Small steps towards a big renaissance for Liberia

1 July 2014
ITC News
A decade after the civil war ended, Liberia is now slowly but surely on its long way towards economic recovery

Burnt-out buildings and torn-up roads still scar Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, eleven years after the civil war that paralyzed the West African country for more than two decades. There are even more serious casualties from the years of conflict: in addition to the human suffering, the victims included the economy, education, knowledge, and skills. In this resource-rich country, exports came to a halt, and business owners fled, taking assets and expertise with them. Today, Liberia remains one of the world’s poorest countries.

But the country is turning a corner. Liberians are now looking ahead and conditions are improving. With the help of international partners, roads are being rebuilt, houses are being renovated and most children are now spending an average of 10 years at school. Around Monrovia, trade is brisk. At the city’s markets, thousands of vendors are selling everything from shoes to Chelsea football shirts. And entrepreneurs are setting up shops on every street, to supply resurgent demand for mobile phones or cars.

Liberia is now politically stable. Much of the progress can be credited to the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has created national unity since she was elected in 2006, and is keeping the reconstruction effort on track. As a result, the opportunities for growth have returned – and Liberians are taking advantage of them.

Spicy entrepreneur

Take Martha Hendricks, for example. She came back to Liberia from the United States soon after the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought the war to an end in 2003. She planned to spend her retirement years quietly with her daughter and grandchildren. But when she started growing vegetables and spices to keep herself active, she rapidly found clients for her produce, and became – almost by accident – a successful entrepreneur.

Her company, Zoequoi Farms, now employs people and is selling spices and other products to hotels and shops across the country, and even back across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. And Hendricks wants to expand further: ‘I want to become the largest organic producer in Liberia,’ she said. And for exports, ‘I am targeting the US and Europe’.

‘In Liberia we are blessed with everything and plenty of rainfall. And I hope that within my lifetime, Liberia feeds itself. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do this; we just need a little push. And trade will also play an important role in this. Africa is the new frontier and we have to get on board,’ Hendricks added.

Hendricks is just one of Liberia’s many entrepreneurs aiming to export more of their goods to neighbouring countries and beyond. Charlesetta P. Harrow and Teinzee Zeon work for Amazing Grace, a company that – since the end of the war – has been recycling glass bottles and making them into beads, employing women and young people in the Paynesville area of the capital. ‘We sell quite a lot to expats, and especially the US embassy,’ said Harrow. ‘But we would like to sell our beads abroad, and we are looking for someone to assist in this effort.’ Zeon added. ‘We would like to see more women, especially young girls, become businesswomen. This allows them to have their own income and we want to empower young women.’

Rising investments

Liberia’s exports have been picking up. According to ITC’s Trade Map, the country exported around US$ 1.2 billion worth of goods in 2012. This is mostly raw materials such as rubber, iron ore and wood. But steps are now being taken to add value to those products.

At Firestone’s rubber plantation, trees that were traditionally burnt at the end of the lifecycle for latex production are now being repurposed as ecologically sustainable Hevea wood, for use in the manufacture of furniture, flooring and other products. Firestone is the country's biggest rubber producer, but it is not alone in wanting to make better use of its time-expired trees.

That desire is shared by Roland C. Karné, Chairman of the National Rubber Brokers and Farmers Union of Liberia – although his immediate concern is building up the capacities of independent producers. ‘What we need most of all is machinery and to learn how to use this,’ Karné said. ‘Cutting tools to clear the land would help us increase production. We cannot continue working with machetes, it is not sustainable.’

Foreign direct investment in Liberia is on the rise. And, as in many developing countries, the investments are increasingly coming from other developing countries, or from emerging economies – notably China and Indonesia, which are active in iron-ore and rubber production.

Axel Addy, Liberia's Minister of Commerce and Industry, says the country is looking for investments that are in line with its development priorities. ‘Investments must create employment opportunities for Liberians and create partnerships, opportunity and growth for [priority] sectors,’ he said.

A National Export Strategy (NES) and a National Trade Policy, both launched on 29 April, will, according to Addy, provide Liberia with a blueprint of the priority target sectors (cassava, cocoa, fish and crustaceans, rubber and oil palm) that will help investors to identify investment opportunities.

Another goal is for Liberia to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). ‘Liberia is a country of 4 million people, so it is a small country. It is therefore in our interest to be a part of the multilateral trading system. And the WTO comes with tremendous benefits,’ said the minister.

‘We will have to broaden our export basket in a way that will allow investors coming into Liberia to see the value of working with the domestic private sector, and share a common goal of achieving growth that is equitable and inclusive,’ Addy said. ‘That will ensure that the Liberia we turn over to the younger generation is a better Liberia.’

What took more than 20 years to destroy will take many more decades to reconstruct. Slowly but surely, though, Liberia is putting the pieces back together.

Liberia’s National Export Strategy and National Trade Policy

On 29 April, Liberia launched its National Export Strategy (NES) and its National Trade Policy (NTP). The aim of the two instruments is to boost the capacities of the private sector and to reconnect the country with regional and global markets.

Launched after several rounds of consultations led by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in collaboration with the International Trade Centre (ITC), the NES and NTP will function as blueprints for the government, the private sector and development partners in their joint efforts to help Liberian SMEs enhance their competitiveness and value addition.

'I am proud to launch the Liberia National Trade Policy 2014–2019 and the Liberia National Export Strategy 2014–2019,’ Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, said at the launch at the National Small and Medium Enterprise event in Monrovia. ‘These two documents outline the Liberian government’s strategy for creating inclusive growth through trade competitiveness.'

With an urgent need to generate employment opportunities, the NES and NTP seek to improve the business environment and explore means of sustainable growth.

'Trade is about finding ways of adding value to a country’s goods and services, and through that, getting greater access to local, regional and global value chains,’ said ITC Executive Director Arancha González. ‘This is important for all countries, but for a post-conflict country such as Liberia, the urgency is greater as trade helps provide stability and security.'

The NES targets the development of five priority sectors: cassava, cocoa, fish and crustaceans, oil palm, and rubber. The strategy also targets three trade-support functions – access to finance, quality management, and trade logistics and facilitation – which have a positive impact on the export competitiveness of all sectors. Work has also already begun on exploring the trade opportunities offered by the tourism and furniture sectors.

The NTP, meanwhile, seeks to promote the integration of Liberia into the global economy by increasing the competitiveness of its businesses, with a focus on the agricultural, industrial and services sectors.

Axel Addy, Liberia’s Minister of Commerce and Industry, said: 'Often businesses cannot access finance to purchase needed equipment. Sometimes farmers cannot get their goods to market and are left to watch their produce spoil. Other times, businesses lack the skills necessary to run and maintain a business. These are exactly the hurdles the NES and NTP seek to overcome: they will guide the implementation of our country’s development programmes and help boost our exports.'