Ebola-hit Liberia sets out on road to eco­nomic re­cov­ery


Cling­ing to cheap kitchen­ware and the hope of a bet­ter life, Fa­tima Ka­mara hawks her goods to trav­el­ers when she should prob­a­bly be do­ing her homework.

The 16-year-old keeps her fam­ily afloat by sell­ing at the main cross­ing point be­tween her na­tive Liberia and Sierra Leone, but she was put out of busi­ness for months when the Ebola cri­sis shut the bor­der.

To­day she is able to re­turn to her spot on the re­opened Mano River Bridge link­ing the coun­tries, des­per­ate to make up for lost in­come.

“Come and buy your rub­ber dishes for small money. Come and see the best of­fers. Small, small money. Any­one can af­ford it,” Ka­mara cries out to po­ten­tial cus­tomers mak­ing the cross­ing on foot.

Traders were dis­mayed when the bridge shut for six months at the height of an epi­demic which has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

With the bor­der re­opened since Fe­bru­ary, the com­mer­cial post of Bo Water­side on the Liberian side is once again open for busi­ness, a sym­bol of hope for the coun­try’s des­per­ately-needed eco­nomic re­cov­ery.

“I sell th­ese dishes to help my par­ents in send­ing me to school. My par­ents are not work­ing ... I go to school in the morn­ing and sell in the af­ter­noon,” Ka­mara tells AFP.

“When the bor­der was closed I was afraid that I would not be able to go to school.”

Shops in Bo Water­side, a set­tle­ment of a few hun­dred that grew up around the cross­ing point, sell pasta, rice and lo­cal spe­cial­ties such as pop­corn balls.

Go­ing Hun­gry

It is dif­fi­cult to quan­tify the dam­age done by the Ebola cri­sis, as very lit­tle data is avail­able on the vol­ume of cross-bor­der trade, most of which is in­for­mal.

Lo­cals at the bor­der say count­less thou­sands of Liberian en­trepreneurs, un­able to sell their goods, lost their sole means of in­come.

Be­fore the epi­demic, Liberia had notched up strong growth of more than nine per­cent per year since 2005, ris­ing as high as 15.7 per­cent in 2007, ac­cord­ing to World Bank fig­ures.

But au­thor­i­ties fear the cri­sis will de­rail the im­pov­er­ished state’s drive to re­cover from 14 years of civil war, which by the time it ended in 2003 had claimed 250,000 lives.

The econ­omy is fore­cast to grow by just three per­cent this year — less than half the pre-Ebola pro­jec­tion — equat­ing to a loss in ex­pected in­come of around US$200 mil­lion.

The World Bank con­ducted a se­ries of mo­bile phone sur­veys be­tween Oc­to­ber and Jan­uary to as­sess the dam­age done by Ebola to Liberian house­holds.

It re­ported that 41 per­cent of bread­win­ners who had been work­ing at the start of the cri­sis were un­em­ployed, while three-quar­ters of house­holds ad­mit­ted to wor­ries over go­ing hun­gry.

Liberia, one of the world’s poor­est coun­tries, re­lies on im­ports from its neigh­bors for around 90 per­cent of its goods.

It was able to re­open its bor­ders with key trad­ing part­ners Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast in Fe­bru­ary af­ter see­ing a marked re­cov­ery from the Ebola cri­sis.

While Guinea and Ivory Coast de­cided against re­cip­ro­cat­ing the ges­ture, Sierra Leone fol­lowed suit and trade be­gan to flow be­tween the neigh­bors once more.

‘Big Ma­mas’

Mar­kets that had looked bereft in pro­vin­cial towns like Bo Water­side, but also in the cap­i­tal Mon­rovia, were re-en­er­gized as stalls be­gan of­fer­ing meat and fresh veg­eta­bles.

The vast ma­jor­ity of Liberia’s cross bor­der traders — some put the fig­ure at 80 per­cent — are women and girls, who are the main bread­win­ners in their house­holds.

Beatrice Gai, 53, is among th­ese hardy en­trepreneurs known lo­cally as “Big Ma­mas”, and for more than 30 years has been trav­el­ing to Guinea via Sierra Leone to pick up cloth­ing.

“I have built a house out of it, I have schooled my kids who are out of uni­ver­sity, and I am still do­ing it,” she said.

“I am more than happy to see the bor­der re­opened. Dur­ing the Ebola cri­sis I had to go into my sav­ings to feed my fam­ily.”

The open­ing of the bor­ders has also been wel­comed by shop­pers, who saw prices soar as com­modi­ties be­came in­creas­ingly hard to find dur­ing the cri­sis.

The price of rice — a sta­ple in Liberia, which con­sumes six mil­lion tonnes an­nu­ally — was 35 per­cent higher in Jan­uary than it had been 12 months ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank.

Diana Kpar­goi of Sinje, 60 kilo­me­ters (37 miles) from the bor­der, said a packet of can­dles had come down from 200 Liberian dol­lars (US$2.46, 2.20 eu­ros) to just over a third of that cost.

“The bor­ders were closed to pro­tect us from the Ebola virus but I think the gov­ern­ment should have cre­ated a cor­ri­dor for the busi­ness peo­ple,” she said.

“We could no longer af­ford a good meal, now it is OK.”

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