Empowering Liberian market women

Across Liberia’s Montserrado County, a special programme is enabling market women to take their businesses — and their lives — to the next level.

© UN Women Liberia

The Next Level Business Programme is an initiative of the Government of Liberia and the United Nations joint programme on Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women (RWEE). Implemented through EduCARE Liberia in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection; the Ministry of Agriculture; the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme, it provides specialized business training to local market women in 25 targeted markets. The women learn how to save and manage money, access credit, and expand their businesses and increase their profits.

“As the programme name implies, Next Level lifts the market women to another level in their businesses. Where before they were ‘selling anyhow and using their money anyhow,’ through the programme they are gaining the skills to turn their businesses around. The programme is looking at women who feel embarrassed to go to the banks and to turn them into account holders—saving and regularly borrowing and repaying loans.”

— Lusu K Sloan, President, Liberian Market Association (LMA)

With a cost per beneficiary of US$190, the programme shows how quick impact, low cost interventions can turn women who were ‘selling anyhow and using their money anyhow’ into business-savvy entrepreneurs who earn respect and recognition in the marketplace.

Annie Weah, Careysburg Market

Annie Weah of Careysburg Market is one such woman. As a beneficiary of the Next Level Business Programme, she wasted no time in putting her training to work. For starters, the programme showed Annie the benefits of opening a bank account and the importance of saving money, and this enabled her to purchase more goods for sale and expand her business. She now owns several market stalls, and has started a business in selling sacks of cold water in the market. The cold water business is thriving — with sales of up to 200 sacks of cold water a day bringing in an income of US$50 before expenses — and Annie employs three marketers to run it while she manages her stalls.

Before, Annie was renting her home in the nearby village of Bentol, where she lives with her husband, who is a high school teacher, and their seven children. But thanks to the regular income from her business, the family has been able to transition from renting to homeownership. Moreover, they are now able to pay the children’s day care and school fees which, for a total of US$450 per year, were a major burden in the past.

A key aspect of the Next Level Programme is that the facilitators and trainers are market women themselves. This ensures local ownership and ongoing peer-to-peer support. In fact, Annie credits much of her learning and success to the patience of her Next Level Programme teacher, Margaret, whose lessons in customer service, money management, and business planning have helped Annie to become a role model not only in her family and community, but also in Careysburg Market.

Mamie Sieh, Careysburg Market

Mamie Sieh is also from Careysburg. Mamie used to sell used clothing in the market, but due to a series of poor business decisions she lost much of her capital and had to turn to selling soft drinks, a far less profitable business. After hearing about the Next Level Business Programme and seeing for herself the way programme beneficiaries were able to expand their businesses and transform their lives, Mamie felt motivated to join the programme and learn how to take her business to the next level.

Today, as a Next Level trainee, Mamie is gaining the knowledge and skills to rebuild her used clothing business. She credits the programme with teaching her not only how to record purchases and sales, but how to curb unnecessary purchases and save by separating ‘needs’ from ‘wants.’ She is starting to regain her faith in herself, and feels confident that she will not repeat the mistakes she made in the past: now, she knows how to save and better manage her money, how to run her business, and how to plan for the long term.

Musu Kollie, Harper Central Market

Musu Kollie is 61, and has been at Harper Central Market since 1983, where she sells palm nuts. Before studying with the Next Level Business Programme, Musu used to spend all her profits on food and household necessities. But now she understands the importance of saving. “I never managed to separate my personal money from business money,” she says. “I’ve always lived a hand-to-mouth life until the Next Level Programme came.”

Even Musu’s grandchildren have commented on how the programme has improved her ability to make good business decisions. They see their grandmother reinvesting her profits to maintain and expand her business. And moreover, they see that she is able to pay their school fees. Keeping up with her grandchildren’s tuition payments had been a continuous source of stress for Musu, so she is especially proud to say that she no longer owes the school a penny.

“It’s economics,” she says of the business skills that the programme has given her. “The people are teaching us economics.”

Korto Flomo, Kakata Central Market

Although she is still only a trainee in the Next Level Business Programme, Korto Flomo of Kakata Central Market is already reaping the benefits of her new skills and knowledge. In the past, Korto had often wanted to expand her dry goods business, but she worried that if she did, thieves would be more likely to steal her wares and she would be at greater risk of a violent attack. Thanks to the programme, Korto is now ready to grow her business, because she is taking the proper measures to secure her goods day and night.

The programme has also enabled Korto to increase sales through better customer relations. Before joining, she didn’t know how to engage with her customers; she would simply wait for them to either ‘buy or go.’ She has since learned the importance of communicating with each customer, finding ways to meet his or her needs, and building long-term relationships. She now says proudly that if she has a customer once, she will have that customer again!

In December of 2015, RWEE Liberia hosted a formal Graduation Ceremony to honor hundreds of women like Annie, Mamie, Musu, and Korto, who had successfully completed the Next Level Business Programme.

(Image © Ramon Garway / UN Women Liberia)