Installation, Awards, and Recognition Dinner
Thursday, September 29, 2022
Thank you, Counsellor Tweh, thank you [NAMED VIPs] for the opportunity to speak this evening. It is my honor to join you and so many of Liberia’s most capable business owners and entrepreneurs. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share in your hopes and plans as we look forward together to the future.
As we have heard, the Chamber has been serving Liberian business for over 70 years. Some of those years were not easy, but the fact we are gathered here today is a testament to your dedication and commitment to this country; a country that needs your expertise, your drive, and your vision now more than ever to thrive.
We’ve seen, and your membership has shown, time and time again that business can be done in Liberia. It may be difficult; it may be complicated; the government may not always play a helpful role, but success is possible, and you are doing it! In my time here I’ve seen manufacturing of finished products from paper towels to hair cream; I’ve seen local producers make world-class organic products from honey to body lotions; I’ve seen an entrepreneur who personally funded his fish freezing and processing plant, resulting in higher income to the local fishermen for their catch, and I’ve seen market sellers move, literally, from rags to riches, creating thousands of jobs to pull their fellow Liberians up with them.
At the same time, I’ve met investors eager to capitalize on Liberia’s diverse resources and developing economy, who on further reflection and with additional research, became reluctant to enter this market. My question to you is how do we all work together to leverage these opportunities and move this country into a more prosperous future?
I think it’s an important question because, as you know better than I do – and let’s not sugarcoat it – the overall business climate is poor. Lack of infrastructure, inaccessible financing, allegations of extortion by public officials, arbitrarily enforced regulations, and contracts that are not necessarily honored by the courts, to name some of the challenges.
New and growing businesses face many hurdles to success, and the perceived risks frighten away potential outside investors. Rather than a diverse and thriving private sector driving economic growth, today’s formal economy is supported almost entirely by large concessions and foreign donor projects. Don’t get me wrong: The existing growth is undeniably good. But, without new investments – especially at the small and medium enterprise level, the societal benefits remain highly uneven. For example, did you know that rubber makes up 97 percent – 97 percent – of all Liberia’s exports to the United States? The country’s emphasis on exporting commodities also means that significant changes to global prices like iron ore and gold drastically swing Liberia’s GDP in both directions. How do we change this?
I believe solutions must come from the private sector – from you. All of you here in this room are the evidence that, with the right support, private investments in Liberia can thrive. Championing private investment and growing new businesses doesn’t just impact your membership. It doesn’t just impact your bottom line. It ties into all aspects of Liberia’s development and economic growth. While carefully avoiding politics, one of the most important impacts private sector actors like the Chamber can make is to hold the government accountable for the way their actions positively or negatively affect economic activity.
Recent implementation of digitization in the LRA and specifically the Department of Customs, is a very encouraging trend. However, expanding private businesses – both large and small – will require: making sure there are roads to connect producers with sellers; a well-functioning airport and port to connect Liberia with foreign markets; the elimination of barriers to trade and growth like corruption and unnecessary red tape; and the responsible use of increased tax revenue to invest in the physical and legal infrastructure to support this growth. I will also take this opportunity to suggest yet again that while Liberia has every right to require Americans and other foreigners to apply for a visa before coming to Monrovia, visa reciprocity is actually hurting Liberian business, as it results in one more deterrent to casual investors who have funds available but aren’t yet decided on where to set up shop.
All of these are fundamentally important roles the government must play, and your collective voice under the auspices of the Liberia Chamber of Commerce can encourage them to fulfill those goals.
This isn’t a one-way street, however. I urge the Government of Liberia to fully harness the Chamber as a vital resource to help guide policies that support the pro-poor agenda in creating employment, revenue, and opportunities for the many young Liberians seeking decent work. I know that, by definition, your interests may not always align directly, but these men and women share your same dream to achieve the prosperity Liberia deserves. I hope that where you see differences, you can find common ground, with the understanding that all of you are working toward the same goal.
The United States has supported this Chamber since its inception more than 70 years ago. I stand here today, a committed partner to you and to Liberia. It has been encouraging to watch the Chamber of Commerce regain momentum over the past year and a half. The people of the United States will continue to seek ways to help support and amplify your important work, and we look forward to what the next 70 years will bring!