For the third year in a row, Building Markets worked with the Liberian Government’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MoCI) and other partners to produce the MSME Conference and Trade Fair. This annual event brings together SMEs and stakeholders to discuss challenges and opportunities local firms face and to showcase successful SMEs. This year’s conference, attended by over 450 people, highlighted Youth Entrepreneurship for Economic Empowerment and introduced the Entrepreneur-Plus (E+) program, an IFC and MoCI co-sponsored business incubation program.
To emphasize the conference theme, all panels included representatives who are young entrepreneurs. The keynote speaker was Mahmud Johnson, founder and CEO of J-Palm Liberia, an oil palm and palm kernel processing company, and a former Building Markets team member. In his speech, Mahmud stressed that entrepreneurship takes grit, the ability to accept failure and, after accepting it, the knack for using failure to figure out how to succeed.
“The fact that most of us [young entrepreneurs] are here, the fact that most of us have endured to where we are now, should tell you that we mean business,” Mahmud said as he encouraged financial institutions and others to support young and innovative business owners. For more from Mahmud, watch the video below:
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and U.S. Ambassador Deborah Malac echoed the need to support entrepreneurs, young and old, as the way forward for Liberia.
“The possibility is there. We just need to harness it and support it. To those who have committed to taking this big, big step, let me say how proud we are of all of you,” President Johnson Sirleaf told the crowd of SMEs.
Sessions over the two-day conference covered a myriad of topics relevant to SMEs in Liberia, including access to finance, public procurement, business registration, taxes and Liberia’s accession to the WTO. The session on taxes was particularly interactive, as SMEs were able to address their questions directly to representatives of the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA). LRA panel members apologized for issues SMEs had with the agency in the past and encouraged business owners to contact the customer service department whenever they had a problem or question.
The Trade Fair bustled with SMEs exhibiting their goods and services. Booths piled with colorful clothes made of lappa and country cloth were interspersed with those displaying cassava and palm oil products, cleaning supplies and information on a variety of services in sectors including transportation, IT, waste management and more. Catering companies set up their silver chafing dishes in the pavilion garden and served lunch to attendees, winning new customers with their flavorful food.
Throughout the event, participants and attendees had the opportunity to vote on the best SMEs in four categories: Best Booth and Presentation, Most Innovative, Best in Marketing and Proudly Liberian. The winners were announced at the awards dinner and each will receive up to $5,000 to invest in their businesses. The four winners—the Liberian National Tailors, Textiles, Garment and Allied Workers Union, Inc.; Jet-Del Housekeeping Services; J-Palm Liberia and African Creative Enterprises—are all registered with Building Markets and have participated in training. The second place winners in each category were given coupons redeemable for training courses with Building Markets or other event partners.
The conference closed out with a concert and fashion show featuring Liberian designers, comedians and artists. The energy was high as the models walked the runway, showing off Liberian fashions with a twist.
In his awards dinner address, Vice President Joseph Boakai exhorted attendees to “love Liberia, live Liberia and build Liberia.” The 2015 MSME Conference and Trade Fair underscores these sentiments and the present and future successes of local business in Liberia.