Tapping the Power of the Sierra Leonean Diaspora

Engineer Vidal Smith and SALvest LLC company visionary stands at the site of the future Salt Works in Ribbi chiefdom, Moyamba district, Sierra Leone

SALvest LLC wants to tap the power of the diaspora to rebuild Sierra Leone. “The time for change is now,” company visionary Vidal Smith says. “Sierra Leone is a country, rich in human and natural resources." Sewa News Stream caught up with Smith online this week. Below are excerpts from the interview:

Sewa News Stream: What does SALvest do? What are your best brands and products?

Vidal Smith: SALvest is an investment vehicle through which Sierra Leoneans or friends of Sierra Leone can pool their funds, their technical and managerial expertise to start for-profit companies in various sectors of the Sierra Leone economy.

Our first project is a venture to produce sea salt for the Sierra Leone domestic market as well as for export markets. So far we have demonstrated feasibility of our strictly solar-based, manual-harvesting production methods in two consecutive seasons of small-scale production. Because of our proprietary processes and the unique make-up of our source material in the coastal mangroves of the Yawri Bay, our product will deliver a unique taste and texture that would  enhance the finish and flavors of foods.

SNS: How are local people involved?

VS: We have engaged the local communities as partners in this venture, and they, the people of Ribbi, have welcomed and thoroughly supported our initiative. From my initial fact-finding visit in 2010 to our execution of a land lease last year, we have gotten to know and work with people at all levels; from the village elders and youths in the immediate project area, to the section chiefs and Paramount Chief, and all the way to the Moyamba District Council.

SNS: How many jobs have your company created?

VS: So far we have provided employment for 28 people for each of the production seasons, which runs from November through April each year.

SNS: What's the impact on the local economy?

VS: I would say our small venture has had quite an impact already, and will continue to do so in years to come. Even in our pre-production phase so far, we have injected income into the local economy of that section of Ribbi Chiefdom with the first annual lease payment to the land-owners, and decent wages to each of the 28 seasonal workers at the site.

SNS: Tell us about some of the challenges?

VS: There are several daunting but not insurmountable challenges.

The one that is the most pressing is the difficulty of getting to/from the project site. The relative inaccessibility is a both  an advantage and a disadvantage. We would like to keep the place in its pristine condition that provides us the quality of source material which is so essential for a high quality product. On the other hand, we need to be able to travel to the place and to transport equipment and eventually manufactured products. So, a good road would be our first priority.

Next on the list is the challenge of providing electricity for further processing of the sea salt after manual harvesting. This is a challenge, though, that is more of an opportunity, because we see this as a chance to demonstrate that Salvest can provide power for productive uses in the most remote locales of Sierra Leone. Successfully meeting this challenge is key to our overall strategy in Sierra Leone.

Finally, as with all ventures, we need to raise more capital to build on the progress we have so far and turn this vision into outputs of real products.

SNS: What's next for SALvest?

VS: So far, our young company has done quite well. We have:

1. Executed a land lease and effectively partnered with the landowners and the people of in the project area
2. Demonstrated feasibility of our production methods and confirmed economic yield quantities in two consecutive seasons.
3. Our sea salt product has passed standard quality lab tests here in the U.S.A
4. During this season, completed production-scale civil works, consisting of a salt water intake channel from the sea, several storage reservoirs, and multiple condenser ponds for our serial precipitation processes.

Salt making is an ancient tradition along Sierra Leone's coast.

In some of the pictures you would observe people engaged in the art of "salt cooking" as it is called locally. In this process, salt water  that had been trapped at high tide in small ditches are allowed to evaporate in the sun. The dried, salty silt is then washed and filtered through a mesh cloth to provide the brownish brine that is further cooked over mangrove-wood fed fires in flat steel pans. The process is very laborious and energy-inefficient. A lot of the mangroves has been consumed for this vibrant cottage industry, resulting in seriously consequential damage to the delicate mangrove ecosystems.

Our process is entirely solar-based evaporation and uses no wood-fired boiling. So there is an environmental angle and "greening" aspect to our venture. It takes much longer to produce salt by this method, but it enables production of purer, bigger-grained and multi- textured salt in much larger volumes. We have also shown that we can extend production of salt well a little bit further into the rainy season.

SALvest recognizes that these salt-cooking families have depended on this traditional industry for centuries for their livelihoods, and I have met several of the youths from these families whose school fees are being paid from the salt earnings. We intend not to compete with these salt producers, but we will offer them the opportunity to join us as employees or distribution agents.

Next in our plans is to complete construction of multiple crystallizer ponds and install brine storage tanks in preparation for full scale production.

Click for more information about SALvest


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