vimto and Parrot beverages in Sierra Leone will temporarily cease, “……….but however …….. intend to continue to be of service to the market with …..quality Coca-cola products in the following packages-: Cans, PET (Plastic bottles) and Terra packs”.
How come a company that has existed in this country for so long can be able to sustain supply of imported brands into the market, but yet are unable to do the same for its products manufactured locally? Why in the name and respect of their “valued” customers, did the company not proactively store as many quantities of those locally manufactured and much preferred stocks in the same way they did for of the imported products that would also last for the entire proposed closure period? I have been tempted to so ask because as in the past, I suspect it is an attempt to flood the market with unsaleable stocks of other imported bottled soda flavours. Which by inference could also mean that the closure of the factory might have more to do with reducing operating loss aggregates, than with infrastructural improvements.
In our public discussions on the matter, those in the know (and apparently in defense of the SLBC) argue that the closure was overdue, because the production machines (bought as second-hand long ago) are now decrepit, which constraints are precluding the company from doing any advance storage planning. To have done that they further postulated would have been tantamount to overworking those same obsolete machines and possibly accelerating their total breakdown.
I disagree with that entirely because the notice of the temporary closure of the SLBC though repeated several days thereafter, was deemed to be “with immediate effect”. Couldn’t the company have demonstrated a more respectful consideration for their supposedly “valued” customers and distributors by giving adequate advance notices to them so as to allow them to equally pre-stock well to stem the unavoidable panicky reactions that usually arises from the trail of such decisions? These types of repairs and overhauls of course do happen in civilized and more competitive environments, but Coca-Cola in the USA, Europe or even Nigeria would dare not broadcast such statements simply because they want to install a “state of the art” equipment, having regard for the consequences which could best be imagined than described. So why are they treating us here with such disrespect?
This is not the first of such closures by the SLBC in this country, purportedly to install or clean production machines, neither will it be the last – “state of the art” or not – because it wasn’t too long ago that the entire company infrastructure was overhauled – buildings, fencing, equipment et al. It makes me want to question the supervisory effectiveness of the Factory Inspectorate Department in the Ministry of Trade in all of this, particularly as to why the market should be intermittently starved of locally manufactured products on account of factory repairs. Or could it be a way of mitigating their Corporate Tax liabilities?
But perhaps I should concede that the SLBC are not the only drinks manufacturing company that occasionally withholds or suppresses supplies of favourite beverages into the market just to ensure an orderly disposal of other unmarketable brands to us poor consumers. The Sierra Leone Breweries Ltd (SLBL) too have for example, also occasionally manipulated shortages of Star Beer and Guinness, whilst at the same time releasing Mutzic, Canned Heineken and other brands into the market and at discounts as low as “you buy one get one extra” basis, especially during national festivities.
It would appear to be happening so frequently that one begins to wonder whether the monopoly enjoyed by both corporate entities for so long in this country has post independent Sierra Leone been worth the while. And in this manipulative scheme of things, key distributors operating depots called “Demand Centers” bear the greatest brunt. Their inability to effectively manage demands during such artificial crisis periods occasioned by sudden factory closures can sometimes severely impair customer loyalty. That aside, they are also unfortunately being classified as “part of the Marketing Team” and hence obliged (perforce I mean) to assist in the “organized disposals” of unsaleable stocks to clients, passed on to them by the manufacturers.
A final area of concern to me between the SLBC and the SLBL is that they both would appear of recent to be diversifying from the dictates of their M & A, possibly without even making the relevant amendments in them. For example, the Breweries, otherwise traditional Star Beer, Guinness and Maltina makers are now into big time importation of soft drinks like Royal Club and Feyruz. The SLBC, whilst still focusing on mineral products, would seem to be importing much more than they are committed to producing locally, which no doubt is having an impairment on their ability to reasonably adhere to our local content policy guidelines.
In fact the following statement attributable to a drinks manufacturing company CEO that-:
“……..to the investor, the biggest challenge we face in Freetown is manpower — qualified, dedicated manpower. Probably because of the war, Sierra Leone stopped producing professionals for a period of 10 – 15 years. You will find out that a lot of companies have so many expatriates they don’t need” – lends credence to that opinion. I have deliberately underlined as foregoing to underscore the seriousness of his statement, which goes further to say that the Government-: “needs to look into the educational sector to improve the quality of professionals coming out of the institutions to help with this poor investment attraction. Without that, the country will still not benefit from investment coming into the country”.
That to me was quite an unfortunate addendum because unlike in the last ten (10) years, Sierra Leone used to be the hub for recruitment of expatriates to the sub-region. Yes we had a war, but that should in no way set our experience and manpower bar so low as to have to wait for 10 – 15 years (effective 2009) before we cease allowing expatriates to work here as CEOs of manufacturing companies that are importing over 50% of their product brands for the local market.
Accordingly the Ministries of Labour and Trade should consider that bland statement a wakeup call to possibly introduce new paradigms against the recruitment of foreigners that will enhance a stricter observance of the Local Content Policy guidelines. And the starting point rather unfortunately, will have to be-:
– Elimination of the sheer disrespect and mistrust Sierra Leoneans continually habour and manifest for each other AND,
– Our awesome preference for foreigners over and above indigenes.