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Liberia’s Elections: The Entrepreneur’s View

Liberians head to the polls today to determine whether Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will win another term in office. As the world turns its attention to the vote, trying to measure the success of Sirleaf’s term is complicated. It’s difficult to answer what role she plays in improving the country’s biggest moneymaking sectors.

Liberians queuing to vote, Monrovia 2005. copyright Imogen Prickett

For example, according to Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, one such sector is agriculture, which already accounts for over half of the country’s GDP. Large-scale agricultural production must ramp up significantly if Liberia is to transition to a middle-income country.

The catch, however, is that the government doesn’t have such a large role to play. The sector’s success will depend on enterprising businessmen and women.

“The biggest drivers of agricultural development are medium and large companies,” says Viktor Bengtsson, an agricultural consultant and entrepreneur who has been working in Liberia since 2009. “Government has a role to play, but not yet. NGOs’ progress has been slow, particularly when it comes to improving infrastructure.”

One such company with promise is the Liberian Cocoa Corporation, founded by Lu Tolbert. He is literally growing the country’s cocoa industry from scratch.

“I was primarily driven by the fact that I saw a lot of opportunity here,” says Lu. “It’s a sector that’s essentially untapped. I can be one of the first in the sector to help make it work.”

Cocoa should be a no-brainer, Lu says. Liberia shares a border, and the same soil and climate, with the Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa exporter. Despite this, he had a difficult time getting any monetary assistance from the Liberian government, World Bank or government aid agencies, such as USAID.

But Lu is still optimistic. Viktor cautiously echoes his optimism: “Cocoa projects are becoming popular and can be an important driver of the country’s economy. But it’s going to take time. Patience is important.”

Viktor’s hesitation comes from Liberia’s poor infrastructure: roads that are impassible during the rainy season, the need for refrigeration and storage facilities to keep food fresh and a lack of businesses providing linkages between farm and market.

Good luck getting your produce to market in this!

“For small shareholders, after counting the logistics, they always failed,” says Viktor. “They have no way to compete. Only large projects can be successful because they have enough money to waste on getting from farm to market.”

Large-scale production of cocoa is Lu Tolbert’s goal for the Liberian Cocoa Corporation. After researching the feasibility of cocoa in Liberia and securing investments – a task Lu said was the biggest barrier to his project – he hired 300 local workers and planted 150 acres of cocoa in Lofa county, in northern Liberia. The long-term goal is 10,000 acres.

The government mandates that 20 percent of plantation land must be devoted to shareholder cultivation, a principle Lu takes seriously. His company trains anyone from the local community who wants to participate.

“We provide the shareholders with the planting material, the high-yield seeds, the fertilizer. When we clear our land, we clear their land,” says Lu. “We use our trained staff to teach them the methods: how to plant, what to look for. The idea is to buy back from them. We have every incentive to make sure to get it right.”

Liberia’s biggest challenge lies in facilitating connections between farmers and the private sector all along the value-chain, such as fertilizer production, seed nurseries and distributors, warehousing and transportation. Making each service commercially viable requires strategy and time. Services with limited commercial value should be given to an NGO then transitioned to the government. For others, capital needs to be more easily accessible, a huge problem in Liberia and neighboring countries.

“Cash crops take time to grow. In five to ten years, the value chain will look much better,” says Viktor. “Just adding herbicides will double yield. But the switch to improved farming techniques has to be done in a way that doesn’t cost individual farmers anything.”

Liberia is moving toward becoming an export economy. The only question is whether entrepreneurs like Viktor and Lu take the risks that will move the country down that path more quickly. After hearing their determination, that question seems to be turning into an affirmative answer, no matter the election outcome.

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