Local entrepreneurs are demanding a major stake in the Liberian economy that would raise the development levels of the country and trickle down to improve the living standard of Liberians.
The entrepreneurs are also resolved to compete with or even dethrone their foreign counterparts if the needed support and sources of empowerment are availed to them by the government.
During separate interviews after having what they described as fruitful conference with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last weekend at her Foreign Ministry office, the local entrepreneurs said that the level of preferential treatment given foreign entrepreneurs over the years have thrown locally-owned businesses far behind.
While the Liberian entrepreneurs acknowledged some of their individual and collective shortcomings, they maintained that the Government of Liberia could still provide support to help them overcome their vices. Shortcomings in managerial skills and integrity, as well as strategic access to markets and technology, are some of the well known ones which, some of them claimed, are not their own faults, but national problems. Even President Sirleaf highlighted some of these problems during the interactive forum.
“Government understands some of the issues,” The President said, “and will give you the needed support to be able to succeed.
She also acknowledged that the Liberian economy is largely dominated by foreigners and admitted that both government and entrepreneurs lack capital.
“We recognize those shortcomings on both sides,” she said, urging them to work with government to address those issues so that they can have a bigger space in the market.
Foreign merchants have, from time immemorial, controlled the country’s economy, from basic commodities and staple foods to real estate, finance and certain political advantages at the expense of the population.
Though many may consider the move belated as the president has only two more years to end her tenure, for local entrepreneurs, it is better late than never.
“We feel that much can still be done. If she can set the pace during these last two years, I think the next administration, with the right attitude, will take us there,” Madam Isatu Gbegbe Noubibous said. Madam Noubibous is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of MEMAS Marketing Services which specializes in the tailoring industry.
“These foreign nationals have always had the backing from influential government officials and members of the presidents’ kitchen cabinet. Not just this government, but mostly those that have been in the past,” one of the business women said, noting that, “if the government desires that Liberians should take over the economy it should be in deeds and not in words.”
She said when Liberian businesses and their foreign counterparts go into a bidding process, the former are always sidelined in favor of the latter. “The Lebanese are always winning bids – they get all of the preferential treatment so we are now just striving for survival. But thank God that the President has personally decided to intervene,” she said.
The Chief Executive Officer of Libra Sanitation, George Howe, said one thing that is also impeding the progress of Liberian businesses is the high interest rates on loans from the banks. “There should be some consideration for us. The interest rates on the loans are too high for us and this is hampering our businesses,” Mr. Howe said.
He also said that the banks are never willing to give Liberian businesses the full amount that they desire. “The bank will never give what will help our businesses to grow. They will always give half of what we ask for and this does not meet the plans that we make,” he said.
He added, “It is no secret that foreigners have easier access to loans from the banks than Liberian entrepreneurs – and when the loans are made available, most often it’s just 50 percent or below, while foreigners take the entire 100 percent.”
He also complained of the involvement of foreign businesses in all aspects of the economy, including businesses that are meant for Liberians.
“We acknowledge the lack of managerial skills, markets, technology, enhancement, and integrity on the part of the Liberian community as the President rightly put it. However, we are of the strongest conviction that addressing the aforementioned and at the same time ensuring solutions for [issues such as] limited access to loans from the banking sector, as well as the involvement of foreigners in businesses only set aside for Liberians, among others, would better address the holistic problem of foreign dominance of the current Liberian economy,” he said.
Another local businessman, Fomba Trawally, said the move by the President is good and rewarding start, and if pursued would open doors for the Liberian business community.
Mr. Trawally also said Liberians are yet to give preference to locally produced materials. “Liberians are yet to prioritize local products and we need to do this if we are to take over our economy.”
Meanwhile, a follow-up meeting with the President is expected to convene soon.