The Grocery Business: Why Are Liberians Running Away from Making Money?

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We invite anyone to look around Monrovia or any other part of Liberia and figure out what is the most common  Liberian-owned business.  The answer will most likely be cook shops, restaurants and entertainment centers.  The latter, entertainment centers, most probably top the list.  And how much money do such businesses make?  Many last not more than six months to a year and are soon out of business.  Some cook shops and restaurants linger a little longer but only few grow bigger and expand.

The market places down Waterside and on Camp Johnson Road used to be dominated by foreign business enterprises, especially Lebanese, most of whom were selling groceries, cloth, shoes and other wears.  This is where the Syrians, and later the Lebanese, started making money in Liberia.  Some of the big names in these business in the 1940s through the 1960s, especially down Waterside, included Salami, Elias, Gemayal, Rasamny, Saad, Mirza and Hage.  On Broad Street, one of the famous stores that sold shoes, shirts, custom jewelry and other wears was Fouad, near the corner with Gurley Street.

We do not know what happened to the Fouads, but we can say with certainty that some of the families that sold groceries and other goods, branched off into bigger businesses, especially automobiles.    Among these were the Eliases (Toyota), from the large building adjacent the Monrovia City Hall (Nokia), and the Resamnies, who ran their automobile business from the Richards-King property across from St. Teresa’s Convent.

The point we are making is that most, if not all, of these Lebanese families started down Waterside, selling groceries—canned goods, black pepper, Maggie cubes and other seasonings, butter, milk, corned beef, flower, sardines, luncheon meat, onions, sugar, coking oil, tomato paste, salted beef and pork, smoked and other salted fish, split peas and white and kidney beans, salt, rice and various kinds of detergents and toiletries.  These are what we call groceries.  These Middle Eastern families, Syrians and later Lebanese, made serious money from groceries and later expanded into bigger businesses, including automobiles, building materials, small industries and supermarkets.  

It is a great pity that we Liberians have learned nothing from these people.  There were a few exceptions in the early 1950s through the 1970s—including Solo Baby, run by Mr. Nathaniel Brownell near the corner of Carey and Randall Streets, next to Ophelia Hoff Saytumah’s family homestead, and Sambo, now a drinking spot opposite the Benson Street Mosque.  Sambo was run by Mr. Richards, a man with Nigerian connections.  It was he who trained his nephew in business, a man named J.J. Wareibi, who later branched off into big time business and became the sole importer of Datsun automobiles from Japan. It was the war that destroyed his business and drove him and his family into exile in England.

Those political pundits who are wishing today to destabilize Liberia must remember the consequences—it is only the foreigners that benefit.  The few Liberians in business have to run away while foreigners, with deeper pockets, stay behind to reap the bonanza from chaos of war.

Solo Baby was also a popular drinking spot, but his business was not just for that.  He opened also on Sunday mornings; and those Monrovia  mothers who missed something from the Waterside on Saturday evening sent their sons to Solo Baby or Sambo early Sunday morning—whether it was for salt beef or split peas for the Sunday lunch. 

Not surprisingly, Mr. Brownell, too, made money and  branched off from grocery business into real estate.  His daughter, Madam Precious Wede Brownell Dennis, told the Daily Observer yesterday that her father owned nine or ten plush concrete homes around Monrovia, which he leased.    The land on which the Royal Grand Hotel is built is partly owned by the Brownells. 

Today we can say without fear of contradiction that we know of no Liberian-owned grocery stores on the scale of Solo Baby or Sambo in Monrovia, or even in Kakata or Gbarnga.  The Fulas and a handful of Nigerians, too, yes.  They have grocery stores.  But are there any Liberian grocers in Buchanan or Greenville?  We know of none.  Vice President William R. Tolbert, who had a series of small shops in Bensonville, Nyehn in Todee District and beyond, was seen on many Saturday mornings in the 1950s and early 1960s buying groceries from Salami Brothers to stock his little shops.         

Why do we discuss the grocery business this morning?   Because our reporter Conscience Tequah covered the launch of a Business Entrepreneurship Center in Buchanan last week.  She said that among the winners of the business plan contest held were young Liberians with plans for a boutique, a cement depot, etc., but none for a grocery store.  Why are Liberians running away from grocery stores, when that is the one of the quickest ways to make money, since people must eat?

Commerce Minister Axel Addy, we pray that you can help encourage Liberians to enter the grocery business down Waterside, on Camp Johnson Road and elsewhere in Monrovia and around the country AND TAKE THESE BUSINESSES SERIOUSLY.  Follow Solo Baby, Sambo and Wareibi’s examples, make money and expand your business.  Go buy wholesale from Claratown wholesalers,   open serious grocery stores and make money! 

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