Chid Liberty freely admits that, as a kid, he didn’t really understand where he came from. The son of an exiled Liberian diplomat, he lived his life abroad in Germany and the United States, where his dad taught African history. Surrounded by a social circle comprised largely of other African diplomats and their families, it never occurred to the budding entrepreneur the privilege into which he’d been born. “I thought Africans drove Benzes and dressed up every day and went to the best schools,” he says of his worldview at the time. “It even messed up my orientation on things like race, because we had all different kinds of people working in my house as a kid–German, Indian, Turkish–and all of them were serving us in some way. So I just kind of grew up thinking that Africans were at the top of the food chain.”
It wasn’t until around seventh grade, when he read about the actual conditions of life in Liberia, that his perceptions began to change. “When I read only 2% of people have a telephone, I was so confused,” he says. “I started to really understand my place.”
When Liberty was 18, his father passed away, and he started to itch to go back. But it was the efforts of Nobel Peace Prize winners Leymah Gbowee, President Ellen Sirleaf, and the Liberian Women’s Peace Movement–which helped end 15 years of civil war–that set the wheels in motion for his return. “I just thought that was really cool from a social change standpoint,” Liberty says. “I was in Silicon Valley working with tech startups as a finance person, and I thought, ‘All right, well, I think I can apply that skill to providing economic opportunities for women.’ And decided to come here and try, in an industry that I knew absolutely nothing about.”
Liberty and Justice, the company he co-founded with Adam Butlein in 2010, is now Africa’s first fair-trade-certified apparel manufacturer, making tops and bottoms for brands like Prana, FEED Projects, Haggar, and other large buyers in the U.S. The workers at the company’s factories in Liberia and Ghana are 90% female, and paid 20% higher wages than their peers on average. Together, the employees also own a 49% stake in the enterprise, while L and J’s 51% gets channelled back into community development.
“We really try to be worker focused,” Liberty says, “and we actually think that’s what gave us a cutting edge at the end of the day: having really devoted workers. People don’t really believe in these types of factories in Africa, because they believe that African workers aren’t motivated. I think that’s hogwash.”
Still, he’s not exaggerating when he says he knew nothing about the industry at first. For example, when he first sold the idea to investors–convincing some heavy hitters in the impact capital world to travel to Liberia to see what they were creating–he didn’t exactly have everything up and running. In fact, he didn’t even have a factory yet. “I knew my aunt had a building that I might be able to use,” he says. “But no lease on the building, no. No nothing. Just some emails back and forth.”
Eventually, he did raise money from those same investors, but it took more than a year of additional relationship-building to repair the damage and do the convincing.
Some of the company’s early mistakes, however, turned out to be unlikely advantages. “We hired an amazing consultant who came to set up the factory, train the workers, so on and so forth,” Liberty remembers. “But as soon as they got in there, they told us how backwards we were.”
They had done “pretty much everything” wrong, including hiring an initial workforce of women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. “For the typical garment factory,” Liberty says, “the average age is probably 23. I just assumed any able-bodied person could sew. I didn’t realize that, in China, it’s like an Olympic sport, and that’s how they get the productivity numbers. Our trainer felt like we might as well get rid of everybody.”
Instead, Liberty decided to bite the bullet and really invest in the workforce he had in place, a risk that has indeed led to competitive productivity levels, as well as pretty inspiring workplace vibe. “These older women really set the culture of the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project, our first factory,” Liberty says. “They come to work an hour early–we never asked them to do that–they pray and sing together before they get on the machines, they’re very serious about the details of how your uniform should look, and you just wouldn’t have gotten that out of a bunch of 19-year-old girls the first time … so that’s a mistake that turned out pretty well.”
In 2012, Liberty and Justice expanded into Ghana, launching the Ghanaian Women’s Sewing Project by taking over an existing garment factory there. In moving to a new country, Liberty’s learning curve started anew. “Ghana in 2011 was the fastest growing economy in the world,” he says. “Great business environment, amazing infrastructure for West Africa, very favorable business conditions. If you’re not investing in Ghana, you’re kind of a weirdo. But it’s very, very, very different. My goodness. Ghana is very steeped in the British culture, and the indigenous African cultures around that, so we are little bit more proper there than we are in the Liberian factory.”
Overall, he says, the most important thing for anyone hoping to capitalize anywhere within the African economic explosion is to understand that business there is a super social game. “It’s not like San Francisco, where I think anybody can start a business, everything is online, everybody’s playing by the same rules,” he says. “You could easily get squashed in Africa if you don’t know the right people. You’ll just get sent down rabbit holes every day,” he says.
Struggle aside, Liberty and Justice is now adding 45 employees per month to its Ghanaian factory, with the goal of reaching 700 employees by 2014. (The goal in Liberia, where they’ve recently moved to a bigger building, is 500.) It seems Liberty is on his way to fulfilling a mission his late father very much would have appreciated, albeit with a different philosophical foundation.
“My dad was in many ways a pan-African socialist, part of the post-colonial group that was really pushing for progressive policies in Africa, focused on sort of Arab Spring-like political change,” Liberty says. “I became interested in private sector change, and how in these micro-economic ways we could really affect people’s lives in a new way.”
And just like Gbowee, Sirleaf, and the other local female leaders whom Liberty so admires, it’s possible that, in another very important way, his L and J garment factories are helping to change the future for the next generation of West Africans, too. “One of the things that we wanted to do was empower moms,” Liberty says. “In Liberia, the World Bank reports that about 40% of children are enrolled in school. Among the women for whom we provide jobs, 98% of their children are in school. So to me it’s very clear: You give a woman the opportunity to work, and her priority will be putting her kids in school.”
Nairobi may be in the African innovation spotlight for the moment, but if Liberia’s people continue to strive for education and equality as they recover from their lost years of civil war, Liberty is convinced that it’s just a matter of time before the world starts to realize the incredible potential of his side of the continent, too. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says, sounding like a man who is now very sure of where he’s from. “I really think that the opportunities for innovation are right here. And once we get the social finance opportunities right, I think you’ll see a little West African impact renaissance happening. There’s still a lot of work to do. I hope Liberty and Justice can be a small part of that.”