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West Africa Rising: Liberia leads charge to lure palm oil investors

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West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

West Africa’s abundant natural resources have been a magnet for foreign investors ever since the Portuguese discovered gold in what’s now Mauritania back in the 1400s.

Today, a new set of visitors is hoping to make a mint off the region’s natural wealth. But they’re looking for treasure above ground, not below it.

Palm oil is what they’re after.

Global demand for the red-hued edible oil – a key ingredient in everything from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to Dial soap to biofuels – is expected to double by 2020. Here in West Africa, the war-battered and achingly poor nation of Liberia is leading the charge in luring palm oil investors to its fertile soils.

By any measure, the country has succeeded. In the past three years, four major companies have promised a total of $2.6 billion in palm oil investment, and more could be coming soon.

The biggest pledge has come from Golden VerOleum, a subsidiary of the New-York based private equity fund Verdant Fund LP, which announced an investment of $1.6 billion last year, the single biggest agriculture outlay the country has ever seen.

Malaysia-based palm oil giant Sime Darby is also in on the game, having pledged $800 million for a 63-year concession that grants it access to nearly 550,000 acres of land.

Taken together, Liberia’s foreign investors have secured access to more than 1.5 million acres for palm oil production, or about 5.6 percent of the country’s total land area.

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