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Philanthropy

INTERVIEW

Chid Liberty: "There is going to be no stopping Africa rising"

The "social innovation rockstar" speaks to Salzburg Global about African enterprise

Chad Liberty poses a question at Session 530, "Value(s) For Money?"

Alex Jackson | 12.03.2014

There is perhaps no grander name in young global innovation at the moment than Chid Liberty. Alongside his team at Liberty & Justice, the young entrepreneur has just been awarded the 2014 Innovation Ecosystem title at the Global Innovation Summit and he was previously the 2011 recipient of the SVN Social Innovation Award. In fact, his contributions have been so substantial that he is a Yoxi Portfolio SIR – a "Social Innovation Rockstar" – which is certainly the attention-grabber on his CV.

But Liberty makes light of his success. “I thought 'If I could bring that [change] to Liberia now given the high unemployment rate, then that would be the best use of my skills and time.' I really felt that was a way I could help,” he muses.

Liberty co-founded and is the CEO of Liberty & Justice, Africa’s first Fair Trade certified apparel manufacturer, based in Liberia. The company has rapidly expanded in its short history, offering a chance for disadvantaged and displaced women to overcome the struggles of unemployment and economic exclusion. The positive impact that the process has begun seems to be spiralling in the region, proffering stability as a stark contrast to the chains of Liberia’s fragile history.

“Surprising things to me have been the timeliness, because, in Africa, being on time isn’t really a key consideration and what’s been really interesting is as we have enforced that and really enrolled people onto the idea of being on time, we have spectacular results and a really high attendance level among line workers," says Liberty.

“We have had a 100% retention rate, not a single loss in workers. And I think that isn’t something you would see in most African countries.”

Progress is undeniable, but Liberty remains cautious, and with good reason. Liberia is still classed as a fragile state, yet is often overlooked in philanthropic efforts as other more immediate crises divert funds to other parts of the region. Internally, Liberty faces even more yokes in fostering a support for international development.

“The threat that I have is more from actors in the government that I have worked in, both in Liberia and Ghana, that aren’t really assessing how their policies affect the creation of this [ecosystem] and I think everyone gets up on grand stands and says we want more small business and jobs,’ but when you look at, for instance, not just at the policies and the duty rates in Liberia, but also how duties and exports are administered, it doesn’t foster trade. It goes against trade.”

Not that this has dampened the spirits of the larger local communities. Women in the area have rallied behind the project which provides economic freedom, and trying to get investors to keep up with the development is proving the key hurdle: “One side is saying there aren’t any entrepreneurs; the other side is saying there isn’t any capital.

“It is really a matter of how they find financing and to me we have oversimplified the problem by saying if people lend to them then they will grow, when the real problem is that people do lend to them, the commercial banks have tried, and they have failed. The payment rates are really low and it is just a disaster. So it is really finding those entrepreneurs that can both build value to equity investors and then having them match made in their capacity to the point they can take on larger amounts of capital.”  

With investment, Liberty hopes that there will be substantial transformation to the region as a whole. He points to how women in Liberia let few adverse conditions prevent them from their work, citing market women trading across enemy lines even when the war was raging in Liberia. The entrepreneurial spirit on the ground would seem alive and well.

Entrepreneurship can galvanize and promote a sustained period of investment and transformation. There are some very obvious examples, even in the past 50 years, of how to successfully and dramatically industrialize developing countries, seemingly overnight.

“People always hear me speak and say 'Are you saying that Africa will be the next Asia or the next China?' and I would say no, it isn’t going to be the next China.

“Africa is going to be the next Africa.”

It is a simple yet strong statement that accurately reflects his sentiments. As a continent that has become synonymous with ideas of under-development, instability in large areas, overwhelmed by war and famine, Africa has almost become an ignored wealth of resources, which creates massive problems in setting up businesses, but proffers fantastic opportunities.

“It is hard for us to take a look at poverty without looking at industrialization as the elephant in the room as the obvious place for us to go.

“There are tons of constraints in Africa,” explains Liberty.

“Everything from infrastructure to the political climate to the business climate. For me, it is really looking at the fact that other regions have faced those same issues and looking at what they have done to adjust and get going. But sort of like the Arab Spring, there is going to be no stopping Africa rising.”

For Africa to be freed of the shackles of Western (and increasingly Chinese) investors, who see few capital opportunities, then it has to not only recreate its image, but birth an entire new philosophy on how industrialization can shape nations.

“I think if industrialization in Africa looks like China or the West, we’re in trouble. The beauty of industrializing Africa is that it doesn’t have to rely on carbon. We have the opportunities to build that from scratch in Africa, how things will look, how workers will be treated, environmental policies, I really see that as a bit of a chance to start at least part of the industry from scratch. And then we learn ourselves from that in a dual street.”

Liberty suggests that investment in the region needs to catch up with the potential for sustainable growth and new business partnerships soon, or find Africa has developed enough to call its own deals in international affairs. With investment and scalable businesses, there will be huge financial and socio-cultural returns he suggests.

“Africa is a beautiful continent with such ecological diversity; the future is wide open.”  


Chid Liberty was a speaker at the Salzburg Global Seminar session "Value(s) for Money? Philanthropy as a Catalyst for Social and Financial Change", which was sponsored by Hivos. You can read interviews with a number of the other speakers and participants of the session on the webpagewww.salzburgglobal.org/go/530

12.03.2014 Category: FACES OF LEADERSHIP, SUSTAINABILITY, AFRICA, PHILANTHROPY
Alex Jackson