Thousands of market women throughout Liberia have
been selling in the markets for years, if not decades;
however, many have not been able to expand their micro-businesses.
Lots of market women have not moved to the next level
in their careers, like owning stores, shops, and boutiques.
There are some reasons why these marketers have not
fared well in their businesses ventures.
Ineffectiveness of the LMA
a. Political involvement
It seems many of these hardworking women have not been as successful as they should because of the political involvement of LMA’s leaders. Many marketers complain that the organization is more concerned about political expediency than seeking their interests. Some have criticized the organization for diverting funds from programs that enhance the advancement of market women – such as literacy programs - to supporting political campaigns. As mentioned, most market women can neither read nor write, which makes it increasing difficult for them to undertake complex business transactions that entail writing contracts, invoicing, and the like. Without the basics of education, it is tough for these women to excel in their businesses. Also, lots of them don’t know the fundamentals of business. As a consequence, they don’t truly understand how to expand a business, prospect for customers, procure capital and so forth. Without programs in place to help them read and write, as well as learn basic business concepts, these women will not move to the next level in business.
Over the years, there have been interferences from various Liberian governments in the operations of the LMA, with the goal of subjecting members of the LMA to the whims and caprices of the power-that-be.17 For instance, a few years back, the LMA board of Directors accused exile former president Charles Taylor of manipulating the LMA, when he in 1998 forced the then president Robert Kollie to resign and replaced him with Martha Saye, one of Taylor’s cronies. According to them, Kollie was the only LMA president who prioritized the interests of the marketers, and refused to succumb to pressure and intimidation from political leaders.18 Kollie did not fall prey to the spoils of patronage and resisted any attempt to use the resources of the LMA for political gain19, something that current leaders of LMA continue to do, according to many marketers.
b. Daily taxes
Also, the inequity of the daily taxes has negatively impacted some market women. Market women who sell fresh produce and other food items say they are the ones forced to pay the taxes. According to a Liberian doctor living in the Washington DC area (whose mother was a market woman in Bong mines, a mining town several miles north of Monrovia), the tax collectors are very uncompromising when it comes to collecting the nominal fees from women selling food items. If a woman does not pay the tax, he asserts, the taxman or woman will either confiscate some of her goods or bar her from selling in the markets. He also mentions that in most cases, other market women raise the requisite funds to help their fellow marketer pay the fees.
Conversely, the tax collectors are lenient with those selling in stalls, willor markets, and head trays. A friend living in Chicago, who helped his mother sell used clothes in the main market of Kakata (located about a hour north of Monrovia) during the mid to late 1980’s, told me that some people who sold in stalls and willor markets bribed tax collectors so as not to pay taxes. As for the hawkers or women selling goods in head trays, he says that they rarely paid taxes. My friend recounts that whenever hawkers saw the tax collectors, they would either hide or leave the markets to sell elsewhere. A Liberian student attending a community college in the Chicago area concurs. He was a mobile trader in a Monrovia area market. According to him, he never paid the daily tax. Whenever he spotted the tax collector, he would elude him/her. In some instances, he literally fled the market place in order to avoid paying taxes.
Perhaps no other problem is of more serious concern to the market women than the safety of the marketplaces. Whereas prior to the Liberian civil war when marketplaces only witnessed petty theft and minor crimes in and near their facilities, the market areas are now beset by more serious crimes. While growing up in Liberia, I shopped at several marketplaces in the country, and was neither robbed nor attached. However, things have changed since I left the country in 1989. The Liberia I knew as a youngster is no more. In fact, family members and friends tell me that they are very alert when in the markets, so as not to be robbed or worse, attacked.
One market that exemplifies the increase in serious crimes in Liberian marketplaces is the Red-Light Market. This market, located in the north suburban Monrovia town of Paynesville, has been under criminal siege for quite some time dating back to the cessation of hostilities in Monrovia.20 The area, which was only known for its low-key, pick-pocketing and hand-bag snatching, common to congested market centers, is now a full-blown criminal zone.21 Marketers selling in the area say the criminals (mainly ex-combatants), who are now armed with machetes, clubs, and automatic rifles roam the areas in groups, pouncing on hapless shoppers, petite traders, and passersby, extorting money, goods, cell phones, wrist watches and other valuables and even raping women or killing their victims.22 Marketers in all the large markets are very afraid to sell their goods, because of the lack of security.
For market women selling fresh produce, food spoilage has an adverse impact on the bottom line. One reason for food spoilage is bad roads. When market women purchase locally grown food crops from farms, they have problems getting them to the markets due to bad farm-to-market roads. When these food items finally get to the markets, they are either spoiled or half damaged, which is a financial loss for the market women. Almost all the farm-to-market roads are in very bad conditions, especially during the rainy season, which makes this problem worse. Even the paved roads that connect Monrovia to other cities have deteriorated over the years due to neglect and/or lack of funding. However, farms located near these highways are a lot easier to reach than those of the hinterlands.
Lack of reliable transportation also contributes to food spoilage. There are very few cars that are used exclusively for transporting fresh produce to marketplaces. Most of the transport cars are used to carry passengers. There are very few market women who have their own cars to transport their food crops to the markets. However, for some women, they have to rent pickup trucks to transport food items to markets. Others have to find spaces in passenger cars, which is not always easy to do. When these marketers are finally able to find cars to transport their produce, the latter might already be decaying, which is financially devastating to market women.
Low profit margins
Most of the market women, especially those selling fresh produce and other food items (rice, imported goods), realize low profit margins. This makes it very difficult for these hardworking women to progress in their careers. A major reason for low profit margins is the high prices they pay for food items and other goods. The wholesalers they buy from tend to charge a lot for their goods. Consequently, these marketers don’t make as much profits as they should. Many of them complain that foreign merchants, who are suppose to sell their goods on wholesale, are themselves selling these items on retail, which is against the law. For instance, marketers at the waterside market (one of the largest marketplaces in Monrovia) have expressed serious concern regarding the exploitative attitude of some businessmen who sell wholesale products.23 According to these women, the Lebanese merchants trample upon their rights as retailers.24 The Lebanese merchants do so, according to market women, by giving some of their products to petite traders (who are mainly young boys) for retailing at lower prices right outside their stores while they sell the rest on wholesale25 Thus, the Lebanese merchants, who sell the goods to market women at high prices, in turn give the same goods to some petty traders to auction them, thereby making if very difficult for customers to buy from them (Market women).26
Also, food hawkers tend to have very low profit margins because they sell just a few items, which do not generate enough money. Many of these women live hand to mouth and are not able to save a lot of money to move to the next level in their careers.
Lack of access to capital
Unlike other Liberian entrepreneurs who readily have access to capital, most market women don’t have such luxury. Many banks and other lending institutions are very reluctant to extend credit or give loans to these micro-entrepreneurs. They don’t see these marketers as profitable customers. Consequently, the market women have no option but to turn to Su Su and informal moneylenders, who charge very high interest rates, which has an adverse effect on their profitability.
Many market women have been unable to expand their micro-businesses due to a number of reasons. If these problems are to be mitigated, certain measures need to be considered.
Reform the LMA
a. Hire professional administrator
Although the leadership of the Liberian Market Organization has tried to move the organization forward, it has not been successful. The organization has been woefully ineffective and inefficient. This is because leaders of the organization simply lack the requisite skills, expertise, and experience to properly manage an organization as large and complex as the LMA. In light of this, the organization needs to be reformed (I am willing to initially assist the LMA to implement reforms). It should hire a professional administrator to handle the day-to-day operations of the LMA, and is accountable to the LMA board of directors. This person should have a degree in business or organizational management, and must have experience in management, budgeting, accounting, and planning and implementation, or similar qualifications. The administrator should ensure that the market facilities are consistently cleaned and maintained on a daily basis. Additionally, the administrator should hire a private company to remove garbage or trash from marketplaces.
Moreover, members of the LMA’s board of directors are to receive training on budget and accounting, conflict resolution, planning and implementation and the like (Again, I am willing to assist the organization in this regard). This way, board members will be properly prepared to perform its oversight duties, including ensuring the LMA resources are used appropriately, and making certain that the administrator is doing his/her job adequately. They will also be well positioned to put forth long-range plans for the organization. Additionally, the LMA board is to make certain that the organization’s funds are not misused. As such, I suggest that no one person should be authorized to withdraw funds from the LMA’s accounts. There should be about three people (the administrator, a board member, and a marketer) who are to authorize the disbursement of funds from LMA’s bank accounts.
b. Make daily fees progressive
Also, the daily fees collected from marketers ought be progressive. Marketers who generate more income should pay higher fees and vice versa. Currently, everyone pays the same amount. However, the women who sell food items are the ones forced to pay the daily nominal fees, while those who sell expensive items tend to elude tax collectors. This has got to change. To make sure this happen, I suggest that two people (who are to be trained), on a rotational basis - Tax collectors should alternate market sites at least every three months - stand at the entrance of each market to collect the fees before marketers are allowed to enter the markets. If a marketer refuses to pay the tax, he/she should not be allowed to sell in the market. The two tax collectors should give marketers tickets or receipts upon paying the fees, which they are to display on their tables or in their stalls. A plain-clothes inspector at each market must check every stall, table, and willor market to make certain that everyone has paid the tax.
c. Establish a credit union
I am of the conviction that an organization as large as the LMA ought to have its own credit union. The credit union should be run be a professional manager, someone with experience in banking and finance. The credit union’s staff should consist primarily of market women (who are to be trained). This will be a great opportunity for some of these women who want to advance in their careers. Market women and men alike should be encouraged to open accounts at the credit union. Naturally, these marketers will be initially reluctant to do so, because they have historically kept their money on their own due to the lack of confidence and trust in the established banks and other formal financial institutions. However, if they know that the credit union belongs to them, and are staffed by marketers themselves, these women and men will have a change of heart, as they will build confidence in this financial institution on.
d. Tackle illegal squatting
Many traders who illegally sell their goods in and near markets have hurt the profitability of legitimate marketers, as these traders have steered customers away from the latter, which is detrimental to the interests of legitimate marketers. Nonetheless, things are changing. For instance, the police in the Monrovia area have recently been cracking down on squatters selling on the streets, who happen not to be members of the LMA, and therefore don’t pay the daily fees, to the dismay of the LMA. On January 31, 2006, several used clothes retailers who have been squatting in the Vai town children playground (located in Monrovia) saw their tables destroyed by security forces.27 Several were prevented from setting up tables on the main children’s playground at the edge of the old bridge that links Waterside (also located in Monrovia) to Vai Town.28 For its part, the LMA has taken a strong stance against the affected street sellers. Mark Hinnen, an executive of the LMA said that those affected were not part of the LMA. According to him, the organization, on numerous occasions, has appealed to the seller to become members of the LMA, but to no avail.29 He also urged the sellers to consider joining the organization so that they could be relocated under the auspices of the LMA.30
e. Establish literacy and training programs
I believe that if the LMA puts in place adult literacy programs, this will go a long way to helping market women gain basic skills like reading and writing, which would in turn help them to undertake complex business transactions such as negotiating and signing contracts, understanding receipts and invoicing. Also, the LMA should offer programs to aid marketers in acquiring basic business knowledge in managing money, setting up budgets, expanding a business and the like. With these skills, I am convinced, that these women will be ably positioned to move to the next level in their careers. They would able to open shops, stores, boutiques or entertainment centers, without the need to hire someone to manage their new enterprises.
I suggest that the newly elected Liberian government, under the leadership of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, makes efforts to rid the marketplaces of criminals. The LMA alone can’t deal with this problem. It needs help from the government. Only the government has means to deplore armed police officers at marketplaces. When there are armed officers stationed at the markets, criminals will be reluctant to attack the area, for fear of being arrested or shot. The mere presence of armed police officers is undoubtedly deterrence to crime. This will engender some semblance of security at the various market areas, which is desperately needed at this time.
Reducing food spoilage
One way to tackle spoilage of locally grown crops is to improve farm-to-market roads. The government should make plans to improve many of the roads. However, it seems this may not happen anytime soon, as the Johnson-Sirleaf government is prioritizing restoring electricity and running water to Monrovia and its environs. As long as there are bad farm-to-market roads, this problem will linger, which is bad news for market women.
Also, if market women have access to reliable transportation, perhaps this problem will be minimized. There are very few, if any, vehicles that are solely used for transporting goods to marketplaces. Anyone who gets into the goods transportation business will make a lot of money, as there is little or no competition in this industry.
Encourage competition in the wholesale food
The newly elected government should make certain that there is competition in the wholesale food industry. Currently, there is very little, if any, competition in the rice import business, because a few foreign merchants control this industry. Whenever there is little or no competition in an industry, price tends to be high. For instance, market women pay high prices for bags of rice, and therefore don’t make enough profit. If new entrants make inroads into the rice import business, rice prices will subsequently go down because of competition. There would no longer be a few individuals controlling this industry. Market women would have options regarding where to buy rice. Customer service will improve. Foreign merchants who now dominate this market, will have to reinvent themselves, as they will be forced to compete on the basis of price, product quality and customer service. They will then realize very quickly that if they don’t offer customers the right price and service, the customers will “vote with their feet”, meaning, customers will go elsewhere, which will translate into a financial loss for these entrepreneurs.
I strongly encourage Liberian entrepreneurs to consider
importing rice and food items into the country. They
will undoubtedly be able to gain a critical mass of
customers. If these businesspeople import these items
in bulk and sell them to market women at low prices,
they will make lots of money.
It is crystal clear that market women have an enormous impact on the Liberian food sector. There is hardly anyone in Liberia (Liberians or foreign residents) who has not bought food items from the markets or eaten food purchased from local markets. The impact of these hardworking women is felt in the urban centers as well as rural areas. In the urban centers, like Monrovia, market women are basically the only ones selling much-needed locally grown food crops that mainly comprise the Liberian diet. In the rural areas, they sell imported food items and other imported goods that are not readily available in these areas. Also, since they are primarily the retailers of food in the country, market women are able to sell food cheaply and in small quantities, which many Liberians can afford. Without market women, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary Liberians to gain access to affordable food items and cheap manufactured goods.
Finally, many market women have been selling in the
marketplaces for decades; yet they have been unable
to move to the next level because of a number of factors
including, but not limited to, ineffectiveness of
the Liberian Marketing Association, low profit margins,
food spoilage, and lack of access to capital. If the
recommendations I made are implemented, many market
women will be put on the path that leads to advancement
in their careers.