Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Amos' Vision

Walking the main path through Boi Town and Kpellemue during the early morning hours and dusk hours is like going to a small town grocery store just after 5 p.m. It’s hard for me to get very far before running into someone. One day I stopped to talk with middle-aged man caring a bundle of sticks on his head. He let me try it out. The load must have weighed over 50 pounds, as I could barely make it up the hill. Somewhat amused, he took it off my hands and continued on his hour-long trek.

On several occasions I also ran into Joseph, a young man about my age walking village to village to sell medicines in order to save money for college. On average he estimates that he walks about five hours a day.

Then there’s Jacob. A friend of mine who’s often around the farm, I asked him to charge my phone. The village is off the grid, so he had to go in town. The transport to get there and back, at 40 Liberian dollars, was almost the same cost of actually the phone. Assuming you walk, that’s a half day of work you’ve missed.

I met many shopkeepers in the village, such as Niepoo, who kept me satiated with the delicious, peanut buttery Liberian snack, kanyah. Others sold small consumable items like matches and cigarettes. But I only met one entrepreneur (or maybe more accurately, one entrepreneurial family). This was Amos, who I’ve previously mentioned briefly.

Amos is an elementary teacher at a nearby school that I took a half day to visit, and almost every afternoon you can find him on his porch, in his dusty Florida Marlins hat and running shorts, working on tomorrow’s lesson plan. He’s one of the few people in the village with a concrete home and one of even fewer who have completed high school. His responses to questions can be slightly curt, but at the same time he’s a bit of a jokester. In his spare time he works on his rubber and rice farms, and recently has been vaccinating children in the village for polio on behalf of the World Health Organization. His wife, Framadah, runs the only “restaurant” in town, and is a local to Kpellemue (Amos is from out of town). Amos explained that she didn’t get very far in school – he tried to teach her the ABC’s and she only got to K – but she’s quite the shrewd businesswoman.

Amos is even more enterprising. After I got to know him a bit better, he told me about some of his past failures with fish farming, but also how he has other plans. Particularly nagging him is an idea to bring electricity to the village. He wants to save enough money to buy a small generator to charge cell phones, which are growing in number in Kpellemue and surrounding villages (no nearby villages have electricity either). He would use Framadah’s restaurant as an anchor point. He envisions the restaurant extending service to dinner time, when the generator could be used to power a TV and VCR to screen football matches and movies. During the screenings for which he would charge admission, he could charge phones and serve meals, coffee and tea.

He’s thinking bigger, too. His next idea after that is to start a rubber purchasing/consolidation depot. Currently, most villagers individually take their rubber into town and sell it to the traders in the market, getting middleman prices. His plan is to buy up any rubber in the village at the going rate that traders are offering and take it in aggregate, to save on transport costs, directly to Firestone, the multinational company. The villagers would benefit because they wouldn’t have the added transport costs, and his transport costs would be covered by the higher margins at Firestone.

He went on and on like this in priority order – next it was poultry farming, then pineapple. As with anything entrepreneurial and especially agricultural, there’s an enormous amount of risk. Exhibit A is his fish farm, which crashed when the region was hit by a drought. But still, I can see the opportunity: I bought a pineapple in the village for the equivalent of 35 cents, while I saw the same pineapple in the city a week later for around $2.50.

And it seems like he’s not the only one of the family. His brother-in-law Anthony is planning to start a pharmacy, giving the aforementioned Joseph a run for his money. I can only hope that Amos and others like him hang around and hang onto these visions. He’s one of few who are really leading by example.

No comments:

Post a Comment