Ebola Outbreak Challenges ‘Liberty & Justice’ in Liberia

“This Ebola crisis shows that the risk of investing in Liberia is nowhere near as risky as not investing in Liberia,” Chid Liberty says in an interview with Root Capital’s Willy Foote on Forbes.com.

Liberty is a Liberian social entrepreneur who as a boy fled with his family to the United States during Liberia’s civil war. He returned in 2009 to establish the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project, Africa’s first Fair Trade-certified apparel factory. That factory now sells clothing to leading American brands through the social enterprise Liberty & Justice. Root Capital was the sewing project’s first outside lender. An excerpt from the interview:

Foote: You returned to Liberia in 2009 to establish Liberty & Justice, Africa’s first Fair Trade apparel manufacture. How has the Ebola outbreak affected your business and what does it mean for the future of Liberty & Justice?

Liberty: In 2011, after partnering with Root Capital to launch Liberty & Justice, we signed a few big deals with two American buyers. It was a pretty exciting time for the company. To fulfill those orders, we needed to raise a lot more capital, build a new factory, import all new equipment, and hire 200 more workers. We finally finished the renovations on the factory in the beginning of this year.

The space is awesome and overlooks West Point, the slum I just mentioned, and where most of our workers live. My apartment is on the third floor of the factory, so I guess I live in that slum too. Four weeks ago, it felt like everything was coming together; we had 303 employees, a new building, new machines, and huge orders. Ebola seemed like just a minor blip on our radar.

Then three weeks ago, with cases of Ebola reportedly back on the rise, we decided that it would be irresponsible to bring 300 women from various slums to work together every day. So we took a two-week break to allow the ‘powers that be’ to get the crisis under control. One week into our break, President Sirleaf declared a State of Emergency. Then, two-thirds of our workers were put under quarantine with the rest of West Point’s residents.

Last week I had to evacuate Liberty & Justice’s two Sri Lankan managers. It drove me crazy to have our Liberian managers making all the necessary arrangements for their Asian colleagues to be evacuated. I can’t imagine being in that position: it’s clearly unsafe, your whole country is packing up and leaving, and you have nowhere to go. The whole thing made my stomach turn. I was suddenly sending that same ugly message that the world was sending me about the value of African lives.

I ended the week with a call to our largest buyer. They agreed to extend the delivery deadlines. They’ve had some experience with epidemics and disasters in Asia. We can focus on our largest priority: the safety of our workers.

Foote: Looking ahead, how do you think the Ebola epidemic will affect the growth and development of the social enterprise sector in Liberia?

Liberty: Once we get the humanitarian crisis under control and have time to reflect, I think we’ll understand why impact investing and social entrepreneurship are so important for the future of all conflict-affected states.

In a place like Liberia, farms and factories require investors that can stomach unworldly amounts of risk and unfortunately sometimes pretty average returns. But the social impact of those jobs is unbelievably powerful. Some will use this crisis as proof that investing in places like Liberia is too risky. I think the opposite is true. This Ebola crisis shows that the risk of investing in Liberia is nowhere near as risky as not investing in Liberia.

See the full interview, “On The Front Lines of Ebola: My Interview With an Entrepreneur in Liberia,” on Forbes.com.

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