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In Liberia, Factory Work is Changing Womens' Lives—Starting at Home

Within the first six months of opening a factory, six out of the initial 25 female workers divorced their husbands.

This story has been updated.

When Chid Liberty thinks about addressing poverty in his native Liberia, he thinks about the industrial revolution.

There are many NGOs in Liberia that “are good at coming up with these very cutesy projects for women,” says the CEO and co-founder of Liberty and Justice, a fair-trade enterprise that trains and employs women in the garment industry. But in a country where unemployment rates hover around 80 percent, such projects seem frivolous. “I don’t think any great economy in the world has been built off of having a lot of individual tailors, or soap-makers or tie-dyers.”

Liberia’s 14-year civil war ended in 2003, but nearly a decade later, poverty and unemployment rates remain among the highest in the world. A democratically elected government took power in 2006, but foreign investment has been slow to trickle back into the West African nation, which was founded by former slaves from the United States. Liberia’s manufacturing sector is virtually non-existent, and Liberian women are excluded from the formal economic sectors of rubber, timber and mining.

What Liberians need, Liberty believes, is rather obvious: “the ability to get a job where they know every first of the month they’re going to get a certain income.”

That's particularly important for women, who face special challenges in Liberia. Some are sold into marriage or abused by their husbands, and they rarely have their own source of income that could help change their circumstances.

So in 2009, Liberty and co-founder Adam Butlein started Africa’s first Fair Trade-certified garment factory in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia as an opportunity for women to earn incomes. The company, which employs 100 women and plans to hire another 400 in Liberia and 700 in Ghana in the near future, incorporates worker ownership, job training, financial literacy classes called “Working Assets,” community reinvestment, and a savings program in which 100 percent of workers' savings are matched by the company each year, which Liberty calls “a pretty good investment.”

When he started the company, Liberty didn’t have a particular interest in apparel. “I was more interested in providing income for women,” he says. “I just thought that that would be a good area… and would provide jobs for women. And I wanted to do something was formal rather than informal.”

Liberty, who is 32, left Liberia for the United States when he was 18 months old, and didn’t return for 28 years. While exiled in the U.S., his mother got a job, enabling her to support herself and her four children. “She completely supported my family for years and years… Because of that three kids graduated from college,” says Liberty, who worked in finance and information systems before launching his current venture. “It’s just given me a really good idea of what happens to a Liberian family when you empower a Liberian woman.”

Soon after opening the factory, Liberty began to notice an interesting phenomenon taking place among his workforce: Within the first six months, six of the initial 25 female workers divorced their husbands. One day, a worker named Mariana Bah approached Liberty, he says. “She said, ‘I need your help, I need to change the name on my bank account,’” he remembers. “I was like, 'oh, crazy, what’s going on?' And she said, ‘I’ve decided to get a divorce. My name is not Mariana Bah. That’s the name that was given to me when I was 13 and I was married off to an older Muslim man. My real name is actually Rebecca Drake.’”

He helped her with the name change. When the divorce was finalized, Rebecca Drake had “this new sense of freedom,” he says.

Some of the other female workers had been sold into marriage or had abusive husbands, Liberty says. Once they became financially self-sufficient at Liberty and Justice, they were able to divorce their husbands too.

Workers at Liberty and Justice are paid $100 a month, about $20 more than the average civil servant in Liberia, plus a bag of rice valued at $25 to $40. The employees own 49 percent of the factory.

To maintain Fair Trade certification, Liberty and Justice—which sells to clients such as PrAna and the FEED Project, among others—has to consistently meet 92 labor and safety standards. The company sources cotton from Fair Trade cooperatives in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal; the yarn and fabric for its PrAna shirts was spun in Morocco. Between 2 and 10 percent of the proceeds from sales go into a fund managed by the workers, which has already funded construction of a school for some 200 students.

Andy Lower, executive director of the Eleos Foundation, a nonprofit that makes venture-capital-style investments in social businesses including Liberty and Justice, says the company epitomizes the social-enterprise model of empowering all stakeholders, and “seeking to provide opportunities for dignity to be restored and respected and being sustainable long-term.

“I'm confident in the company’s ability to generate substantial monetary profits with this approach,” Lower says. “The workforce will be more productive, more creative, and more efficient. Additionally, I'm confident that the company will be able to have massive social impact—beyond just job creation—as it proactively implements an empowerment-of-stakeholders approach.”

This is the fifth story in our series on social enterprise in Africa by Laura Burke, a reporter based in Cote d'Ivoire.

Photo by Glenna Gordon

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