Running A Business In West Africa After Ebola: A Lesson In Entrepreneurial Agility

In Liberia, it’s been 93 days since the last reported Ebola case. “Liberia Declared Ebola-Free” read the headlines in many world newspapers last month as the World Health Organization officially proclaimed that the outbreak had ended.

But the story of the Ebola epidemic doesn’t conclude there. (In fact, the virus is still present in neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone.) As the direct effects of the disease become less visible in Liberia, the work of economic and social recovery is just beginning, and it will likely span generations. Today in Liberia, unemployment is raging and growth projections for the country have been cut in half, from 6.8 percent to 3 percent.

The situation, no matter how seemingly dire, is a clarion call for social entrepreneurs who see such challenges as meaningful opportunities for transformation. Indeed, if ever there were a time and place to achieve outsized and transformative impact, it’s now and it’s in West Africa.

“Because of the Ebola outbreak, Liberia basically lost 30 years of progress, and I’m not prepared to give it another day,” said Chid Liberty, an inspiring entrepreneur who launched an ethical apparel company in Liberia that I’ve described in the past. Chid’s company, Liberty & Justice, operates Africa’s first fair trade–certified garment factory. It is located in the slums of West Point in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital — the same neighborhood put under quarantine last year to reduce the spread of Ebola. The timing could not have been worse: the outbreak hit just as Liberty & Justice was beginning to fulfil orders for some of the world’s leading clothing brands.

Needless to say, it has been a tough year for business. However, thanks to an effective education and health campaign by Liberty & Justice, not one of its 300 worker-owners (all of whom are women) contracted Ebola — a testament to their resilience as empowered employees, and to the power of leadership and strong institutions.

In Monrovia, Liberia, staff at Africa's first fair-trade certified garment factory sew premium T-shirts. For each one purchased, a school uniform will be donated to a Liberian child in need.In Monrovia, Liberia, staff at Africa’s first fair-trade certified garment factory sew premium T-shirts.

Still, as the epidemic spread, the enterprise itself teetered on the brink.

“I think most people quietly assumed that we were going out of business,” Chid explained. At the height of the outbreak last year, apparel buyers who were previously signing $500,000-a-month contracts stopped returning Chid’s phone calls, and his company lost millions in revenue. But he did not let that stop him. Instead, Liberty & Justice temporarily transformed its operations from manufacturing premium apparel for American consumers to distributing Ebola prevention kits. With patient capital and a resourceful, motivated team, the company pivoted from sewing high-end yoga clothes to supplying lifesaving kits almost overnight.

The story continues. Just last month, as the epidemic waned, Chid told me about another transformation he had up his sleeve. As he explained, the best way to revive the business and ensure the return of full-time work for its employees — who own 49 percent of the factory — was to create a new product and marketing strategy alongside the original business. With that in mind, Liberty & Justice launched its own brand of premium T-shirts, called UNIFORM.

“I think everyone is right to want to pour money into Liberia’s health system,” said Chid. “What scares me is that many are willing to stop there. We need to be just as serious about education and economic development.”

The team at Liberty & Justice aims to do just that by supplying school uniforms to children throughout the country and putting a unique twist on the traditional “buy one, give one” model. For every UNIFORM T-shirt purchased, a school uniform will be donated to a Liberian child in need. Both products are made by Liberian women at Liberty & Justice’s factory in Monrovia, preventing the unintended consequences behind some charity-based models, which can displace local merchants and distort local economies.

Thus the company’s fight continues to adapt and iterate and succeed despite almost unfathomable odds. And amid the tragedy in Liberia lies an important lesson in entrepreneurial agility. Like other social entrepreneurs I know, Chid is compelled by the fierce urgency of now. When confronted with a seemingly intractable setback, he reimagined his business, turning the bitterest lemons into lemonade in an unyielding quest to transform a war-torn country from which he and his family were once forced into exile.

Even before the Ebola outbreak, Liberia — which ranked 175 out of 187 on the UN Human Development Index — was struggling to rebuild from decades of conflict. As Chid well knows, education is at the heart of that post-conflict struggle. In 2013, all of the approximately 25,000 high school graduates who took the University of Liberia entrance exam failed the test. The following year, only 15 of 13,000 students successfully passed. It’s difficult to rebuild a country when its children are not being educated.

The country has consistently had one of the lowest primary-education enrollment rates in Africa, with six out of 10 children in that age group out of school, according to the World Bank. One of many factors behind this troubling trend is that a vast portion of Liberia’s students cannot attend school — even free public school — because their parents can’t afford the school uniform. The $10 to $50 investment per child is prohibitive if you live on less than $1.25 a day, as more than 80 percent of Liberia’s population does. Chid’s new product line addresses this challenge.

Buzzwords can annoy and distract, and these days the word resilience gets thrown around far more than it should, but in this case it is perfectly warranted. In fact, social entrepreneurs would benefit from stealing a page from Chid Liberty’s book of what to do when unimaginable events start to unfold. Rather than digging in his heels and myopically pursuing his original business plan, Chid adapted and redefined the challenge as an opportunity. And when other investors and entrepreneurs left the country, he boldly and swiftly doubled down.

“If an investor had brought up Ebola as a risk factor for our business five years ago, I would have written them off as ignorant,” Chid recalled. But when the unthinkable happened, he and his team simply refused to let a multimillion-dollar factory located in the epicenter of the outbreak sit idle. No, sir. They turned the machines back on, and created entirely new products and distribution channels. That blows my mind, I’ll be honest. Earlier this month, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign to pre-sell their UNIFORM shirts. As of today, they’ve nearly tripled their goal. Agile business. Resilient women. Investment in the future.