My next-door neighbor Bendu makes two dollars a day selling at an open-air market in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. She’s a single mom of four who resells vegetables and small packaged food items purchased at a larger wholesaler outside the city. She, like many young Liberian entrepreneurs, is savvy and driven, yet her inventory is the same as seven other vendors set up nearby. Near Bendu’s stand you’ll also see 10 identical soap-making stands and a row of orange sellers all displaying their wares in the same pyramid formation.
Why? Because Bendu and her peers don’t have the opportunity to be creative with their businesses. The margins between prosperity and poverty in this informal economy are paper-thin, and in Bendu’s case, if she makes one misstep, her kids won’t eat. For her, entrepreneurship is rooted in an idea that businesses that already work can be copied in order to minimize risk. She sells the same goods, at the same price, competing for a small but constant number of customers. The paradox is that Bendu is incredibly creative, with skills honed navigating through years of civil war, and more recently a deadly Ebola outbreak, but she doesn’t have the time or energy to try and do things differently.
So I asked the question: What would it take to build a food system that truly serves Bendu the mom, Bendu the entrepreneur, and the community at large in an environment where nothing comes easy? How could this be accomplished in a country with poorly maintained roads, extraordinarily high energy costs and one of the world’s worst education systems?
Food in Liberia can be four things: delicious, nutritious, affordable, and produced locally. And today, it is. It’s started small, with one product, Power Gari, but by the end of this week, there will be three products in the market, with more in development. Bendu’s kids love eating it. It has a nutrition profile customized for her family’s needs, based on their uniquely Liberian diet. It is priced the same or cheaper than the non-nutritious staples Bendu buys today in that same market where she works, with great margins so entrepreneurs can generate a healthy profit. And it is food produced in Liberia, by Liberians, for Liberians.
The result is the beginning of an ecosystem of ambitious entrepreneurs forming a value chain that transforms Liberian crops into food that fights micronutrient deficiency and stunting, enabling Bendu’s kids to follow their dreams.
To date, the key barrier has been the inability for Liberian food entrepreneurs to take risks trying something new. What I’ve found by working and living among Liberians like Bendu is that if you can prove a market demand and assist in designing food that is delicious, nutritious, affordable, and local – women like Bendu can do incredible things.
Programs and interventions supporting entrepreneurs in countries like Liberia need not provide more workshops and equipment disconnected from market realities. Instead, they can help change the way the system works by assessing and identifying market demand and empowering people like Bendu to attack these opportunities. When Bendu is linked to other entrepreneurs in a strong value chain of farmers and processors with a clear market demand, the risk level is low enough for them to unleash their creativity.
Today in Liberia, with the support of our team at JUST, farmers have the support to grow good quality crops, agro-processors are following food safe practices to produce delicious nutritious food, and market women like Bendu are selling good food for good margins in open-air markets across Liberia. It’s new, different, and hits those four pillars of what a developing country’s food system could and should be. This approach ensures everyone, everywhere has nutritious, delicious, affordable food. Nothing could be more just.