That two Liberian women — President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee — won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, along with Yemeni human rights campaigner Tawakkul Karman, points up just how politically empowered Liberian women have become. With the country’s unemployment rate hovering around 80%, though, economic empowerment still proves elusive, especially for women.
Chid Liberty is working to change that. As CEO of Liberty & Justice, a social venture he co-founded that hires women to manufacture fair trade clothing, Liberty is bent on combatting poverty in his homeland.
Liberty was eighteen months old when his father was appointed Liberia’s Ambassador to West Germany following the 1980 military coup led by Samuel Doe. The family moved from Monrovia to Bonn but when his father was recalled four years later, he deemed the political situation too dangerous and instead took his family to the United States. During their exile, Liberty’s parents often spoke to him about their life back home.
“The way my parents described Monrovia, the way they held themselves, the way their identities stood juxtaposed against a German or American backgrounds wholly formed my concept of Liberia. My perception was obviously quite different from the reality on the ground,” Liberty told me.
“When my dad passed away I became extremely motivated to go and see this place I was born for myself. Six years later Liberia became home to the most inspiring peace movement of our time and Africa’s first female president. The only question on my mind was, ‘what am I waiting for?;’” So twenty-eight years after he had left, Liberty returned to Liberia.
“I could see the country making tons of progress but knew that jobs were what the country needed most (and if you ask me – formal jobs for women). I felt that I’d been groomed in the center of American entrepreneurship (silicon and telecom valleys) and that this was one skill I could bring to Liberia and have serious impact quite quickly.”
Today, Liberty lives in Monrovia and operates two factories, the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project, Africa’s first Fair Trade Certified factory, and a factory in Ghana’s Tema district, which he expects to launch early next year. “In Liberia we have just above 60 employees and are working up to 500 at the new LWSP location. In Ghana, we are likely to work up to 500 quite quickly also. Our target is to have around 2,400 in the region by 2013.”
I recently interviewed Liberty, a winner of a 2011 SVN Innovation Award about how he started Liberty & Justice and how he is effecting change in his country.
How does Liberty & Justice work?
Liberty & Justice is an ethical agent. Using Liberia as an example, we got on the ground in 2009 and found countless groups of women who had been through sewing training yet had no job or access to income opportunities. We worked with them to organize a formal business – of which they own 49%. We funded their factory, brought in topnotch international trainers, and put together a rapid expansion strategy.
To date, that factory’s clients include PrAna, FEED Projects, and other major US retailers and 60+ women in Liberia can count on a paycheck every month. We are now growing this to 500 women within Liberia in the next 18 months.
How have you been able to carry out your mission statement of being “committed to a future in which farmers, manufacturers, transporters distributors retailers, and consumers are completely aligned in making choices that result in the eradication of poverty, the responsible stewardship of the environment and the empowerment of workers”?
At the core of our mission is the idea that though two things may be distinct, they aren’t necessarily separate. Often consumers feel separate from the people who produce their goods – our only real relationship is with the retail store shelf or the delivery person.
But our world is getting smaller and we want to shine a light on the supply chain. Not just because we want to show you that we’re not using child labor. We actually want to show you the beauty in how your purchase put children in school and gave them access to a doctor. Modern marketing does so much to separate us from the source. We want to reverse that trend.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
I’m extremely optimistic and don’t pay too much attention to obstacles that can be overcome, But, I’m also aware that we are operating in a post-conflict country with a broken down infrastructure, there was a complete brain-drain – so it’s really hard to find managers, government institutions are basically in rehab.
Sometimes operating in Liberia is extremely frustrating, but I just have to remember that my job in all this is the easy one. I didn’t have to protest warlords and risk my life. All I have to do is deliver my orders on time.
Why is it so important for you to empower women in Liberia?
First, it’s important to note that the women in Liberia are already empowered. They lead the most important peace movement of our time. They raise amazingly beautiful families. They are extremely active in their religious organizations.
What Adam [Butlein, president and co-founder of Liberty & Justice] and I became seriously interested in was providing them access to formal employment opportunities. We saw that as the best way to strengthen families and create a future that, right now, might seem unlikely.
We knew, based on empirical evidence, that if women have jobs and a steady income they put their kids in school and protect them from preventable diseases. So far, the results are pretty outstanding.
Take a look at this video and listen to Chid Liberty as he discusses the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project:
Photo credit: courtesy of Liberty & Justice