Not as glamorous as it may seem, starting your own business may not be a choice but a necessity. In the United States, there are 29.6 million small businesses, and they include 52 percent home-based businesses and 2 percent franchises. With the unemployment rate at 9.6 percent, up from 6.2 percent at this time two years ago, more and more people are making the move from corporate world to home office -- by choice or not. But imagine what life would be like if the number of unemployed jumped to 85 percent. Now we're ready to talk Liberia.
Liberia ranks 64 out of 183 countries for "ease of starting a business," according to the World Bank'sDoing Business project, which factors in time, cost and minimum capital (the United States ranks ninth). Liberia fares better than many surrounding countries in the startup category but drops dramatically to 155th place in the overall"ease of doing business" score (the United States ranks fifth). This category looks at factors such as registering property, paying taxes, trading and employing workers. So why the difference?
Veria Woodson, who started her own business transporting imported goods in Monrovia, Liberia, explains that though the startup process was challenging, "It's even harder for a small-business owner like me to make my company grow because I didn't have good resources that would teach me."
To learn how to better her business, Woodson, along with 84 other Liberian women, participated in a certificate training program for women entrepreneurs. The10,000 Women program, funded by The Goldman Sachs Foundation, and implemented in Liberia byCHF International, is part of a five-year investment by Goldman Sachs to provide 10,000 underserved women around the world with a business and management education.
"These entrepreneurs have the drive for business success and the ambition but often lack a formal academic background in business management," says Brett Sedgewick, CHF International country director for Liberia.
CHF International is a nongovernmental development and humanitarian assistance organization working in 29 countries around the world. The organization helped develop the full scholarship and the 12-week curriculum, which covers topics such as business planning, tax policies, human resources management, customer service and marketing. This year's graduation will take place on Dec. 3, and the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, will serve as keynote speaker.
"Programs like 10,000 Women empower Liberian women entrepreneurs to become more effective and efficient managers," Sedgewick says. "They play an essential role in helping women of Liberia grow their businesses, hire new employees and, in effect, revitalize their country one business at a time."
Challenges for Liberian Women Entrepreneurs
Some women in the program face similar obstacles to their counterparts in the United States, such as bettering the company's marketing strategy, increasing capital for expansion or boosting efficiency. Others are up against different challenges.
"I wish to grow my business to a level of a corporation that will provide entertainment and other services to my customers," says Fatu Love Kromah, owner of an entertainment center in Monrovia. But she struggles with the city's electricity supply. It is sporadic, discouraging customers from staying at her entertainment center to relax.
A poor road network is Joyce Gbondin's biggest problem. She owns a business center in Paynesville and sometimes has trouble getting supplies. Challenges for others include finding a stable site to do business, employee theft and abrupt shortages of imported goods.
While some of these obstacles are a product of a struggling economic environment, the women in the 10,000 Women program learned that basic business management tactics could alleviate many of their problems. For instance, during the first offering of the program, only five out of 26 participants had bank accounts, four had no job descriptions for staff, three had no salary structure in place, nine had no record-keeping system for tracking finances, and none paid herself a monthly salary.
Angela Davis, owner of a small medicine business in Monrovia, is a perfect example. Before the training, she never separated business money from personal money; whenever there was a financial need in her household or her business, she would take money from daily sales without keeping any records.
Immediately following the training, Davis bought a notebook and designed a recording system. The tight monitoring of her business transactions enabled her to identify and eliminate employee fraud, drastically increasing her sales. On top of that, she is now able to maintain business operations, procure more drugs, pay herself and her staff, and deposit the balance in the bank.
Access to Capital
In addition to poor infrastructure and a lack of training, access to capital has historically been a major hurdle for most Liberian business owners, as they rebuild their economy following almost two decades of civil strife. Much local capital fled overseas during the conflict, and commercial banks and other traditional capital providers avoid financing small and medium enterprises (SMEs) because of the risks associated with the Liberian operating environment. With this challenge in mind, CHF International joined forces with the Robert L. Johnson Foundation and the Overseas Private Investment Corp. in 2007 to establish the Liberian Enterprise Development Finance Co. (LEDFC), which provides debt financing to SMEs in Liberia.
"Legal and financial infrastructure development in Liberia is progressing, but this takes time," says Arun Hsu, senior SME banking specialist in CHF's Office of Development Finance. "In the meantime, Liberian businesses need access to capital, especially long-term loans to procure modern machinery and equipment. LEDFC is there to help fill the gap."
LEDFC finances businesses working across various sectors of the Liberian economy, stimulating economic growth and creating much-needed jobs. CHF estimates that LEDFC loans have directly supported more than 400 jobs -- and many more on a secondary basis. And LEDFC is reaching female Liberian entrepreneurs. As of the end of September 2010, LEDFC had disbursed 51 loans worth $3.4 million. Forty-four percent went to female-owned businesses, including two participants in the 10,000 Women program.
Entrepreneurs Travel to the United States
This year, three graduates of the 10,000 Women program won scholarships to a six-week advanced training course in the United States. LAMPS, which stands for Leadership and Management Professional Skills Development Program, is a Department of State-funded two-way exchange between Louisiana's Southern University and the University of Liberia.
Yvonne Morlue, owner of a business center in Montserrado; Tina Kpan, a fashion designer in Monrovia; and Veria Woodson, the imported goods transporter, were three of 15 Liberians who won scholarships. They also are graduates of the 10,000 Women program.
"The [10,000 Women] program has been a great help to me in terms of preparing and teaching me how to do a business plan to be a part of the LAMPS business plan competition," Woodson says.
The three scholarship winners were in Baton Rouge, La., from Sept. 13 to Oct. 23, 2010, learning about the operations of successful American businesses and interacting with business owners via job shadowing and mentoring.
Since completing 10,000 Women and LAMPS, Morlue has hired a new full-time employee and increased revenue by 25 percent. Kpan hired five new employees and increased revenue by more than 300 percent, and Woodson won a large bid for a project by an international nongovernmental organization.
Women Entrepreneurs in America
So what is the lesson for women entrepreneurs in America? Although starting a business may be dicier for some than others, the 85 women in the 10,000 Women program can teach everyone that learning curves are OK. As long as your passion to start a business doesn't blind you from recognizing the need to learn some basics, if you're ready to seek out that knowledge, you can succeed. You may just be a part of revitalizing the country, one business at a time.
Helina Meri is CHF International's senior program officer for Africa. Born in Ethiopia, she attended high school and college in the United States. Helina has a bachelor's degree in economics and anthropology from the University of Virginia and a master's degree in international development from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Gobbiz.com, a web platform for service entrepreneurs.