As a child, Odelia Acolyte fled her home of Liberia to neighboring Nigeria to escape the bloodshed of civil war. But she returned home frequently to visit family and always felt that what would help people in her country most would be to give them a job. “When I would go home, I would always find people sitting around,” says Acolyte, “I wanted to be part of change in society.”
That dream stayed with her for close to a decade, and following her return to Liberia, she became the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college, earning a sociology degree from United Methodist University in Monrovia in the capital. The idea remained alive even after she found a prized job with a local telecommunications company in Monrovia, one of only a limited number of formal, private sector jobs in a country where the International Labour Organization estimates that nearly 20% of men and 35% of women are unemployed.
So one year ago, Acolyte founded JET-Del Housekeeping Services, a startup that aims to be the Jiffy Maids of Liberia. With cleanliness and fighting germs on everyone’s minds following the devastation of the Ebola crisis, JET-Del is positioning itself as part of the solution.
Acolyte is part of a new generation of entrepreneurs helping Liberia recover, following the carnage of the outbreak and the country’s years’- long civil war that ended in 1997. Focused on growing employment opportunities and filling market needs, these young entrepreneurs are emerging to help push the country toward economic sustainability and prosperity even while international aid organizations pack up and go home.
“There is a lot of entrepreneurship in Liberia, and one of the reasons for that is because there are so few formal opportunities for young people to build livelihoods,” says Nate Crossley, program manager for the Prospects program at the aid organization Mercy Corps. Mercy Corps offered Acolyte a $13,000 grant as part of the program for marketing and to help implement business systems, professionalize recruitment, and train her employees. “In some ways they are forced to be creative.”
“I just knew housekeeping would help me to train a lot of people to work,” says Acolyte, now 26, of how she got the idea to professionalize cleaning and care services in Monrovia. She began JET-Del with $500 of her own savings. Today she has grown the business to include 61 clients supporting more than 65 contract employees, 85% of whom are women, most of them with no formal education and coming from Monrovia’s poorest neighborhoods. When they become JET-Del contractors, they receive professional training and uniforms. The women earn at least $150 U.S. dollars each month. “Now they are able to provide for their family,” Acolyte says.
And that is just the start. Now that she has a core group of women working for her, Acolyte has helped her employees to begin saving: Those who choose can have a third of their salaries automatically deducted and placed in a savings account that they can use in the event a child is ill or they have problems funding their children’s education. Acolyte sees her job as helping to jump-start her workers access to financial services and begin to save. ”It is about helping them: People get paid, they can afford school fees for their children,” Acolyte says. “That can help to change society.”
Helping this rising class of entrepreneurs learn the basics of business is the Branson Scholarship Program (created by Richard Branson), a 9-to-12 month session that teaches entrepreneurs business fundamentals and matches them with mentors and overseas training opportunities. So far, 35 entrepreneurs have completed the training and have gone on to create 3,000 jobs in total, says program manager Wilson Idahor. The program now is seeking funds to train another class of business owners. The biggest benefit Idahor sees is a generation of young people pushing others to dream big.
“A lot of entrepreneurs we have worked with have become fairly successful, so people see them as role models for other young people,” Idahor says. “People are seeing this is possible, you can start your own business and prosper instead of getting a job with the government.”
The entrepreneurs who take part in the program say the knowledge they gain builds and strengthens their businesses for everyone’s gain.
“For the betterment of this economy, which is already a fragile one, we need everyone to be empowered,” says Genevieve Tonia Paasewee, who owns a hair care salon, Paasewee House of Beauty, which has been in her family for three generations. Paasewee plans to modernize and grow the business and to export her family’s popular all-natural hair styling products to neighboring nations and beyond. Today, Paasewee employs a dozen people, most of whom are women. With salaries of $40 to $97 U.S. dollars each month, they are now able to afford the fees to send their children to school. She says that seeing the impact her work makes on her employees and her society is what keeps her going.
“Liberia is challenging—you have to be active to find ways to make it all work,” Paasewee says. “Some days you want to pack it up and run away. But it is not just about you, you have to think about the 13 people” working for you. But jobs at small business like Paasewee’s are still rare. While more and more Liberian women have formally registered their businesses in recent years (women now manage nearly one-third of formal firms in Liberia), the majority–60%–still operate in the informal sector. For male entrepreneurs, that number is 45%.
For Veria Sumo, that drive to start her own business came from being unable to find a job in the formal sector. In 2008 and 2009, Sumo looked for work without success. So she decided to create a job for herself–and for others. She began with a freight clearing business. But a few years later, Ebola arrived. Like Acolyte, she used the drive for sterility and cleanliness that came with the disease and founded Golden Gates Services, a business that produces hand sanitizer stations with a sensor-triggered dispenser.
“You don’t touch anything,” Sumo says. “I started these stands because I wanted to make this service accessible no matter where you are.”
Sumo’s plan is to sell enough units to bring down the unit price and make the stands accessible to all Liberians. “That is my dream,” Sumo says, “for us to keep up with our hygiene, especially after the crisis we have been through.”
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of the New York Times best-sellers Dressmaker of Khair Khana and Ashley’s War and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has been writing about entrepreneurship in emerging economies since traveling to Afghanistan in 2005 during her second year of MBA study. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Newsweek, and she’s contributed pieces to Fast Company. You can follow her work at @gaylelemmon and at http://www.gaylelemmon.com