Maximizing Liberia’s Entrepreneurial Hustle

Sep 25, 2011 at 12:02 pm Leave a comment

This article originally appeared on PDT’s Building Markets blog on September 13, 2011.

The more I learn about Liberia, the more I forget about international aid workers, government agencies and NGOs; and think instead of Liberians. This is where the interesting stories lie.

Stories like Garmai Estella Korboi Calvins from Lofa County, who at the age of 16 started her first business selling baby clothing. Despite fleeing to Guinea during the civil war, Garmai returned to Liberia and rebuilt her first business so successfully that she is now diversifying her ventures. She is planning to open a mineral water depot and has begun experimenting with small-scale peanut production.

Then there’s Chidegar Liberty, co-founder of the Liberty and Justice Foundation and deep believer in the power of social entrepreneurship. His foundation has created the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project, Liberia’s first Fair Trade garment factory that employs 30 female Liberians, who together hold a 49 percent stake in the factory. Chid’s Sewing Project is not only empowering women workers, but is also helping develop a new industry in Liberia.

Women working at the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project in Monrovia. Photo from CNN

Seeing the private sector develop through the entrepreneurial hustle of individual Liberians – not the Liberian government or government aid agencies – is not only exceptionally impressive, but important in a country where support services for nascent businesses are mostly nonexistent.

This point was emphasized by Lu Tolbert, founder of the Liberia Cocoa Corporation, Liberia’s first large-scale cocoa plantation. He saw the potential for the country to cultivate cocoa, a crop that hasn’t yet taken off in Liberia. But starting a business in Liberia was, according to Lu, “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. You have to do everything yourself.” Lu cites a variety of reasons. Infrastructure is poor, skillsets are low, the government can’t provide many services, access to capital is practically non-existent, and local communities are suspicious of promises made by outsiders, even if, like Lu, they are Liberian by birth.

ACDI-VOCA farmer David Kpen in Wehplay, Liberia.

Lu still managed to navigate these challenges and now employs 300 Liberians, as well as relegating 20 percent of the land as smallholder farms that are cultivated by the community.

All of the above examples are reasons why PDT is engaging with entrepreneurs in Liberia through its Marketplace model. We can help them build their capacity and access contracting opportunities, further developing the private sector. In Liberia there are tremendous opportunities for large institutional buyers – in particular those working in the oil, timber and other extractive industries – to source more goods and services locally, helping to unleash the potential of the local marketplace.

We are currently moving forward with a soft launch of the project. This means getting the nuts and bolts of the Marketplace in place, such as setting up the Liberia Business Portal and recruiting a stellar Country Director.

Two seasoned PDT Senior Advisors and PDT’s Liberia Business Development Manager landed in Liberia in July and have begun setting up PDT’s presence on the ground. They will meet with large institutional buyers and other key partners like the National Investment Commission and Ministry of Commerce and Industry to ensure the Marketplace services are as useful as possible.

Equally as important is engaging entrepreneurs in Liberia, the Chamber of Commerce and business associations to get a sense of the obstacles they face in accessing contracting opportunities. Everyone we talk to will enable us to collect high quality baseline data to track PDT’s impact, to set realistic targets for the project and to tailor our services to the specific needs of the local market.

We’ll also be building a strong Liberian team. We’ll be looking for Liberian staff with a range of skills, including admin and finance, conducting field surveys, gathering and managing data, working with businesses, planning and hosting large events, providing training and implementing marketing and advocacy campaigns.

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Entry filed under: Africa, Economic Development, Liberia. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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