Practical Advice for Liberians in the Diaspora
Written by Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, USA - The Patriotic Vanguard
Most Liberians in the Diaspora want to either do business or buy land and build a house in Liberia. It is a dream to have something home, a mark of some success after many years of living abroad. With foreigners successfully doing business and enjoying Liberia, many Liberians in the Diaspora see an opportunity to participate in their home economy and development. But the effort often has met disappointments. This article discusses some of the disappointments and gives advice that may be useful to Liberians in the Diaspora wishing to buy and develop property or do business in Liberia. The advice also could be helpful to other Africans in the Diaspora. Individual real names when appropriate have been changed to protect their privacy.
John Siklo sent money home to his brother to buy a lot and build a three bedrooms house. The brother advised John when he visited Liberia sometime a go, to build a house home so John would have a place in Liberia. “You are a young man; America is not your home. You need to put something on the ground so when you return home, you can have a place”, he told John. John took his advice, sent a significant amount of money for land purchase and to start the foundation. John sent additional money after the purchase. Finally the house was completed, according to his brother. He sent John a picture of the finished house. John was happy, he would return home in two years. But due to an emergency, he decided to travel to Liberia in a month. His brother was out of Liberia so he could not reach him by phone. John flew home, but to his surprise, he saw no house built for him. Philip Blamo and Abraham Kollie have written individually of similar experience of sending money home for housing construction but the money was misused.
Mietta operates a small business overseas. She has been out of Liberia for many years. She sent money home to her sister Juanita to buy an acre of land in Virginia, Brewerville. Although Juanita bought the land and a deed was probated, the seller had sold the land to two other people and left the country. Mietta could not develop the property because rightful ownership was in dispute. Another Diaspora Liberian sent money home to a relative for land purchase. The land was not bought; instead the relative used the money for self interest.
In the case of Nimeley Weah, a business minded Liberian residing in Minnesota, the disappointment was a shock to him. His mother back home has advised him many times to do business in Liberia. “Business here is the right thing to do in this country my son”, she told him in their many telephone conversations. “You do not want to come here and start looking for government job”, she added. Nimeley had heard of stories of business financial misappropriation in Liberia. So he has been cautioned about this. However, he sent $10,000 to his mother to start a business on his behalf. “Ma, use this amount to open the business and keep me informed”, he said, adding, “I borrowed this money so manage it well”. “My son, do not worry, I will make you proud, and God will bless you, thank you plenty”, she responded. But she did not use the money for intended purpose. Instead, she used it largely on herself. She complained, only after Nimeley called to inquire after some months, that people credited the goods and have not paid. These stories are not uncommon. They happened, not only in Liberia, but also in other countries. Some relatives take advantage of their own family members. They feel that the victim’s members would not take legal or drastic action against them, and if that happens, they can bring family pressure on the victim for forgiveness. This behavior is practiced largely in an African setting. There are ways, however, you can minimize the disappointment or you can have a successful property or business endeavor. The following might help. First, do not be naïve in buying property or doing business in Liberia. Avoid emotion, being too nice and involving and trusting relatives to handle business. Be firm, act and be businesslike.
In land purchase, do not depend heavily on others; including staying away and having others do the buying. Take a trip to Liberia or when you are visiting home, see the land and talk to the owner. Hire an honest and qualified lawyer to do checking. All land deeds are probated, registered and recorded. A good lawyer will research and find out about the land. For instance, in Liberia I wanted to purchase a waterfront property. I was happy and eager. My lawyers, the late Ismail Campbell and late Nathaniel Jebbor, may their souls rest in peace, were able to know that the people claiming to own the land were not the rightful owners. The lawyers advised me not to purchase the property, though the so called owners presented document of ownership. Some people can easily copy a deed like the original. The law firm also assisted me in purchasing a land near the Roberts Field Highway, making sure that the owners had the proper papers. Although they were the rightful owners, as administers they did not have the right legal document to sell land. They appreciated the legal help and the correct papers were processed in court. I would have faced legal issue had I purchased without legal review. An honest and rightful owner of a land will without problem show or give you the mother deed and other document indicating ownership history. Do not buy instantly or be in a hurry. If everything is satisfactory, leave a deposit and make the other payment upon your return abroad. Most sellers have their own surveyor, but it is better to bring yours. After the survey, your lawyer can probate the deed on your behalf.
For land development, do not also be in a hurry. Secure the property as soon as possible. Land encroachment occurred regularly. If no activity is made on your land for some time, another person can build on the property to roof level and later settle with you. The court system will not help you. However, a land rights policy recommended in 2013 by the Land Commission is to address land issues in the country. Wilfred Passawe, a Diaspora Liberian in the US who recently built a house in Liberia, shared his approach to this issue. He advised that after purchase, you should first prepare the land. In order words, secure it from the elements by constructing a fence. Build a warehouse or a storage place to store materials. Hire a watchman to protect the materials and the property. Clear the area or clean it, removing grass, etc. Start construction beginning with the foundation. If you are unable to secure the land, have a garden on the land, plant cassava, greens or some other crops. Construct large cornerstones in L shape on the property.
Wilfred also suggested that your house construction should be in stages. Do not rush, do not build remotely, in that, do not be away and have someone look over construction. I would add that you should be in Liberia if possible during construction. Building materials, which are very expensive, can be stolen quickly. Sometimes materials are taken by construction crew. Be on construction site as often as possible. It is a good idea to have access to a pickup truck or have one for hauling materials. Transportation can be costly. Do not try to impress people by building a big mansion. Your first house should be a modest one. Even if you have completed a room, that is fine. You can later build your dream home as you are financially able. Having your own house at home is a rewarding feeling. You will feel proud leaving the airport straight to your residence. If you do not build a house and you are in Liberia, consider renting temporarily until you can build your own.
I heard a story of a successful Liberian professional, a Liberian in the Diaspora, who owned a big house in America. He hired a yard and handyman from Ghana. The Ghanaian was an older man, humble, simple, honest and frugal. He sent his pension money and most of his earnings home and planned to retire in Ghana soon. One day the Liberian decided to travel to Liberia thru Ghana. The yard man asked his boss to take a package for his wife in Ghana, who will meet the boss at the Ghanaian airport. The wife met the boss, but because of a repair problem, the plane was grounded in Ghana for a day. The woman asked the Liberian if he could have dinner with her family at their house in appreciation for his kindness to her husband. The Liberian agreed; but he was surprised, speechless when he entered the man’s property, a gated big compound with a well decorated main house, a guest house, and an entertainment quarter, all surrounded by coconut and palm trees. It was like a resort, a tropical paradise. The Liberian could not believe that the man who lived in his basement in America could build all these at home and yet lived humbly abroad. He was puzzled as he ate. The house was far prettier than his. The Liberian decided then, for the first time, to start building a house in Liberia on his trip. This was a true story of a man who lived as a simple man away, but built his castle home. With his established property and a retirement income, the Ghanaian could live like a king upon his return home. His story was a quiet but a strong powerful lesson.
For doing business in Liberia, do your research. See what business type will be suitable and profitable. Generally, doing business in an area which you personally like or love, gives you the enthusiasm and passion to do well or to stick at it when business is bad. Do your market survey or study home. If you can be in Liberia for a while or can travel back and forth, stay home to do your business. Avoid family members in managing your business. Handle your finance carefully. Again, do not go to impress, wearing expensive clothes, socializing heavily with the girls/boys and delegating business management to others. Coming from abroad, people usually think you have plenty money. Do not change or upgrade your lifestyle in the first two years, even if you are making good money. The first two years are your surviving period or trail time. Many businesses fail in the initial two years. Re-invest in your business to grow it by putting the profit back into the business. Pay yourself. Keep proper records. Separate your business account from your personal bank account. Register your business and pay your taxes and your workers fairly. You are a business person, so do business right and seriously. Certainly there is nothing wrong for having fun, but as the saying goes,” business before pleasure”. The success and failure of your business depends on you. When you are doing well and established, be able to give to others, contribute to your community. Remember, the more you give, the more you will receive. That is true.
Wadei Powell, whom I think still resides in Liberia, has advised that you should be cognizant of the Liberian environment, be open and patient when you come to do business. “Check whatever reservation you may have at the airport” when you enter Liberia. People do things differently here, she indicated. All businesses operate according to the local environment. But all businesses are to make a profit and should be managed correctly to generate profit. Although financing and good human relations are important, proper management is also the bread and butter of running a business and of administrating public entity. There is corruption in Liberia, and your conscious must be your guide. I say honesty and integrity are internal elements. They are principles, which you do not learn in school but can be parts of your DNA. You want to sleep right. So try to do right! Be honest.
There are many business opportunities in Liberia. If you are a Diaspora Liberian and are desirous of doing business, operating business home is the way to go. You will feel good being your own boss, not knocking on doors looking for employment, begging others and compromising your principle. You do not have to start a big business or have lots of money. Start small, small business in the US is the backbone of the American economy, and it can be the pillar of any economy. A country’s middle class, which does not exist in Liberia, can be built through business enterprise activities. Unfortunately in Liberia, there are the very rich and the very poor, a condition which started since the founding of the nation. This does not mean that the condition will or should always continue. You should keep the following in mind: if foreigners can come to your country many times with little money, do business, enjoy and do well, why not you the citizen with education and experience try? Do you think you cannot succeed? If you can survive abroad, with all the hustling and bustling, you should be able to survive and make it home, though it would not be easy initially. Expatriates and international entities can help, but only Liberians can develop Liberia. I would say that you can live far better home than abroad. Business is not for all people, but if you are residing in the Diaspora interested in business at home, go home and start a business.
Foreign merchants or entrepreneurs use similar method of the Ghanaian discussed earlier. A merchant, i.e. Lebanese opens a store in Liberia as an individual, after few months, sends for his relative, they open another store, the relative sends for another family member. In few years they open stores in different parts of the country, sending the bulk of their earnings to Lebanon, developing and improving their home economy. They also take control of the real-estate business of the host country, taking long term lease on property, subleasing also to Liberians, including political parties. Moreover, they have access to land, through the use of Liberian women purchasing land on their behalf. As said before, they send their income home, building mansions and other properties in their country. They have, however, filled the void by providing needed goods in the Liberian market, particularly in the rural area and giving LPA (payroll loan) to poor civil servants. Are they doing wrong? Or are they just taking advantage of available opportunity?
As a Liberian Diaspora, land and business opportunities in Liberia are standing in your face. Take advantage of them before it gets too late, for years from now the opportunities will be difficult to come by or will no longer exist. I hope the above suggestions would be useful.