Results of a 1978 World Bank commissioned study entitled “A Survey of Small Scale Liberian Enterprises” led to the eventual creation of the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) Department under the umbrella of the National Investment Commission.
Among other things the study revealed a whole gamut of problems small Liberian businesses faced daily. The problems ranged from the lack of adequate record keeping systems, a high tax regime, daily harassment by a host of local functionaries including health inspector, Fire Service officers, Commerce and Finance Ministry officials, lack of incentives, access to credit, etc.
The main idea behind the establishment of the SME department therefore was to help create and build a class of small Liberian entrepreneurs who could eventually balloon into owners of medium and large business and by and large succeed in breaking the chokehold of foreign businessmen on the Liberian economy.
The 1980 military coup d’etat however interrupted plans of expansion and a combination of factors including poor management, corruption, political interference etc, served to stymie the growth of what would have otherwise been a vibrant class of Liberian entrepreneurs with knowledge and skills of how to successfully run a business.
The announcement therefore by LBDI President John Davies that the Bank, in 2019 will shift its focus to lending to the agricultural and manufacturing sectors provides hope that under his leadership the Bank will seek to address itself to problems posed by non-performing loan portfolios held in the main by Liberian borrowers.
In the opinion of this newspaper, efforts should be applied to determining casual factors responsible for such non-performance which some say is endemic to Liberian borrowers. While such views may hold true in many cases, they however apply more to borrowers who enjoy elite status than the ordinary small scale businesses most of who operate in the informal sector.
As studies have shown, a key driver of the Liberian economy is the informal sector whose varied activities basically keep the economy alive and kicking. The Bank must show itself adaptable to changes which would encourage a healthy engagement with the Liberian Marketing Association (LMA), for example.
A random survey of fees collected at the various market places just in and around Monrovia alone shows that the LMA effectively generates over one million US dollars monthly. But how such monies are accounted for is entirely another issue, suffice it to say however that there is tremendous potential out there waiting to be tapped. This is not to mention potential of the various informal savings and loans associations (Susu) around the country.
The Bank could also give a thrust to Agricultural cooperatives around the country by providing them access to credit and other financial services. By partnering with these local bodies, financial services provided could very well serve to enhance the growth and expansion of agricultural activities and boost food production.
From the backdrop of experience of other countries, lending institutions are often adverse to providing credit for food production. Lending to the agricultural sector has been mostly for cash crop production whose export value are subject to the vagaries of price fluctuations and unequal terms of trade.
This new initiative, therefore, should not be biased towards the movers and shakers in society. Rather, they should be inherently biased towards Liberian entrepreneurs, large and small alike. Lending policies should as such be non-discriminatory but yet biased towards medium and small businessmen and producers.
It is all about creating a level playing field to do business which means the breaking up of monopoly cartels currently exerting a strangle-hold on the import of essential commodities particularly rice, the nation’s staple.
This newspaper is, for example, convinced that the LMA, just from daily collections, has the potential to supplant Lebanese rice importers who enjoy a monopoly to their unfair advantage and to the disadvantage of millions of Liberians most of who live below the poverty line.
Clearly this will be a tough challenge but is one which must be faced. The LBDI, in reacting to these challenges, may likely find itself competing against the likes of such financial giants such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) a World Bank subsidiary which is now undercutting the local commercial banks by its policy of direct lending to the Kinjor Gold Mines (Aureus Gold) including parastatals such as the Liberia Electricity Corporation.
These are all reasons why the LBDI, as the country’s oldest lending institution, newly declared policy shift to lending to the agricultural and manufacturing sectors should be considered as a challenge to lift Liberians out of poverty by developing their productive capacity and potential. This is a challenge from which it cannot and dare not shirk.