Liberia: A Journey for IT Feasibility By: MaZoe Anderson On February 15, 2013, I boarded a Delta flight to head back home for the first time since leaving Liberia as a child. This day had been long coming from young realizing my connection to my homeland and knowing one day I would return to “give back” by allowing my education and career path to be the source of this “pay it forward”. My main purpose for going to Liberia was to conduct an Information Technology (IT) Feasibility Study.
The questions I needed answered were the following:
• Is IT visible in Liberia?
• Who are the main players in the IT arena?
• Should I start a business?
• Is there someone on ground I can trust to run day-to-day operations?
• Should I invest in any other IT business?
• What type of IT business could I start?
• How does the government view IT?
• Is the IT Infrastructure compatible to US standards?
In Route I purchased my ticket via Delta online. The cost was approximately $1,600. Based on the rates at the time it was a fairly reasonable cost. Tickets can range from that low to $3200 depending on the airline. The two known to travel to Liberia are Air Brussels and Delta, which makes a 2-hour delay in Ghana for cleaning where you sit on the tar pit for the entirety of the stop while the staff cleans the plane. After cleaning, new passengers board in route to Liberia the last leg of the flight. Prior to this last stop I went from Charlotte, NC to LaGuardia Airport, NYC then I took a chartered taxi arranged by Delta to JFK airport, NYC. This is where I met some interesting groups in route to Liberia. All the people I met were on various mission trips. One group of men was going to work in an orphanage. Another group was going to build a computer lab.
We had a lengthy conversation about technology, their mission, and me assisting them in setting up the lab. We exchanged numbers and before you knew it we were in the air in route to Ghana. As we began to descend the overwhelming feeling of being in the Motherland and close to home brought a warm tingly feeling of peace. When the clouds began to open up in Liberia I will never forget that photographic moment when I saw the green lush land as the ocean mist sprayed a light mist that hung gently over the clouds to make the land almost invisible until we had almost landed. We exited the aircraft straight into customs. O, the hustle and bustle of the people. Of course they had various lines, one for Liberian Residents, another for Liberian nationals, another for US Citizens, etc. This part went pretty smooth and I was able to finagle my way pretty quickly. Now as I approached the baggage section, I could see the conundrum from “a mile away”. One conveyor belt constantly rolling around in a oblong circle formation as bags continued to pile on but nothing coming off.
After about 45 minutes I was able to retrieve my two bags of belongings. When I reached outside the heat hit me like a ton of bricks. Not that it was so hot but I had just come from snowy weather into the Tundra. I looked for my cousin who was there to pick me up. I didn’t see him so I asked a young man to use his mobile (this is the common source of communication). When I called he was still in route and would arrive shortly. He pulled up in a SUV that was fairly modern so I was impressed. But my cousin is American and had been living in Liberia now for almost one year. His brother, a doctor, and himself own and operate a local pharmacy called One Source Pharmacy. So we greeted one another as the driver loaded the bags (most middle and upper class families hire domestic help that assist them with driving, cleaning, cooking, and guarding the family and living quarters). So we rode back to my Uncle’s house that is the Land Commissioner of Liberia, Dr. Cecil T.O. Brandy. When we arrived I met my Uncle and Grandfather at home. We greeted each other and spoke about old times. I ate, bathed, and crashed, in that order.
Week 1 Meet & Greet
This week was dedicated to seeing family those that I have conversed with on the phone for years and those who I left behind as a young girl. We enjoyed talking for hours about Liberia then and now. Discussing politics, because as a Liberian if you don’t speak politics 80% of the time you will be ignored. This topic is the core of Liberia’s existence. Being that the country is still at a volatile state whomever is in power matters. They decide what the countries agenda is weather it’s focused on poverty or education, etc. The other 10% of the time I ate traditional foods and tried Bitter Leaf
(Liberian) Pepper (Liberian) Beef Rib, Rice, & Pepper (American) Veggie Pizza (Lebanese) some American cuisines with a Lebanese twist. The other 10% of the time I was setting up appointments to meet with various colleagues. I met the cook/maid she really catered to my needs. You just never get enough of being pampered. This time allowed me to get adjusted to my environment. Purchase a smart phone to have a local number via Lonestar Cellular. Initially, I tried to use my iPhone but in order to do so it had to be unlocked which mine was solely an AT&T functioning device which I had no intentions of unlocking. Had I done so this would have voided my warranty.
Week 2 Family Business
My last name is Anderson and anyone who is from Liberia knows the name. My family on my father’s side is well known for Anderson Funeral Home. My Dad A.B. Anderson started this business in the fifties. He came to the states to study his craft and went back “home” (Liberia) to own a funeral home and be a Mortician. Before I left, I contacted one of my brothers who gave me relative’s numbers. I knew there were two other MaZoe’s who happened to be my sister. My father had over 19 children. The bulk of them remained in Liberia and some went to the states and returned “back home”. As you can see I am one of the youngest of many. The only female in the picture is my sister MaZoe. So once I began calling my list of numbers, I was embraced by siblings I never seen or was too young to remember. We had a wonderful week. I was taken on a tour of Bomi County where I found out this was my father’s roots and where he gave most to the community in his “hay day” and the community gave
him. Church dedicated to my father In a weeks time I travelled more places than many Diaspora Liberians who spend a longer time in the country. I went to Grand Bassa, Bomi, Montserrado, and Margibi counties for business and pleasure. I saw that the children went to school in two shifts. The shifts are from 8am-12 noon and 12 noon-4pm. The kids are dedicated to their education. I saw them going soaking wet in the rain even. Parents pay school fees. If you cannot afford to send your Kids to school, they end up working at an early age. The child labor laws are hardly enforced in Liberia. In this week, based on conversations with family, friends, and associates from Week 1; I decided to initiate business and apply for a business license. This process took four days. By the time I had completed this process, I was licensed to do business in Liberia in IT, Import/Export, Food & Alcohol sales, and several other related products and services. Confirming meetings and tours was my task in Week 1.
Now I began to visit colleagues and tour local places of personal and business interest. In particular I visited Starz College of Technology (Sinkor, Monrovia). The owner and I sit on the Internet Society of Chapter (Liberia). So, I got a complete tour of his compound and we discussed future partnership. I was invited to be on their radio show to promote my woman’s group LWIT (Liberian Women in Technology) but due to time and scheduling was unable to make the show. I believe Starz is one of the few IT schools in Liberia that produces students ready for the world of IT.
In this time I also visited 10 Internet Cafes to compare for potential business in this arena. I found that all were substandard per US standards. They were dimly lit. Liberia has a dry season and a rainy season. I went during the dry season so that means it was very hot. Most of these cafes had fans circulating hot air. Others had no form of ventilation or air circulating. The cost is some places were reasonable in others not so much. I also had many phone conferences with those who were too busy to meet in person. I even had realizations that some people talk about the businesses they run while you are overseas but when you get on ground and it is time to see and meet in person, they do not honor their words or simply did not have anything to show for all the conversations about their progress that was relayed via phone conversation. These situations were few and far between but they did exist. Some things I discovered in this week were petroleum for transport was on demand . I put on my traditional and went to a wonderful church induction ceremony where my brother is the pastor. I also spent time at the beach. I enjoyed family, the sunset, and a little red wine, what a memory, beautiful shores and sea breeze. I was also introduced to the infamous “Pin-Pin Boys”. My spelling may not be correct but when you take a trip to Liberia you will come to realize the spelling doesn’t matter when one of these guys cuts between two cars in traffic or you see a horrific accident on the street and a mother crying for their child who has just been thrown from a motor bike at a high rate of speed.
I never had the need or desire to ride this mode of transportation. It is one of the most dangerous things
you can choose to do while in Liberia. Especially when medical care is subpar. You may want to opt out. Week 3 Wrap-Up I learned by this week daily life goes on uneventfully. Most people choose to wash on Saturday’s, go to market to buy fresh food for their family daily. Most importantly, most choose to worship on Sunday. The average Liberian knows that family is everything and the core of our being. We eat together, pray together, and work together in some instances. By this week, I had found someone who I could trust on ground. So, I began to embark on one of the businesses I had come to find would be a means to kick-start my business presence on ground, build trust, and allow for more future growth. This would be in the telecom arena. One thing you will come to learn about Liberians and how we do business is that we talk business over a good meal, in passing on the streets, or at an event. Either way it goes we are face-to-face people. You cannot possibly do business via the World Wide Web. The value of remote meeting is just not there yet. Liberians like to create some sort of personal/business relationship to do business with its fellow Liberian. But, Liberians also do business with other countries and individuals. In this scenario, these entities are normally giving monies to Liberia so the building of a personal relationship is not essential. Building trust however is essential in doing business in Liberia. If your colleagues do not know you and have not built that trust, you will be an easy target for scams and bribery. Trust takes time and credibility.
Whomever you may think you can build this type of relationship with I advise you to watch this person’s actions not just listen to what they say. I know some people in Liberia who could sell you firewood to build a fire in 110° weather. So you really have to be mindful of whom you’re putting your trust in. But, if you find someone worthy, they will be a great resource to have on ground. The most essential thing in IT that was going on while I was there is the infrastructure of the fiber optic cabling. This will allow Liberia to connect with the rest of the world at a speed they can compete. The core cables have been laid and now people are attempting to extend the infrastructure to the outlying areas. The concentration of cabling is mainly in the government and educational sectors of Monrovia. Upon finding out information about the Fiber Optic Infrastructure it allowed me to find a focal point for location of business and it made me realize that energy source was essential. Some businesses and homes are on LEC (Liberian Electric Company). Most of Monrovia is still on petro. This discovery is mission critical for business location. I have two choices. 1. Find a location that has LEC 2. Find a location that has petro There are pros and cons to both. LEC is much cheaper than Petro. So, the operational cost is not as high. But, with Petro I seem to find locations cheaper. These locations become expensive after figuring in running PC’s all day for what I intended to do for business. Petro is not cheap. For, example my colleague Latim DaThong who owns Starz College of Technology relayed to me that his petro cost daily is between $1000-$1500.
At the end of the day, I did not accrue any energy cost because the person I could trust formed a partnership with me and used their pre-existing space to sell my product. Closing I came; I saw; I
conquered. This is how I would sum up my trip. I never had any incidents where I felt unsafe or in danger. I advise that anyone thinking about making a trip to Liberia to take all necessary vaccines. Medically wise Liberia healthcare system is subpar at best. You do not want to get sick in Liberia unless you have the means to fly to Ghana to get healthcare or you think you are “Teflon Don”. I spent many hours speaking to my colleagues about where they see IT going in the next 5-10 years. We all agree that politics will be the factor that negates IT. We feel that we must focus on Internet exposure and building lasting infrastructure. Wi-Fi is present but not to the extent it is used in “Western Business World”. Since Liberia is literally rising from the rubble and needs time to catch-up with the rest of the world. If we nurture our infrastructure and build it for scalability and future growth; Liberia can compete on a global level. So I packed my bags with a heavy heart to leave all this peace and tranquility to get back to the stress of the “Western World”. All in all I was ready to head back and continue to make an impact in the World of IT. After all I am a GEEK! Now for those Feasibility
Questions I asked in the beginning:
• Is IT visible in Liberia? – Yes, it is visible and a growing infrastructure. Fiber Optic is the cabling used currently to support this industry. I will say though it is visible it is not diverse. Most people are into Internet Café, Break/Fix, or education. Not too many other areas are in this abundance.
• Who are the main players in the IT arena? – The major players I would say are the government and schools teaching the curriculum.
• Should I start a business? – Yes. But, I must be mindful not to compete with what is in abundance but diversify.
• Is there someone on ground I can trust to run day-to-day operations? – I was able to find someone I can trust. They deposit monies into my account once a month and it has been consistent since I left.
• Should I invest in any other IT business? – I found that what I do in the states was not what was needed in Liberia. So, I did move into the Telecom arena so that I would not be a part of saturating the market.
• What type of IT business could I start? – I advise you to take a trip and find out what works for you or follow me on Twitter and we can discuss some options. As well, I do feasibility studies for companies.
• How does the government view IT? – The government feels technology is important as they are trying to automate their services. But, the general public does not understand it’s importance so this is where the education needs to be focused on because all these students going to school need to have a job once they complete their studies.
• Is the IT Infrastructure compatible to US standards? – No, but that is not to say there isn’t room for growth. I say Liberia will thrive in IT within the next 10 years. I am sure that I did not include questions that you may have.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter, direct message me, or send me e-mail @ (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Inquiry Liberia Feasibility). In all I had a wonderful time meeting my people, doing research, and family. Liberians are beautiful, intelligent, hard working people. I hope this article will encourage more business in the field of IT in Liberia. I am looking for partnerships and opportunities so feel free to contact me for these possibilities as well.
©All pictures belong to MaZoe Anderson and Anderson Technical Management Consulting; in order to copy or duplicate please contact MaZoe Anderson for permission.