Scanning the Current Liberian Business Environment: A first person's account
By Jackson Fiah Doe, Jr.
As I boarded the SN Brussels flight, one thing became very obvious: the large number of Chinese, Europeans and other foreign nationals traveling to Liberia. I would later find out that, like me, almost all of them were going to the country to explore business opportunities.
Despite been drenched in sweat, thanks to the sweltering heat, which greeted me upon disembarking from the plane at Roberts International airport outside Monrovia (Liberia’s capital), I was determined not to let any sort of discomfort cloud my ability to objectively assess the Liberian business environment. Although having written several articles in the past year regarding the Liberian private sector, I had done so from afar. Thus, I deemed it imperative to visit the country to see what was truly happening in its business environment.
Factors that could discourage investors
It is crystal clear that Liberia still bears the scars of the country’s prolonged civil war. The devastation from the war can be found literally everywhere in Monrovia and other parts of the country, which in my view, could .no doubt dissuade some investors from doing business in the country. There are many reasons investors (Liberian and Foreign) won’t be excited to do business in the country.
a. Lack of safe, pipe-borne drinking water
It cannot be gainsaid that Liberia’s 14-year bloody civil war had an adverse impact on the country’s water supply apparatus. During the war, Liberia’s main water treatment plant, located in White Plains, outside Monrovia, was destroyed. It provided safe drinking water to residents of Monrovia and other areas. Also, prior to the war, all 15 counties in the country had water treatment facilities, affording hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to drink clean, piped water. However, this is no longer the case, as most people are unable to find safe drinking water. Although some homes, businesses and institutions have their own water treatment systems, most people get water from poorly constructed wells that are contaminated. Some people even draw water for drinking, cooking and washing from rivers, lakes, ditches, and drains littered with human and animal excrement. This has given rise to various water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, cholera and infectious hepatitis. These diseases, if not treated properly and quickly, can result in death.
b. Poor sanitary facilities
Because of the lack of pipe-borne water and disinfectants, most of the sanitary facilities (Bathrooms and latrines) in Liberia are unhygienic. Few buildings have their own water systems and septic tanks. However, most sanitary facilities in the country, especially the hinterlands, don’t have pour-flush latrines and are not connected any public sewer or septic tanks. Instead, they have open pit and bucket latrines, which is not very sanitary. These facilities are cesspools of contamination and diseases.
Using sanitary facilities in many parts of country, including Monrovia, can be quite agonizing. For example, in homes and buildings which previously had pipe-borne water, the bathrooms have 55- gallon containers used to store water. One then has to fill small buckets with water to flush the toilets. In many cases, there is no water to flush the toilets. Imagine how unpleasant that can be. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of powerful disinfectants in the country to kill gems in restrooms. An unclean restroom is a turnoff for people, especially those living in developed countries.
While at the Roberts’ international airport awaiting
my flight out of the country, I ventured into the men’s
restroom. I quickly got out of there. I did not use
the restroom, because it stunk so badly. There weren’t
even urinal blocks in the urinals. I couldn’t
believe the restrooms at Liberia’s International
airport, where literally hundreds pass through on a
daily basis, would not be properly cleaned and sanitized.
c. Garbage collection and disposal problem
The lack of effective garbage collection and disposal
system is a serious problem in Liberia. As I made my
way through the streets of Monrovia and its environs,
I was shocked and disillusioned by the piles of garbage
been burned along roadsides. There was also lots of
garbage that littered the side walks. The garbage problem
was especially pronounced at marketplaces in and around
Monrovia. There, people were walking as well as standing
on trash. Others were even eating while standing on
garbage, not aware of the health problems caused by
unsanitary conditions of the environment. It occurred
to me that the marketers as well as shoppers have gotten
used to the unhealthy condition of the markets and were
apparently not bothered by that. It seems that the Monrovia
City Corporation, which is has the responsibility of
collecting and disposing garbage in and around Monrovia,
has been unable to mitigate this problem. I couldn’t
image people doing business in such an unhealthy environment.
Yet, some people do.
d. Damaged/deteriorated infrastructures
Many key infrastructures critical to conducting business in the country have either been destroyed, due to the civil war, or deteriorated over the years because of neglect. The main power plant, which provided electricity to Monrovia and the surrounding cities, was severely damaged, plunging the city and its environs into darkness for almost a decade. Many private generators are currently used by government agencies, embassies, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, as well as by individuals. Also, the water and sewer infrastructure suffered severe damaged during the civil war.
Additionally, the Liberia Telecommunications (LTC) - a public Corporation with full monopoly in all kinds of telecommunications and information service - which provided phone services and owned the public telephone network (including landlines all over the country), is not fully functional. All the phone lines in the country are not working. The lack of operable phones lines in the country has given rise to the proliferation of pre-paid GSM mobile phone services providers in the country.
Finally, the road systems in Monrovia and around the country are in desperate need of repairs because of neglect over the years. Traveling by road in Liberia can be dangerous. Because potholes and poor road surfaces are commonplace, safe driving can be pretty challenging. The roads are very narrow. Cars and trucks are often jam packed with people and goods, and make many stops without warning. Additionally, there are very few if any operating streetlights in the country; therefore one must drive with caution when approaching intersections.
Prior to the civil war, roads (mostly unpaved) in the country were not properly maintained. The civil war made matters worse, as the roads - especially those in the hinterlands - are very dangerous to use. Certain areas in the country are extremely difficult to access because of very poor road conditions.
When I traveled from Monrovia to Sanniquellie (Nimba County, Northeastern Liberia) during my recent visit to Liberia, the roads were in poor conditions, especially between Gbarnga (Bong county, central Liberia) and Ganta (Nimba country, Northeastern Liberia). It seemed large potholes were everywhere. A trip which normally takes forty-five minutes, took us about two hours.
e. Substandard healthcare system
Prior to the civil war, Liberia’s healthcare system was one of the best in West Africa. It had very good doctors and medical facilities. Many people from other countries in West Africa traveled to Liberia for medical treatment. Many complicated and delicate surgeries were performed in the country. The medical school at the University of Liberia produced well-trained doctors. In addition, the country had very good nurses. However, the war devastated Liberia’s healthcare system, as many hospitals and medical facilities were damaged and destroyed. Trained doctors and nurses fled the country, which resulted in the collapse of the country’s healthcare infrastructure. Now, hospitals and medical facilities are poorly equipped and incapable of providing even basic services. Most of the doctors are not adequately trained. Consequently, misdiagnosis is very common, which has grave consequences, including deaths.
Moreover, emergency services comparable to the US and Europe are nonexistent and blood supply is unreliable and unsafe of transfusion. Medicines are scare, often beyond expiration dates, and often unavailable in most parts of the country.
Why investors should consider doing business in Liberia
At first glance, Liberia does not seem conducive for doing business. All necessary infrastructures have been destroyed, courtesy of the civil war. However, if one takes a closer look, it becomes apparent that the country could be a place in which to do business, as there are a myriad of factors which should make it attractive to investors.
When I arrived in Liberia, I was initially very afraid to venture into the streets after dark, for fear of been attacked. After all, I heard horror stories of armed bandits terrorizing communities in and around Monrovia. However, my fears quickly disappeared, as I found myself visiting friends and relatives late at night. It is amazing how safe I felt. In fact, I spent a few days staying at a friend’s house near the Paynesville Red light market, a place where the infamous Issakaba boys (A criminal gang) were said to have wreaked havoc on residents and visitors with impunity. Now things are very different. Gone are the days when that area was besieged by these criminals. The area has become unbelievably quiet and safe during nighttimes. In fact, a couple of times, I walked to the Red-light market at night to purchase pre-paid calling cards, and was neither harassed nor attacked.
Liberia has, in the last two years, enjoyed some semblance
of stability, courtesy of United Nations’ troops,
which have provided security in the country. The United
Nations, on September 19, 2003, unanimously adopted
resolution 1509 (2003); it decided that the United Nations
Missions in Liberia (UNMIL) would consist of up to 15,000
united nations military personal, including up to 250
military observers, and up to 1115 civilian police officers,
including formed units to assist in the maintenance
of law and order throughout the country. The mandate
was established for a period of 12 months.
UNMIL assumed peacekeeping duties in Liberia on 1 October 1, 2003. Some 3500 West African troops who had been serving with Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) vanguard force were provisionally re-hatted as UN Peacekeepers. Currently, UNML has 15,978 total uniformed personnel, including 14,692 troops and 202 military observers; 1,084 civilian police supported by 523 international civilian personnel.
b. Wireless communications
The proliferation of wireless communications in Liberia has made it very easy to keep in contact with people. I was surprised to find out that almost everybody in the country has a cell phone. In constrast, when I left Liberia in 1989, only a few people had access to phones. As such, it was difficult to contact people in the country. People had to go to the telecommunications building in downtown Monrovia and wait for hours to call abroad. No More. Thanks to the emergence of wireless communications, businesses can easily contact suppliers, employees, customers as well as those within their value chains, something which was not easily done few years back.
c. Cheap cost of labor
Another reason Liberians and others living abroad should consider doing business in Liberia is the low cost of labor. It doesn’t cost very much to maintain a workforce in the country. Many people are paid about $30.00 to $50.00 a month, which is significantly less than what their counterparts in other parts of the world are paid. For instance, I pay each of my employees an average of $800.00 per month (I own a building service contracting business in the Chicago area). If I had a similar business in Liberia, I would probably pay employees there an average of $50.00 per month.
There are many people in Liberia who are unemployed and desperate to get jobs. Therefore, there is no shortage of cheap labor. I found out that while there are many people willing to work, they simply don’t have any marketable skills. Thus, they could do unskilled jobs which do not require a lot of training. Whereas training programs in the western world may cost a lot, it costs a company very little to train employees in Liberia.
Liberia’s location, in my view, makes the country an ideal place for tourism and agriculture. The country is situated along the Atlantic Ocean, and is blessed with spectacular costal sceneries, making it an excellent place for great beaches and sea front resorts, and could be transformed into a tourist haven. Currently, beaches in Liberia are poorly developed. Thus, companies investing in tourism and hospitality could make a fortune developing beaches and building resorts and hotels in Liberia. This is because many people from abroad, including Liberians living overseas, will visit Liberia in the thousands in the next few years, and would need nice places to stay and be entertained. Therefore, companies willing to invest in tourism will be well positioned to cater to thousand of visitors and tourists, and in turn make tons of money.
Additionally, Liberia is endowed with very fertile
soil, thanks to its location in the equatorial region
of Africa, which is characterized by regular rainfall
during the latter half of the year. The constant rainfall
makes the country ideal for agricultural production.
However, the country has never been able to produce
enough food to feed its people. Instead, rice, as well
as other food crops is imported from abroad. It never
ceases to amaze me why Liberia, with its rich soil,
would import its stable food from other countries. There
are very few, if any, agricultural processing facilities
in the country. Many Liberian farmers are subsistent
and, unable to produce their food crops on a large scale
to sell to the Liberian people. Companies interested
in processing and selling food products including rice,
potatoes, oranges, banana, yam, and cassava will make
enormous profits, as there are no local competitors.
However, for this to be possible is it imperative to
invest in processing equipment.
Moreover, because of Liberia’s rich soil, cash crops such as coffee, rubber, lumber and cocoa are grown in the country. However, there are currently no processing or manufacturing facilities in the country to transform these cash crops into finished goods. Thus, these crops are exported abroad unprocessed. I am of the conviction that companies wanting to build plants to process these crops will unquestionably reap significant financial rewards, as they will face little or no local competition.
About the author: Jackson Fiah Doe Jr. is President and Founder of TopFlight Incorporated, Chicagoland’s leading provider of cleaning services to churches. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.