Inside Liberia’s new garment district

July 8, 2011, 7:50 PM UTC

By Ashley Bush, contributor

Monrovia, Liberia—For a second I forgot where the car was taking me. We emerge down an overpopulated, one-lane street, driving cautiously and single file. People of all ages shuffle around the cars, going about their morning business as if not noticing the two vehicles invading their limited walking space. Naked babies bathe in small buckets of dirty water, women sell goods from baskets perched high on their heads, men carry loads of heavy items on their backs—it’s 8 am and everyone is buzzing. Beyond the masses of people lie endless rows of small tin huts closely hugging each other, homes to thousands. We pull around a corner, parking in front of what seems to be the only concrete building in sight.

“Here is where we will spend the next few days,” one of my companions tells me. We were in the heart of West Point, the slum of Monrovia, Liberia, and arguably the densest slum in all of West Africa. I had come here to visit the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project (LWSP), a new garment factory aimed at employing women that was also Africa’s first and only fair trade factory. I was curious to see what a ‘fair trade factory’ was about, but I was also motivated to make the long trip for my own reasons: I’m creating a skirt line with my older sister called Me & the Mini (me being the ‘mini’). When I came across the LWSP, I thought if the factory could make our skirts, it could both be our supplier and fit well with our concept of women helping women—all through the sale of a very feminine item.

The exterior of the Liberian Women's Sewing Project, the first fair trade factory in Africa.

Last December I met with Chidegar Liberty, the CEO and co-founder of Liberty & Justice, the umbrella company that founded the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project. After numerous email exchanges and a couple of phone conversations, I was thrilled that “Chid,” as he calls himself, was finally in New York meeting with potential investors, thus giving us the opportunity to talk business face to face. We met at Blossom’s, an iconic vegan restaurant in Chelsea for a dinner that lasted a good three hours longer than I planned. Born in Monrovia, Chid and his family fled Liberia for the United States when he was 18 months old, ultimately settling in Milwaukee, to escape the country’s deteriorating political situation. 25 years later, in 2009, Chid left a burgeoning career in finance in San Francisco to return to Liberia and start Liberty & Justice and the LWSP.

Over dinner, business talk inevitably led to stories about the women he employs, stories that seemed so unreal to me at the time—women seeing their families murdered in front of their eyes during the civil war, women left with nothing but the clothes on their back, all slowly overcoming their fears with the help of the stability of having a job at the factory. Chid suggested I come to Liberia to see the factory for myself—specifically, he recommended that I come and witness the factory’s so-called ‘alignment workshop’ at the end of April, a three-day orientation workshop the women go through before starting their jobs. With 30 current employees, the LWSP was ready to add 29 more—all of whom would need to go through the workshop. With little hesitation, I said yes, thinking to myself I’d come to dinner wanting to talk logistics and production rates, and left with a trip to Liberia on the agenda. Chid took the sample skirt I brought to dinner, and promised to have a prototype ready when I visited.

I really had no clue what adventures awaited me at the end of the 16-hour flight to Monrovia. Before I left, I read Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Jonhson’s autobiography This Child will be Great, which helped me imagine what my week might be like. Understanding of the history of Liberia is vital to understanding why Chid and his partner, Adam Butlein—his best friend from growing up in Milwaukee—started the company in the first place. For the past three decades, Liberia has been rattled by two civil wars, forcing thousands from their homes, and isolating them from productive sectors of the economy. This, along with an unemployment rate hovering around 80%, has resulted in a vicious cycle of poverty. Women have been left at a particular disadvantage; if a family can only afford to send one child to school, the boys generally have the first go. As a result, most women are left to care for the home with little hope of a future.

Women hard at work producing fair trade t-shirts for PrAna, the athletic retailer.

Chid and Adam founded the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project in 2009 to try to transfer women from domestic work to formal employment by teaching a simple but meaningful trade—how to use the sewing machine. Selecting women from various women’s groups around Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, LWSP had its first round of 30 employees ready and trained by January 2010.

When I arrived at the factory, I was greeted with a sea of hugs—I don’t think I’ve ever received so many hugs in the span of 60 seconds. After introductions, the women broke into a powerful chant. Tanneh, the mid-30 year old president of the factory’s union, led the way, shaking the room with her energetic shout—“we are women!”—while the 29 others chimed in with “women of Africa!” It was hard not to join in, and I soon found myself chanting along with them.

The women of LWSP are not only employees, but also part owners, together holding a 49% stake in the factory. They are also required to enroll in a financial education program, ‘Working Assets,’ with a local bank the company partners with, and required to set up their own bank accounts—something virtually unheard of in Liberia for women. Through a nonprofit arm, Liberty & Justice matches, dollar for dollar, any savings they retain in their accounts for one year.

After two intense days of various orientation workshops on topics like how to save money and understanding the responsibility of working at the factory, the trainees merged with the factory’s existing employees, meeting their new coworkers and seeing the factory itself for the first time. It must have been a shock for the newcomers; this time around, Chid and Adam had hired the entire group from the slum of West Point. The change of scene from the side of the dirt road where they used to barter goods to the sunny white concrete building must have been like night and day for them.

Jennah, an employee of the Liberian Women's Sewing Project, displays her commitment to work hard for both her and her family.

I was shocked when a couple of brave women got up to share their stories. Jennah, a 32 year-old dark Liberian, was first. In tears, she told us how her father had sold her when she was a teenager to an Islam man who had seven wives. She couldn’t get out of the relationship—“once sold into sex slavery your future doesn’t look so bright,” she said—and soon almost all of the women were crying with her. She became apart of a women’s group in Monrovia, she told the group, and they soon selected her to come and work for the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project—which allowed her to leave her oppressive husband’s home. Once Jennah opened up, several other women stepped to the center of the circle to share their stories, too.

What Chid and Adam have created in the LWSP is allowing a productive trade to emerge in Liberia while helping to empower women at the same time. Many of these women are now able to provide for themselves and their families, sending their children—both girls and boys—to schools. With a second round of investments closing up this summer, Chid plans to grow the program in number to 900 women in the next two years; after that, he hopes to open other factories and expand throughout West Africa.

My trip only reinforced my commitment to partner with the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project. I realize now how powerful the consumer’s dollar really is—and what a message it can send if the consumer’s purchase can actually give someone the tools to thrive in their local economy. As for Me & the Mini, we just finished perfecting the first prototype of our wrap skirts, made out of lappa, a local Liberian fabric, and are going into production with the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project in the fall. I couldn’t imagine a better partner.