Liberia’s instability and violence in the past two decades may have ruined its infrastructure, suppressed its economy, and killed its people. But what they didn’t manage to destroy was Liberia’s image, at least in the eyes of the adventurous, as a place of opportunity. For different people, though, that opportunity takes different shapes.
Lebanese merchants have been a staple in Liberian society for decades, dominating the import-export market and operating most of Monrovia’s larger stores. They arrived when Lebanon was in turmoil, and quickly became wealthy bringing in the many manufactured goods that Liberia couldn’t produce for itself. Since the war, a number of Indians have joined the Lebanese, mostly operating hardware stores. “Why would I go to the US or Europe?” questioned Karan, a 21-year old Indian, in what is a commonly heard refrain. “It’s so much easier to make money here. You just sell it and they just come.” Karan, who worked for his uncle’s business in Ghana prior to moving to Liberia, plans to run his hardware store for several more years before returning home to marry.
Karan may supply many NGOs with the materials they need to construct schools and clinics, but altruism certainly isn’t his motivation for operating in Liberia. I won’t repeat his more racist comments here, but suffice it to say that he doesn’t hold Liberians or their country in high regard. “This place is shit,” he said, gesturing at crumbling buildings and tin shacks. “But you can’t beat the money here.”
Luckily, foreigners with dollar signs in their eyes aren’t the only ones who have come to take advantage of Liberia’s opportunities. As the country tries to rebuild after the war, a number of Liberians educated in the US and Europe have returned to contribute to that progress – and, if all goes well, perhaps make a profit. Fabio Velanet is one such Liberian, who, armed with a degree in International Business and Economics, set about producing rice commercially on his family farm in Kakata. “I could be making a lot more in the US,” he explained. His company, Fabrar Rice, has annual profits of only around $10,000. But he continued: “You gotta understand that Africa is my home, though. Liberia is my home.” He taps into the knowledge of his neighbors to increase his rice yields and purchases surplus rice from local farmers, providing them with income and a way to sell rice that would otherwise rot. “I mean, if I’m not helping people there’s no point in doing this. There’s so much potential for this country and for these people,” he commented. Eventually, Velanet envisions a Liberia that produces its own rice, rather than importing it from abroad, and he hopes his business is one step along the way.
This is not a place for the faint of heart, and it often seems that just as many people want to leave as choose to come. Nevertheless, in a somewhat twisted way, the very things that make life difficult here also work in Liberia’s favor. In a place still trying to mend its fractures but still lacking even the most basic goods and services, there are seemingly endless ways to make a buck – or a change.