Scanning the Current Liberian Business Environment:
A first person’s account
By Jackson Fiah Doe Jr.
Rice importation is another big money maker. At the present, the Sinkor Trading Company (STC) is the major importer of rice (Liberia’s stable food) in the country. It won the bid from the Liberian Government to input import rice. Previously, Bridgeway Corporation and K & K Corporation were the main importers of rice. For years, these companies dominated the rice import market, and subsequently enjoyed huge profits.
The rice import market is yet to embrace competition, as the government allowed only a few companies to import Liberia’s stable food. This is not a very good thing, for monopolies have a tendency to keep prices high. If the market is opened to competition, prices will inevitably go down as new entrants enter the market, which is good for consumers. The government, however, abolished the molopoly recently by opening the rice and cement markets.
Additionally, companies selling building materials and supplies make lots of money, courtesy of the construction boom in Liberia, as well as the proliferation of home and building renovations. Many Liberians living at home and abroad, as well as companies and other institutions, are erecting homes and other buildings at a pace never seen before. Plus, many people whose homes were destroyed or neglected during the years of the civil war are now rehabbing their properties. This has engendered the need for building supplies and materials. Consequently, companies which sell these products are undoubtedly realizing significant windfall. For instance, Cemenco, which is the premier supplier of cement in Liberia, makes millions of dollars in profits annually. Years ago, the Liberian government granted Cemenco the right to be the sole provider of cement in the country. Because of the lack of competition, it ups prices with impunity when supplies are low, which is always bad news for customers
Another industry in Liberia that seems profitable to me is transportation – passengers and materials. As regards passenger transportation, I was taken aback by the significant amount of people who depend on taxis and buses to transport them to their various destinations. Many of them wait for hours to get a taxi or bus. There simply aren’t enough taxis and buses to pick up passengers in an expeditious manner. Those who have many taxis tend to make a lot of money. Similarly, those who have dump trucks to haul sand and other building materials to construction sites generate good sum of money. I did not see many dump trucks in the country. I never even saw an 18 wheeler truck in Liberia, which might be due to the size and conditions of roads in the country. Almost all the roads in Liberia are very narrow, making it difficult if not impossible to accommodate large trucks.
Lastly, the house rental business is also profitable in the country. There are many foreign nationals flocking into the country to either work for Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or establish businesses. These people will need relatively nice places to rent and work. Therefore, those renting decent homes and other buildings to NGO’s and foreign nationals are making good money by Liberian standards. For instance, some people I know are renting their properties to NGOs for about $1000 to $4000.00 a month per building, which in Liberia, is a very substantial amount.
Rise of the Liberian entrepreneurial spirit
Like many African and third world countries, Liberia’s private sector is in foreign lands. That is, most of the major businesses are owned by Lebanese and other foreign nationals. For instance, most of the big corporations like Firestone, Coca Cola, Cemenco, Bridgeway, Mittal Steel and EcoBank are owned by non-Liberians. Additionally, almost all the supermarkets and major stores in Monrovia are owned by Lebanese. However, things seem to be changing, as many Liberians are getting involved in business on a scale never seen before in the country’s history. There are a number of factors which account for this trend. First, the lack of employment opportunities in the public and private sectors has prompted some Liberians to start their own businesses. Also, the Liberianization policy espoused by the government has enticed many Liberians at home and abroad to get involved in business. And last, many Liberians who fled to other countries during the war have been seen how other Africans like Ghanaians, Guineans, Ivorians, Nigerians and others have succeeded in business. Because of these and other factors, Liberians are getting involved in business in record numbers. At this pace, it won’t be surprising to see the country’s private sector dominated by its citizens in the next five to ten years, as is the case in Ghana. It is worth noting though, that some Liberians have engaged in commerce and trade for generations. The Mandingo ethnic group, for instance, have been very entrepreneurial. They owned many businesses in Monrovia and in other parts of Liberia prior to the country’s civil war, and still do.
Emerging Liberian business tycoons
Although most Liberians who own businesses in the
country are petty traders and small-time merchants,
there are a few Liberians who own large enterprises
and have positioned themselves to become business tycoons.
They include Tomah-Sehe Floyd, the Brown brother s –
Eddie and Allen - and Benini Urey.
Tomah-Sehe Floyd, who is of Liberian and Lebanese lineage, is the founder and CEO of Jungle waters Group of Investments (JWGI), a conglomerate whose lines of business includes stores, rental properties, buying and selling diamonds, gold and cash crops, as well as providing electricity and DSTV services. According to some family members who know Floyd, his company saw its genesis during the Liberian civil war. At a time when businesses were fleeing Sanniquellie (Northeastern Liberia) in droves – because of security concerns - Floyd moved to the city. He saw an opportunity when no one else did. Undaunted by the political instability, he opened a store there. The store’s value proposition was simple: Offer customers all the basic essentials, everything from toiletries to food. The store became so successful that Floyd broadened the scope of his business interests to include buying and selling diamonds, gold and cash crops. He also purchased rental properties. Because of his numerous business ventures, Floyd has become one of Liberia’s richest businessmen.
Eddie Brown is the CEO of Sinkor Trading Company, which recently won a bid from the government to be the premier importer of rice into the country. He is a beneficiary of the Liberianization policy enacted by the government last year. The government wants Liberians to get involved in business and has put in place measures to entice Liberians to start businesses. Brown, undoubtedly seized the opportunities, and was at the right place at the right time. He has without doubt become a power player on the Liberian business landscape. Thus far, he seems to be doing well, as there is constant supply of imported rice on the Liberian market. He is keenly aware that rice importation is a very serious matter. Rice is the stable food for Liberians. They eat imported rice on a daily basis. Rice grown locally is not enough to feed Liberians. Therefore it has to be imported. Anyone entrusted with that responsibility has got to make certain that there is steady flow of imported rice in the country. This is a very daunting task, something Brown knows very well, having grown up in the country. If he succeeds, Brown will become one of Liberia’s richest entrepreneurs.
Allen Brown has become a household name in Monrovia.
He owns four hotels in Monrovia – Urban Chateau,
urban Villa, Urban Renaissance, and Urban Mandela. Recently,
he completed the construction of a housing complex in
Monrovia. He also owns a lounge and restaurant. I ate
at Brown’s restaurant. It was, by Liberian standards,
a very nice restaurant. It was very clean. The service
was great. The food was delicious. I had a wonderful
When the Liberian civil war began in 1990, Brown fled the country, and spent several years developing businesses in the United States and West Africa, before finally returning home when then-President Taylor left for exile in Nigeria, and a transitional government took over. Analyzing the local market, and predicting that a growing stream of post-war visitors would need accommodation, Brown decided to invest his savings in building hotels and housing. (allafrica.com, March 28, 2006). As a result, he has emerged as a formidable force in the Liberian private sector.
A former commissioner of maritime affairs during the Taylor regime, Benoni Urey has become a force to be reckoned with in the Liberian private sector. Many have accused him of embezzling millions of dollars from the government’s coffers during his tenure as maritime commissioner. He is also on the UN’s travel ban list. Notwithstanding, he is very involved in entrepreneurial activities in the country. Urey is chairman of Lone Star communications, Liberia’s largest provider of cell phone service. He owns a huge share of the company’s stock. Additionally, has a very large chicken and pig farm in Careysburg, a few miles north of Monrovia, and is a major supplier of poultry and pork to supermarkets and stores in and around Monrovia.
Aminata Gas stations – a successful Liberian-owned franchise
I noticed, while traveling in and around Monrovia, that an Aminata gas station was located just about everywhere I went. I initially assumed the gas stations were owned by foreign nationals. However, I would later find out that they were in fact established by a Liberian businessman several years ago. He named the business in honor of his wife, Aminata. I also learned that Aminata is indeed a franchise, which surprised me. I recently met a Liberian gentleman in Chicago whose friend owns an Aminata gas station. The fellow confirmed that Aminata is indeed a franchise.
Unlike the United States and other countries which have thousands of franchises, large corporations, small enterprises and other types of businesses, most of the businesses in Liberia are sole proprietorships. Thus, it was great to know that a Liberian owns a successful franchise in the country. The guy who founded Aminata was wise enough to realize that by embracing this business paradigm, he would make lots of money without the headache of running the various gas stations, which is the responsibility of the franchisees.
Ganta – Liberia’s future commercial center
Ganta is the largest city in Nimba County (located in northeastern Liberia); it is the second most populous city in Liberia. Ganta is stragically located, easily accessible from various small and mid-sized cities in Liberia, including Gbarnga, Sanniquellie, Seclepa, Bahn, Yekepa, Tapitta, and Zwedru. It is also located near Guinea. As a result, many people, including merchants, from that country often come to Ganta to purchase goods and services.
I visited Ganta and was pleasantly surprised by its economic vitality. Businesses are springing up just about everywhere in the city. This amazed me, because just a few years ago, this city was attacked and literally destroyed by a rebel group, which invaded the city. A few months later, however, the rebels were ambushed and subsequently defeated at the hands of armed residents. Now Ganta has bounced back better than ever, thanks to many of its sons and daughters living abroad, who provided funds to rebuild homes as well as establish new businesses. What is really remarkable about Ganta is that almost all the businesses in the city are owned and operated by citizens of Nimba country. Prior to the civil war, most of the businesses in Ganta were owned by Lebanese and other foreign nationals. This is no longer the case. For instance, I saw a modern hotel which was nearly completed. It is also owned by a guy from Nimba.
Moreover, several educational, financial and other institutions have established presence in Ganta. There is a hospital in Ganta, which is one of the best in country. A university is currently under construction in the city, as are other facilities, which are requisite to attracting investments into the city. Currently, two banks (EcoBank - and Liberia Bank for Development and Investment) have set up branches in the city, allowing thousands to bank closer to home, instead of traveling hours to Monrovia for such purpose. Similarly, there is a Western Union in Ganta, making it easy for many to receive remittances from abroad. Previously, lots of people in Ganta and nearby towns and cities had to travel to Monrovia to receive money from overseas, a trip which is usually long and inconvenient for many. Additionally, Sethi Brothers, a leading building construction supplier, has opened a store in Ganta. Also, many businesses based in Monrovia are now in the process of opening branches in Ganta. For example, Abi Jaoudi Supermarket, one of the largest supermarkets in Monrovia, is to open a branch in Ganta shortly.
My trip to Liberia last year afforded me the luxury of really knowing what is happening in the country’s business environment. In my judgment, the country is ripe for business. Although there are some challenges regarding establishing businesses in Liberia, the benefits of setting up firms in the country are enormous. That is why many Chinese, Lebanese and other foreign nationals are streaming into the country to explore business opportunities. Thus, it is imperative that Liberians living abroad - who have entrepreneurial aspirations and a desire to return home - begin devising an action plan to do business in Liberia. It is better to get a business started as soon as possible to take advantage of the Liberianization policy espoused by the government, as well as to gain a foothold in the line of business which one seeks to compete. However, for this to happen, it is important to develop a very good strategy to differentiate one’s business from rivals and to gain a substantial share of the market in which one is to compete.
One major problem Liberian-owned businesses may face when competing against foreign firms is the lack of deep pockets. Many foreign firms are well capitalized while many Liberian firms are not well funded. Thus, it may be very difficult for them to ably compete vis a vis foreign rivals.
Also, I suggest that companies and entrepreneurs contemplating doing business in Liberia should consider setting up their firms in a city like Ganta, which is the second largest consumer market in the country. Also, Ganta has many of the institutions and facilities one would find in Monrovia, like banks, western union, hospital, schools, and hotels. Unlike Monrovia, which is often plagued by traffic jams, especially in the downtown area, it is easy to get around in Ganta. Also, the air quality in Ganta is much better than that of Monrovia.
About the Author: Jackson Fiah Doe Jr. is President and Founder of TopFlight Incorporated, Chicagoland’s premier provider of cleaning services to churches. He can be reached at email@example.com