This month it was announced that TIME’s person of the year 2014 is the Ebola fighter. The Ebola outbreak of this year hit many in especially Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. But the affected countries are not defeated by the epidemic, as many local and international organizations have joined forces to fight the outbreak and improve the situation. One of these organizations is our partner the Business Startup Center Monrovia in Liberia. We spoke to William Reide Dennis II, Acting Director, to look back at the last months, to hear about what is going on at the moment and to look ahead at new promising opportunities.
William, many people might think that things are currently on hold in Liberia, but the BSC Monrovia is actually really active and supports entrepreneurs in improving the situation together. How has the Ebola outbreak affected the work of the BSC Monrovia?
It was around late July that the situation had become really terrible in Liberia; there were around 200 new Ebola cases each day, people fled the country and the economy went down. We tried to stay around and help, but were forced to shut down all of our activities. Additionally, we could not visit other business centers because at a certain point the government prohibited travelling to other regions. Then, international support started coming our way: doctors, experts, supplies and money were arriving in the country. Suddenly a lot was happening and we saw opportunities arising. That’s when we got together in August and asked ourselves: what can we do as a business center to support SMEs in this crisis and to help improve the situation in Liberia?
How have you involved the entrepreneurs you’re working with in fighting the crisis in Liberia?
We spoke with the minister of Commerce and Industry and the task force that was set up by the government of Liberia, consisting of politicians that get together to discuss how we can respond to the Ebola crisis. There was a strong focus on preventive measures, like eating well, drinking a lot of water and taking medication in order to strengthen the immune system. This resulted in a high demand for supplies like medication, water and food. Furthermore, Ebola Treatment Units were being build, which required a lot of wood. All in all a lot of supplies are needed, and the SMEs we are working together with are actually producing these. So we proposed to the task force to let our entrepreneurs deliver the supplies.
How did the entrepreneurs respond to this approach?
At first they were very hesitant. Obviously, they were afraid to get infected with the virus when delivering their products to different regions in the country. On the other hand, this was a business opportunity for them! So we agreed that the entrepreneurs deliver their products to the task force, and that the task force organizes the distribution. That is when we got entrepreneurs on board who want to help their country and have an impact on the Ebola crisis.
What kind of entrepreneurs are working together with in this and how do you support them?
Together with SPARK we started the Ebola Business Case in which entrepreneurs work together on improving the current situation in our country. At the moment we are working with 4 entrepreneurs that all deliver different supplies: medication, rice to supply food, scrub uniforms that are worn by health workers and wood to construct the Ebola Treatment Units. However, our entrepreneurs don’t have the capacity to meet the demands. Therefore, with the support of SPARK, we have set up the Ebola Fund in which SPARK guarantees loans to support the entrepreneurs. In this way we can provide the capital the entrepreneurs need to increase their inventory and capacity.
Besides the Ebola Business Case, what are actions did you take to deal with the crisis in Liberia?
Together with The Music Union of Liberia, Accountability Lab and Shizo Magazine we brought together 45 Liberian musicians to produce a song called “Save Liberia” that raises and maintains awareness on the situation in Liberia. The song provides information on the Ebola virus disease and informs about precautionary measures, but also spreads good news and re-brands the image of the country by highlighting opportunities for investments, business and tourism. Watch the video and listen to the song here.
How is the situation in Liberia at the moment?
Thanks to international support and dedication of the Ebola fighters, the situation in Liberia has improved impressively since July and August. There are less cases per day and the borders have opened again, so we are able to visit the business centers in other regions and our partners can visit us in Monrovia again as well. We have also become more active and aware in taking precautionary measures when it comes to our health, which works not only positive for the Liberian population during the Ebola crisis but also pays off in the long run. For example, we have hired a nurse who checks us on malaria every week.
What do you have planned for the coming months?
We will continue with the Ebola Business Case, and next to that we see a lot of opportunities for 2015. A lot of funding is coming to Liberia, for example to rebuild the entire health sector. The international focus is on our country now, so we need to profit from that and be prepared to develop our local businesses. Entrepreneurs need to be ready for those opportunities, so as a business startup center we want to provide more training, more mentoring programs, advisory services and more access to finance for entrepreneurs to start their businesses.
Thanks a lot for the interview, William, and we wish you and the BSC Monrovia all the best for the new year!