Entrepreneurship in Liberia: 1 --> n or 0 --> 1?

When most people think of entrepreneurship in developing countries, they do not think of innovation. Even in cases of extreme growth, such as in China, most wealth and development comes from copying what has worked in other places in the past. This is what is known as 1 --> n innovation. No truly new ideas are required; one simply has to copy what has worked n times. 0 --> 1 innovation is qualitatively different: it requires novel ideas.

Business owners on Tubman Boulevard

Monrovia may very well seem to be the NGO capital of the world. Every fifth car or so bears the name of some or other prestigious organization. Most of the problems Liberia faces do not require innovation, but infrastructure. Instead of developing new forms of laparoscopic surgery, health care workers here make sure that the truck carrying malaria medication can make it through the muddy roads.
Considering Liberia’s post-conflict status, one would not normally think that innovation would be a fact of life here. But that assumption is dead wrong. I am surprised every day with the amount of innovation that I see.

Peace Cafe in Singkor was started by the Liberian entrepreneur Barkue Tubman

Less than 50% of Liberia’s population is literate, so print journalism is not particularly popular. Most major newspapers cap their production at 1400 copies. Over 40% of Monrovia’s population (this number is significantly higher outside of the capital) lacks access to electricity, so TV media barely exists. Most Liberians get their news from the radio. It is common to hear long political discussions from the radios of local taxis. Could there be other ways to reach Liberia’s population?

The Daily Talk

The Daily Talk, open with news for the day

Accountability Lab has supported several of these ventures. In order to show various TEDx conferences and the US Presidential debates in Monrovia, Liberian TV Accountability Television is in the process of purchasing seven 30-foot high television screens to place around the city. Android apps will be available so that people can listen to the audio of the programs.

Accountability Lab has also been a supporter of The Daily Talk, which is a news outlet written on a large chalkboard. It is directed towards citizens who cannot afford to purchase a newspaper. Every day, major stories are written on the board, and local people can stand around and read the daily news.

Tito preparing for the first ever TEDx Monrovia: The Power of Resilience

Other organizations are in the process of organizing cocoa and coffee farmers into grassroots cooperatives so that local communities can manage their own land and finances.

Preparing for the TEDx Conference at City Hall

Medical record keeping in Liberia ranges from poor to nonexistent. Even at the best hospitals such as JFK, the records are written poorly and disorganized. This makes it difficult to manage referrals and search for data on unconscious patients. Electronic record keeping is actually a new idea even in American medicine. Just 5-10 years ago, most records were still kept in paper form. Now, however, data is managed and shared through information network exchanges. In Liberia, there are not currently plans to purchase computers in order to track patient data. However, tablets are cheap and can easily upload data to the Cloud. Therefore, some are proposing to skip the organized paper file system that the US used to have and leapfrog straight into electronic medical record keeping. People are searching for innovative and effective ways around various problems.  

JFK Hospital in Monrovia

This does not mean that 1 --> n innovation is unnecessary. On the contrary, it is a core component of development and globalization. Yet, there is something uplifting and infectious about seeing so much creativity and 0 --> 1 innovation here. And it’s due to necessity rather than an effort to capture more market share.

Nowah, one of our borrowers from Logan Town

Our KIVA borrowers are an essential part of the entrepreneurship happening here. Let’s keep up the support and contribute to the development of Liberia.

About the author

Will Putnam

Will’s first long-term travel experience was during a service trip to a village near Marrakesh, Morocco, where he saw the progress the village had made in rebuilding its elementary school. Will has had many divergent experiences since, as the Commodore of the Washington University Sailing Club, a clinical researcher at Barnes-Jewish hospital, a college counselor and test preparation instructor at an education startup in Bangkok, and a volunteer on an organic permaculture farm. These experiences showed Will common challenges facing small businesses and organizations as well as the importance of understanding cultural circumstances and open communication in any new venture. Will first participated in KIVA as a lender, but now brings his background in health care, education, and economics to the KIVA Fellowship, where he hopes to continue following his interest in international development and social entrepreneurship. An avid adventurer, Will enjoys traveling to new countries, running really long distance races, and seeing his favorite bands play live.