Liberia Part 1: My First Day in Africa

Discovering Liberia

“Where’s Kit Now” Journals (an ongoing series) at kitmiyamoto.com

Sunday, April 27, 2014

As I descended the steps of the plane after 27 hours of a hellish ride from California, the African heat and humidity mixed with the smell of burning gas bombarded me.   It was a vivid welcome to Liberia, a country in West Africa that’s home to 4 million people.  The lush green jungle that framed the airport and the insect noises vibrating through the air overwhelmed me.

In November 2013, we received a letter from Liberia’s Minister of Finance, Mr. Amara Konneh, of the Republic of Liberia. Its purpose was to invite Miyamoto International to visit Liberia to advise the government on low-income housing construction.  After many years of vicious civil war since 1989, lack of proper housing remains a major issue.

The Haitian government and the Minister of Finance of Liberia had discussed Miyamoto International’s work in the low-income housing sector in Haiti, which included the repair of 12,000 houses after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. This meeting took place at a summit and prompted Minister Konneh to visit Miyamoto’s offices in California to seek our consultation.

In the meeting in California, Minister Konneh explained that the availability of affordable, well-constructed houses remains one of Liberia’s most pressing social and economic challenges. He told us that the vast majority of Liberian families living in cities reside in zinc-roofed houses that are small, dirty, wet and hot; these rent for high prices in overcrowded urban slums with little to no access to basic services.   

Liberia, a coastal West African nation rich in natural resources and culture, had suffered violent civil war between 1989-1996 and 1999-2003 that disrupted economic activities over an extended period of time and contributed to the severe impoverishment of the country.  Most businesses were destroyed and investors left. Once one of the few middle-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, post-war Liberia was ranked 182 out of 187 on the 2011 Human Development Index.  

I was honored to be invited on an official visit to assist the Government of Liberia in finding cost-effective sustainable solutions to improve the lives of the Liberian people and address the country’s pressing housing challenges.

A joyous woman in tradition African attire and matching headdress escorted me and Miyamoto’s International Business Development Manager, Sabine Kast, to the VIP airport lounge where Edmund Cojolo, the Chief of Protocol of the Ministry of Finance and our loyal guide and guardian for the week, awaited our arrival.

He goes by simply Cojolo and is a tribal-origin Liberian. Built like a NFL defensive end, tall with broad shoulders, he is in fact the tallest man I’ve ever met; Michael Jordan would look short standing next to him.  He never smiles, but is extremely professional.  I was determined to make him smile in the five days I was there.

Hanging on the wall of the lounge was a framed photo of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Africa’s first female head of state) and Vice President Joseph Nyumah Boakai, who looked just like the man in the lounge sitting on the couch drinking coffee.  When he stood up to greet us, it turned out he was, indeed, the Vice President. The Minister of Commerce and Industry of Liberia, Axel Addy, soon joined us. 

With such an unexpected warm welcome to Africa, I was confident that the week ahead would be a rich experience.  As we drove for an hour on a bumpy road through thick jungle to the capital city, Monrovia, my thoughts were deep in the upcoming trip ahead and what might await us. A red sunset on the African horizon burned in the west. 

Click here to travel with me through some of the highlights of my visit to Liberia – a place of culture, many challenges and a people who are welcoming, entrepreneurial and dedicated to effect positive change for the betterment of their country. It’s time for it to thrive after so many long years of civil strife. And they are ready.

Liberia Part 2: The mission begins

Monday, April 28, 2014

It’s 9:30 am on a Monday and our second day in Liberia. We are here on a weeklong mission to advise the Government of Liberia on low-income housing construction. Cojolo, our tall guide/guard and the Protocol Officer at the Ministry of Finance, was waiting for us in the lobby for more than 30 minutes. I was concerned about his mood. He greeted me with a straight face and pointed at his watch. I swiftly ran in to the breakfast room to fetch a cup of coffee.

We were scheduled to meet the National Housing Authority, which is located in the heart of the business district. We emerged from the van into a street full of small vendors selling everything from fruits to shampoos.  It reminded me exactly of the colorful markets in Haiti.

10:10 AM                                                         

As we stepped into the Managing Director’s office, we were greeted by Mr. Samuel Thompson and his team. The office was clean, but not well lit.  The room was full of staff for this meeting and we all struggled to find a suitable place to sit.  Mr. Thompson sported a long, sky-blue embroidered African shirt.  It fits so nice to his slim body. I found out later that it was his birthday and this was the reason he wore this particular traditional African wear.  He has a gentle smile, yet an authoritarian way about him.  With or without the suit, his aura certainly made a long-lasting impression on me.

I especially respected his passion for improving the housing situation in Liberia, particularly for the poor. It was clear that he wanted to make changes in the living conditions for Liberia’s people. We discussed a range of issues, from the heavy reliance on importing construction material that pushed up construction costs to the serious gap in technical skills due to long years of debilitating civil war; the use or under-utilization of land, zoning and the lack of land security and proper shelter for low-to-middle income Liberians.

In the midst of the meeting, there was a knock on the door and three men entered.  Mr. Thompson and his team seemed baffled. I quickly said they were with us; it was Hun-Bu Tulay, Colonel Bai Moore and Kabba Manjoe – relatives of Bendu Hunter. I had met Bendu Hunter, an influential Liberian in U.S. diaspora circles, in early 2012 at a fundraising event for Miyamoto’s nonprofit arm, Miyamoto Relief. Bendu Hunter was a driving force behind getting us to Liberia.  She is passionate about the living conditions of Liberians – just like Samuel. Late last night, three of her relatives arrived at the Mamba Point Hotel, where we were staying, to welcome us to Liberia and offer any support.

In the meeting with the National Housing Authority and the Hunter family, it became clear to us that a public-private partnership approach is critical to address the housing crisis in Liberia, but that we would need to explore market-based solutions for implementing housing development programs for the poor. Why?

The Government of Liberia faces some tough choices in pursuing its development strategy – known as The Agenda for Transformation – and decided to prioritize the infrastructural development of roads, ports and energy. This, of course, makes perfect sense. Little to no resources are available to provide direct budget support for private housing in the short to medium term – despite the dire need. 

Another hot topic during our meeting was the township of West Point. West Point is situated right on the beachfront of the capital of Monrovia. The township people live mostly in temporary structures equal to sheet metal shacks and are squatting on government land. We were told that there was an attempt a few years back to relocate the community of West Point, which ended in political unrest.  Known as a political hotbed, West Point was the first community we’d visit that afternoon to explore possible housing solutions.

2:30 PM

The thick, humid air in Liberia has an oceanic, salty taste. I was enjoying the wind blowing against my face until Cojolo requested I roll up the car window for security reasons. The car windows were tinted black. We entered the township of West Point. Most of the one-story shacks are made of zinc metal sheet with plenty of holes and rust; other structures are built from poorly made concrete blocks. It was hot, noisy, dusty but lively here in West Point. Women sold dried fish on the side of the street along with some vegetables and soups.

On the porch of the Community Center, we met with Florence Brandy, the Superintendent of Montserrado County, to which Monrovia and West Point belong, and Miatta Flowers, the Commissioner of the Township of West Point. The superintendent and commissioner of West Point are both powerful women who showed great concern for the people living in West Point as well as a burning desire to see the people’s living standards improve. Their attitude, knowledge and sincere concern for people made them instantly respected by everyone we came across.  We asked them dozens of questions -- hungry for firsthand knowledge.

Because the land is owned by the government, those who wish to build – with zinc sheet, scrap or concrete block - needed to apply for a building permit. Upon receipt they were advised to build temporary structures, as they could be asked to relocate at any point in time.

Despite the insecurity, the people of West Point were home here and its fishing industry is thriving.  The closely compacted zinc shacks stretched from solid land onto the honey-comb beach, where fishermen arrived back from sea with fresh fish. The fish was sold then and there or dried nearby to be sold at a whole-sale price on the market. It was a perfect ecosystem.

To relocate the people of West Point to open up the land for other uses, would not only reduce this fishing community’s earning capacity and likely push them further into poverty, but also destroy something magical and truly unique.  We need to be very careful here. There must be some happy, medium solutions…

Liberia Part 3: Wild beach

Friday, May 2, 2014

It’s 2:30 pm and the hot African sun bears down on us. Our plane is scheduled later today, but for now I face the blowing sea smell of the wind from the Atlantic Ocean. The beach is desolate, but absolutely wild and beautiful. It’s a pure honey brown sand beach in Buchanan in the county of Grand Bassa.  My bare feet are in the sand with my business pants rolled up. I removed my tie hours ago.  These things make sense in northern European weather.  Not here.

I look out at the ocean and marvel. The waves are as wild as my past six days in this country.  It’s been hot, dusty, beautiful, tragic, exciting and moving.

After four or more hours of dirt roads and bumpy car travel on the scenic route to and from Monrovia’s neighboring county of Margibi, we sat around a table drinking rosé and eating fried shrimp. With us was the country director of the African Development Bank, the head of the Liberia Mission at the IFC and the CEO of Access Bank, a German micro-finance bank operating in Liberia. We got together at a modern rooftop hotel bar to discuss possible housing finance solutions for low-to-middle income Liberian families. The hotel was new.  A loud group of American oil company contractors sat at the bar, chugging Budweiser.

People across all demographics in the developing world lack access to the finance they need to purchase a home. Liberia is no exception. Although there is a keen interest to test the home mortgage potential in the country, no significant lending activities have taken place in the 10 years after the civil war. At the forefront of pioneering home mortgage finance is the largest local bank, the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), with only US $10 million available for housing finance. Nothing is available for the majority poor. In this country of 4.2 million people, the World Bank reports that 83 percent live under the international poverty line of $1.25 US per day.

Creating financial vehicles with flexible credit terms for homeownership or residential improvements is not the final solution, but a huge piece of the puzzle.  Housing finance, along with safe construction expertise, is critical to address the severe housing backlog in the country: 60 percent of Liberia’s urban population – professors, tradesmen, fishermen, government officials, you name it – live in urban slums.

The National Housing Authority estimates that from now to 2030, more than 500,000 dwelling units will be needed to accommodate Liberian households. In terms of construction, this means that more than 30,000 houses need to be built annually over the next 17 years. This equals building a home every five minutes of the working day through to 2030 and this just to address the housing deficit and avoid the exponential growth of squatters and overcrowding in existing homes.

Liberia is a land of challenges and great opportunities. Besides its brown sand beaches and salty air, it has rubber, iron ore, hydropower, petroleum, possibly oil and untouched forests in the north. It also has another resource greater than all of the above: the Liberian people.

It is difficult to imagine that 10 years ago civil war raged in this country. Liberia today is peaceful and the people are absolutely nice and kind. I am laughing with big Cojolo on the wild beach – well, I am laughing and Cojolo has a pleasant smirk on his face. I insist on believing that in the car rearview mirror earlier today I saw him smile at one of my silly little jokes.

I look forward to returning to Liberia and working with them. There is – and there is no doubt about it - a need for international standard engineering and construction management expertise willing and able to find local solutions to reduce construction costs to make decent housing both available and more affordable to the Liberian.

Something that I will never forget is the friendliness, appreciation and hospitality of the Liberian people – and particularly of the Hunter and Moore family who surprised us Wednesday in the late afternoon with traditional nuts and a welcoming ceremony – clothing us in traditional African clothes and matching hat and headdress. Their house was modest and women from their home village sang the most beautiful rhythm, a song of welcome and fellowship.

I love this place.  I have great hope for this country.

A boy on the beach has now abandoned his shoes and is knee-deep in the ocean. The wild beauty of this desolated beach is a perfect ending to my first visit.  But as I remember this beauty, I also recall little kids in the half-rotten houses in West Point community.  They smiled and were polite. Even in such dire circumstances.

Liberia – I’ll be back.

This story appears courtesy of Miyamoto International.