Saturday, March 22, 2008

Iron Ladies of Liberia

On April 9th, 2008 PBS will re-air Iron Ladies of Liberia an insightful, behind-the-scenes look at the first year of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's administration. Narrated by filmaker Siatta Scott Johnson of Monrovia, the 75 minute documentary illustrates for viewers the challenges faced and tactics used by the Iron Lady herself, as well introduces us to other leading ladies in Liberia's public sector such as Beatrice Munah Sieh, the national police chief, and Minister of Finance, Dr. Antoinette Sayeh.

In addition to profiling Liberia's movers and shakers, the movie is an excellent glimpse into Monrovia's recent past. Check it out - or buy it!

National Census Day

On March 21, 2008 Liberians were told to stay in their residences - shops were closed, government building were empty, and the streets, for the most part, were clear. This day marked the kick-off of a three day national census - the first in over 24 years.

Census counters have chalked houses, huts, and property through each of Liberia's 15 counties and crafted a unique list of questions to collect demographic and socio-economic information. A recent Washington Post article numbers but a few of the challenges the national census takers will face. ("Liberia Readies 1st Census in 24 Years")

The Liberians I know have different plans for the day. While some see the process as part of their civic duty and plan to stay home, recognizing that government funds and public services will likely be influenced by the results, others welcome the Friday as just another day off of work to do errands. Many left homes in Monrovia to repatriate to their counties of origin, leaving some skeptical of results and everyone anxious to see results. Others still, are puzzled by the timing of the event.

Good Friday, coincidentally the first day of census, is the biggest church-going day of the year - Easter, this Sunday, is not far behind. It seems strange, then, to schedule a national event that requires citizens to stay in their residence on a weekend when many were planning to travel, or least spend a majority of their time in church. The executive branch explained that the census was scheduled early last year around other events. The Liberia Institute of Statistics & Geo-Information Services (LISGIS), the implementing body does not anticipate skewed results due to Easter weekend.

Most organizations estimate Liberia's current population to hover around the 3.6 million mark, a number based on assumptions about population growth and migration, among others. While the process will most likely encounter minor challenges and setbacks, the National Census will provide valuable data where there has been a shortage of concrete statistics for over two decades.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Eggs from India, Ground Pea from Guinnea

It’s difficult to take many more than 15 steps in Monrovia without passing someone selling ground pea. “Ground pea” is the local name for Arachis hypogaea - the legume known in much of the Western world as a “peanut”, but elsewhere as earthnuts, goobers, goober peas, pindas, jack nuts, pinders, manila nuts and monkey nuts. Ground pea are roasted and wrapped in small pieces of plastic on the side of the road. A pack of roughly 20 grams costs 5 Liberty Dollars (LD), about 12 cents, US.

Eggs, though slightly less ubiquitous, are sold on many street corners for equally marginal cost. Hard-boiled, at a registered grocery store, a half dozen eggs may cost 60 LD, or $1 US. Hardboiled, on the side of the road, two eggs costs about XX LD.

It seems logical to assume that products such as ground pea and eggs are sourced locally. Logistics in Liberia are complex enough, that I assumed sourcing products from any distance would make such cheap prices impossible. Perhaps neighboring countries have a comparative advantage in growing ground pea, or producing eggs, but wouldn't the transportation costs render local production more economical? Moreover, there are enough chickens in the streets of Monrovia, and there is arable enough soil throughout Liberia, to imagine an abundant, local supply of ground pea and eggs.

I held this assumption for months, until a recent stock out of eggs in the local grocery stores. What in the world would cause an egg shortage? I posed this very question to Roger, the owner of our local Stop and Shop (yes, there is a Stop & Shop in Monrovia, and no the discount cards to not work).

“Many people lost entire consignments this past month,” replied Roger.
“They were mishandled and cracked during shipment,” explained an attendant at Monoprix Grocers as he weeded out the cracked from whole eggs.

Monrovia’s eggs, as it turns out, are not grown locally. Nor are they sourced from within West Africa, or even elsewhere in Africa, for that matter.

Monrovia’s eggs are shipped from India. How, precisely, is a question for a later day. But, if the eggs are from India, what is the origin of other basic, cheap, core products? Like the ground pea?

The ground peas sold on Monrovia’s streets are a somewhat more local flavor than the Indian eggs. While ground pea does grow in Liberia, the majority of those that we pack in 5 LD packs come from Guinea, Liberia’s neighbor to the North.

The ground pea is harvested in Guinea, wrapped in plastic bags or stored in barrels, and trafficked through Nimba or Lofa counties down to Monrovia’s “Red Light” District. Red Light is a major intersection between Roberts International Airfield and downtown Monrovia; before the war it was home to the largest market in Montserrado, a title held in recent years by Waterside market. At Red Light, market women purchase ground pea by the can before packaging the small snack in plastic purchased at local Monrovian stores. The market women are expert bargain shoppers and purchase the ground pea in such bulk that they can turn a profit on 5 LD per pack.

Nutritional staples, cheap products, surprisingly complex supply chains.