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Running A Business In West Africa After Ebola: A Lesson In Entrepreneurial Agility

June 30, 2015 In Liberia, it’s been 93 days since the last reported Ebola case. “Liberia Declared Ebola-Free” read the

In Liberia, it’s been 93 days since the last reported Ebola case. “Liberia Declared Ebola-Free” read the headlines in many world newspapers last month as the World Health Organization officially proclaimed that the outbreak had ended.

But the story of the Ebola epidemic doesn’t conclude there. (In fact, the virus is still present in neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone.) As the direct effects of the disease become less visible in Liberia, the work of economic and social recovery is just beginning, and it will likely span generations. Today in Liberia, unemployment is raging and growth projections for the country have been cut in half, from 6.8 percent to 3 percent.

The situation, no matter how seemingly dire, is a clarion call for social entrepreneurs who see such challenges as meaningful opportunities for transformation. Indeed, if ever there were a time and place to achieve outsized and transformative impact, it’s now and it’s in West Africa.

“Because of the Ebola outbreak, Liberia basically lost 30 years of progress, and I’m not prepared to give it another day,” said Chid Liberty, an inspiring entrepreneur who launched an ethical apparel company in Liberia that I’ve described in the past. Chid’s company, Liberty & Justice, operates Africa’s first fair trade–certified garment factory. It is located in the slums of West Point in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital — the same neighborhood put under quarantine last year to reduce the spread of Ebola. The timing could not have been worse: the outbreak hit just as Liberty & Justice was beginning to fulfil orders for some of the world’s leading clothing brands.

Needless to say, it has been a tough year for business. However, thanks to an effective education and health campaign by Liberty & Justice, not one of its 300 worker-owners (all of whom are women) contracted Ebola — a testament to their resilience as empowered employees, and to the power of leadership and strong institutions.

In Monrovia, Liberia, staff at Africa's first fair-trade certified garment factory sew premium T-shirts. For each one purchased, a school uniform will be donated to a Liberian child in need.

In Monrovia, Liberia, staff at Africa’s first fair-trade certified garment factory sew premium T-shirts.

Still, as the epidemic spread, the enterprise itself teetered on the brink.

“I think most people quietly assumed that we were going out of business,” Chid explained. At the height of the outbreak last year, apparel buyers who were previously signing $500,000-a-month contracts stopped returning Chid’s phone calls, and his company lost millions in revenue. But he did not let that stop him. Instead, Liberty & Justice temporarily transformed its operations from manufacturing premium apparel for American consumers to distributing Ebola prevention kits. With patient capital and a resourceful, motivated team, the company pivoted from sewing high-end yoga clothes to supplying lifesaving kits almost overnight.

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