Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has what might be one of the most impressive CVs of any head of state in the world. Africa’s first elected woman president spoke at IESE Business School in Barcelona two weeks ago, in a session titled Africa: The last chance?
Backed up by a numerous entourage, including Dr Richard Tolbert, chairman of Liberia’s investment commission, she had a clear message for the audience: Liberia is open for business.
Johnson-Sirleaf came to power in 2005 with a clear vision for Liberia:
• Peace and security
• Economic revitalisation
• Good governance and rule of law
• Infrastructure and basic services
After years of economic freefall following the start of Liberia’s troubles in the 1980s, the new government had a huge task. But they have made rapid progress: Liberia was included in Economy Watch’s 12 fastest growing economies in 2010 and in the last two years the country has moved up from 173 to 149 in the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking.
But just looking at numbers and rankings doesn’t tell the stories behind them. The president talked about children dancing in the streets when the street lighting was switched on; others who couldn’t believe it the first time they saw water running out of a tap. She stepped aside to allow Josephine, a Liberian entrepreneur in the audience, to tell how she built up her small brick-making business which employs young people affected by the war.
Liberia might be moving in the right direction, but it still has a long way to go, as Johnson-Sirleaf freely admitted. Corruption is still an issue, following many years where people were forced to “live off their wits”. With an unemployment rate of 70%, job creation is a high priority. The speakers joked that this puts even Spain’s crisis into perspective (Spanish unemployment, at 19%, is currently the highest in the Euro area).
The purpose of the talk was to encourage the representatives of Spanish companies in the audience to invest in Liberia and it was a polished sales pitch by a team which is obviously well-practised in presenting to international audiences.
The Liberian government wants to attract companies who will invest in Liberia’s natural resources – the country is rich in iron ore, gold and rubber. They also see SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises), agriculture and tourism as major sources of growth.
The last chance? Maybe not, but certainly a good chance for investors looking for the next frontier market.
Thanks to a friend who does not wish to be credited for the photos used in this post.
About the authorLucy