Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Women Liberian Refugees Turn to Business for a Fresh StartPublished: March 07, 2011
Christine Tour, 34, knows instability. She was 12 when her family fled civil war in Liberia, West Africa, to live in a refugee camp in neighboring Ghana. While in the camp, Tour began to nurture her inner entrepreneur; during her 20s, she turned to business ownership out of both restlessness and necessity. In 2005, she started the Chrisetta Beauty Institute, a beauty school that was a creative outlet for her but more importantly, she says, was a way to occupy other young women refugees. "I like to see girls being empowered and thinking for themselves; that's what drove me to start the beauty school," says Tour. "I went to school and was trained, then came back to the camp and started to train the girls in camp, too."
With help from the UN Refugee Agency, Tour found her way back to Monrovia, Liberia, a few years ago, where she now lives with her husband and two children and encourages women from 18 to 45, many of them unemployed, to attend the Chrisetta Beauty Institute.
While Tour ran her beauty school for several years, she never received any formal business training -- until she heard this past year about Liberia's 10,000 Women program, a partnership between Goldman Sachs; CHF International, an international development agency; the United States Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC), a government agency that mobilizes private sector investment in emerging markets; and Cuttington University in Suacoco, Liberia. "The 10,000 Women training helped me to think about the future of my business," says Tour, whose school recently graduated 21 girls and is now training another 18 to become beauticians. "I have very big plans for my company."
Business Management Is Essential
Tour's progressive outlook is all the more profound in a country that has seen great civil and economic turbulence. Liberia is still recovering from two extended civil wars in 1989 and 1999 -- the latest ending in 2003 -- that killed hundreds of thousands of people and devastated the economy. Household incomes are low and the unemployment rate is high -- more than 70%. Youth under the age of 25 are particularly hard-hit, lacking skills and jobs. "A lot of women in Liberia have kids before they are 18," notes Edwina D. Vakun-Lincoln, the 10,000 Women program manager with CHF International Liberia in Monrovia. In addition, the civil wars "led to the death of many parents, leaving children to fend for themselves."
Small business ownership, adds Vakun-Lincoln, offers opportunity. "In a country like Liberia, the only means of survival for most single parents who are not educated -- and even if they are, salaries are low -- is [starting] a small business. Business management is becoming essential in this country. It will help a lot of people become useful." In addition to Tour's beauty school, Liberia's most recent class of 10,000 Women graduates included owners of agribusinesses, shops, restaurants, construction companies and beverage distributors. Following the training, Christian Settro, owner of the Big Treat Bar and Restaurant, used money she had saved to buy a permanent location for her business and expand into a new location. "She now sees her business at another level, and her revenue has increased," notes Vakun-Lincoln.
Liberian women are just beginning to recognize the importance of education and business training, in large part due to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was elected president of the country in 2005. Sirleaf, a former Minister of Finance who has also held senior positions at various financial institutions, is the first and currently the only elected female head of state in Africa. She delivered the keynote address during Liberia's 10,000 Women graduation ceremony on December 3, 2010.
"The engine of every economy is the private sector, and our engine needs to grow. But with the right kind of growth," noted Sirleaf. "We have attracted big companies to Liberia as well as many individual microenterprises, but what our economy really needs are small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) that fill the space between those two. We need businesspeople and entrepreneurs to take the initiative and create the thousands of SMEs that drive growth but also fill the economic security of our people with employment, skills and assets. This is why a powerful project that provides business advice and access to capital is so important."
Skills and Capital
While the primary focus of 10,000 Women certificate programs around the world is business and management skills training, the Goldman Sachs initiative in Liberia is also working to ensure that women-owned and operated businesses have access to capital. The program has teamed up with the Liberian Enterprise Development Finance Company (LEDFC), a local financing facility founded by CHF International and supported by OPIC and the Robert L. Johnson Companies, to provide the women scholars with small business loans. As of August 2010, the LEDFC -- established in 2007 -- had made 47 small business loans (not all 10,000 Women-related), at a value of $3.43 million. A total of 44% of them benefited women-owned enterprises.
Tour plans to invest her new management skills and capital into the Chrisetta Beauty Institute in hopes of improving her own life and the lives of other Liberian women. After years of struggle, the future holds promise. "I am taking care of my family because my husband doesn't have a job yet. I am able to put food in my house," says Tour, who plans to travel to the U.S. in March as a guest of Goldman Sachs. "I want my school to be very big and one of the best. I want to expand to another county. I want the school to live on from generation to generation and to empower girls to be resourceful."