On the billboards, on social media and in newspaper advertisements, you’ll see Julia K. Barnney smiling with her new smartphone. She is Lonestar Cell MTN’s Data Da Life Campaign Ambassador. Mrs. Barnney, affectionately known as Ma Mary, is more than that.
Mrs. Barney, 63, is a mother of nine children and is the Superintendent of the Joe Bar Market on the Old Road in Monrovia. Not just a mother or an astute businesswoman in charge, she is a market woman through and through.
Mrs. Barnney, affectionately called Ma Mary, has worked in the informal sector all of her life, selling vegetables, rice, fish, kerosene, and sugarcane to feed, educate, clothe and house her families. She represents Liberian market women who unfortunately didn’t go to school or who couldn’t afford an education.
Despite this disadvantage, the International Finance Corporation reports that market women are more likely to be self-employed than men and manage a significant share of registered small and medium enterprises in low productivity sectors. Nevertheless, they are a powerful economic force in Liberia and make important contributions to society. Market women demonstrated their economic and political prowess during the 2005 election campaign. In large part, though, they are left out of the digital age and all it has to offer.
The entrepreneurial Mrs. Barnney is no exception.
Going to school, for her, was not an option. She remained home to care for her mother while her two older siblings were sent away to school.
From meager beginnings, her journey to the Joe Bar Market began with a graduation from the Sande Society traditional school and a move from her home in River Cess County to Monrovia with $25 dollars.
“I bought one bag of rice,” she said, “and then started putting 50 cent in a susu every day. At month’s end I had $15.50 USD to add on another bag of rice. I got two bags and put one dollar away every day. At month end, I got 30 dollars.”
Through her consistent savings and reinvestment scheme, she grew her business to the point where she could sustain her family without the contribution of her husband’s income.
“What to do? Everything was on me, my children, my own self, I was feeling bad.”
In many cases, she braved the war-torn streets of Monrovia during the 14 year civil war to keep food on the table.
“Even though there was fighting, petty traders could still do business,” she said. When hard times come on me, I go to my room and fast for three days. I lock my door and pray to God, she said.”
Committed to her family and the Joe Bar Market women, she advocated for and mobilized women and resources to substantially upgrade the market’s conditions.
Ma Mary’s tenacity, leadership and persistence enabled her to rise from a market woman selling rice by the cup to Table Director and now to Market Superintendent, all the while raising her family. Her eldest daughter is a current Assistant Minister for Public Works.
Ma Mary, like the other 300 market women attending the Data Da Life campaign launch, put aside their outdated push button phones and received smartphones and data, free of charge. The women can now live a modern and connected life. They can use the smartphone to access the internet, see and speak to their families, reach more customers, use mobile money services for safety and convenience and receive international remittances.
As the Data Da Life Campaign Ambassador, Mrs. Barnney said that she is excited.
“I am happy to be an ambassador. People who don’t know book, come work with the big, big people who know book. Makes me feel good,” she said.
She attends night school now learning how to read and write. She has set another goal: to learn global history.
With her quest for knowledge, her belief in God, and her new Lonestar Cell MTN smartphone, she can do just that.