Cocoa: Where a resources manager is uncovering a sweet find

After traveling nearly 6,000 miles by plane, helicopter and jeep, Evan Smith, portfolio manager at U.S. Global, is walking along a dirt path in Kenema past dilapidated shops covered with rusted, corrugated metal. He can hardly believe he has arrived at his destination. Surrounded by hundreds of miles of forest and savannah, it's tough to imagine an agricultural diamond-in-the-rough nearby.

Kenema is in Sierra Leone, a country in the Western part of sub-Saharan Africa with 5.6 million people recovering from a decade-long civil war that ended 11 years ago. Today, the rural people, mostly farmers and fishermen, are peaceful and friendly, says Evan, who explored the opportunity for the Global Resources Fund (PSPFX).

To get here, Evan flew from San Antonio, Texas to the largest city in Sierra Leone, Freetown, making stops in New York City, Ghana and Liberia. Then he boarded a four-person helicopter to fly east 150 miles, enduring heart-pounding drops and lifts between clouds and mountains before safely arriving at a cocoa plantation development.

The heart of Africa has been beating strong in recent years due to elevated commodity prices and resilient domestic demand, despite the global economic slowdown. Among the sub-Saharan African countries, Sierra Leone was the fastest growing country last year, according to the World Bank. Its economy experienced growth that is as rare today as Fancy Red diamonds. GDP increased a whopping 18%.

Non-profit organizations are taking note of the country’s progress. The Freedom House recently categorized Sierra Leone as a free country, which is unusual in sub-Saharan Africa. Among 50 countries and 900 million people, only 13% of people are considered free under the organization’s definition.

Sierra Leone is also becoming more attractive for business. In the World Bank’s Doing Business 2013 report, the country ranked 140, up from 148. One of its main findings this year is that “among the 50 economies with the biggest improvements since 2005, the largest share—a third—are in sub-Saharan Africa.”

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