Ruby J Murray
San Francisco, CA, USA
Going back to Liberia
Against the stark, industrial emptiness of his new offices in San Francisco, vacant desks and white walls, Chid Liberty is a whirlwind of activity—fast-talking, finger-snapping, immaculately dressed, and full of that magic mixture Silicon Valley runs on: a dash of sparkle, half a pint of madness, and feet that are planted firmly in the future.
He has a very simple idea, an idea with huge repercussions: trade can be fair. It’s an idea that doesn’t only change the way we think about how things are made, but how we think about our consumer lives as well.
Chid was born in Liberia, but raised as a ‘third culture kid,’ in Germany and then in the USA. From 1980 onwards, Liberia was torn by coups and civil wars that killed 250,000 people and displaced a million more. In 2003, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace saw thousands of women flooding the streets and the markets, singing and praying for peace, forcing the fighting to end. Liberia went on to elect Africa’s first female president, the fierce Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Things were getting better, but it was going to be a huge fight.
The 32-year-old was already the wunderkind veteran of a string of successful high-growth technology start-ups in California’s Bay Area when he looked back, across the ocean, to Liberia, and began to wonder what he could do for his country of birth. Since 2008, Chid and a partner have successfully raised three million dollars to start Liberia’s first garment manufacturing factory.
He’s clear on the fact that it’s not charity, what they’re doing. It’s the real deal. It’s work, and prAna and Hagar are among the companies who have signed up to import their finished garments into the USA. Chid’s USA-based company Liberty and Justice owns 51 per cent of the factory and the women themselves own the other 49 per cent. Chid takes no profits; the excess funds go back into the community through the not-for-profit, Made in: Liberia, set up to work in conjunction with the for-profit company. The decisions about where the money should go—into improving schools, health care access, training—are voted on by the women workers themselves.
In his stark offices on the edge of the freezing Pacific, Chid talks a million miles a minute, laughing, waving his hands in the air. Outside, cars zoom by on the flyover. When I ask him how he can be so confident in the power of trade when the world seems to be going down the gurgler, he throws up his hands and says he doesn’t know, he can’t help it, he was born this way: ridiculously optimistic. Maybe they hit me, he says, I think I have this weird dent in my head, in the back of my head, maybe that’s where the skeptical part of my brain was hanging out.
It’s true. Chid Liberty isn’t the sort to listen to naysayers. How things were in the past might be important to him, but only so he can tell how fast we’re moving forward.
“I haven’t even finished my Bachelor’s degree yet and I’m 32, but what I can add is this entrepreneurial… something. I don’t know! Madness! Maniacal garbage!”
DUMBO FEATHER: When did you first go back to Liberia, after the war had ended?
CHID LIBERTY: I went in what was essentially 2009. The last week of 2008.
What were you expecting; was there anything that you remembered left after all this time?
I mean yeah… and no, not any particular memory. I was only eighteen months old when we left. But everything was very familiar.
Growing up in the United States, did you always feel like you’d be going back to Liberia at some point?
No, not necessarily. I mean I had some interest in going back… but never to do anything like this! We left Liberia in 1980 and moved to West Germany. My father was the Liberian ambassador there. We were there for four years, and then he got into trouble with the Liberian president at the time, President Doe. There was a sham election, a coup attempt, the president was basically getting rid of anybody he felt was a threat. President Sirleaf—the current president—was arrested and put in jail too. A lot of my father’s friends were put in jail or arrested. Then the president recalled my dad, and we felt that he was going to be either killed or jailed, so we came in exile into the US.
I probably didn’t think about going back until my dad died when I was eighteen years old. But before that I was a pretty typical kid just growing up in the States, I mean, I grew up in Palo Alto and Milwaukee! Maybe I was kind of atypical but… my dad taught African History at Stanford and then at Marquette, so we moved to the Midwest…
But what happened? When did you begin to see that this might be something you could do, running a for-profit company importing from Liberia that was connected to a not-for-profit, being involved in social entrepreneurship with this really ethical bent. What turned you towards the not-so-typical American life?
I still wonder about that. I think number one was my dad’s funeral, just that whole experience over a few weeks, seeing and hearing stories.
I kept getting these letters from people that my dad had put through college, and now they’re like in Miami and head of a department at a major university and I thought, This is really interesting.
That was when I started realising that my family has a tie to the country that goes beyond the fact that we’d lived there, once.
There are so many people that need access to something that’s become a void by not just my family leaving, but a lot of these families leaving.
After sort of sitting there and really pondering his life I started thinking that maybe I should be doing something similar, something like him. You know I’d spent a lot of time trying to jump into the typical American lifestyle, I think at the time even more bizarrely and horribly for me, the typical Midwestern lifestyle… and I should say I love the Midwest and it really informed how we set up the company to be so worker-centric! But then coming back to the Bay Area, I had access to really young progressive companies, companies that sometimes attack social problems but were also just… cool, like the Googles.
Hearing young people say ‘I don’t need to be a seventy year old businessman in a suit to get respect from my banker, I can go in there in my jeans and say what’s up?’—that became interesting to me. While I was seeing the women’s movement happen in Liberia I thought: if there’s probably one thing that I could add… I mean I’m never going to be a policy wonk. I have ADD, I can’t sit through school and get a PhD. I haven’t even finished my bachelor’s degree yet and I’m 32, but what I can add is this entrepreneurial… something, I don’t know. Madness! Maniacal garbage!
And the American consumer knows full well that if they’re buying a four-dollar t-shirt that something had to happen to get that shirt to four dollars, and it just doesn’t make sense, right? So we give them a choice.
How did you establish contacts again in Liberia? I mean, how did you work out who you were going to bring on board with the new company, when you were still small but there were so many people in need of a job there, with so few skills? The unemployment and the poverty rate are both at about eighty per cent, right?
We actually worked with the grassroots women’s groups. Before I got all the New York capitalism involved, the project was inspired by their peace movement. Like a lot of people in the world, I was amazed to see the women turning the power structure on its head by praying and protesting. You know, I don’t think anybody thought that such a gruesome, tragic civil war could end that way. Everybody’s solutions to the civil war were, like, ‘More military action,’ or ‘Oh, that group just got out of control, let’s put another group of warlords in.’ Then you have a bunch of women who decided:
‘Hey, we’re gonna pray and protest and essentially shame you guys into creating peace in this country, and then elect the first woman president in Africa.’
Since President Sirleaf and the women in the peace movement won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, people always ask me if Liberia is like this extremely progressive society and I say: absolutely not. Over fifty per cent of women have had their genitals mutilated, and seventy-five per cent of women were raped during the conflict. This is not exactly the place where women historically have been in power. But within the confines of a society that’s completely bent against them, they came up with a peaceful solution, and now where they’re getting to is pretty astounding.
So, anyway, when we got to Liberia I was mostly interested in meeting with all of these women’s groups to see what was going on with them now, and what was happening was clear. Nobody could feed their kids, nobody could put their kids in school, and everybody was riding the NGO wave as quickly as they could, trying to get involved in an NGO program and eat for six months, trying to get into NGO programs and do training, even though there were no jobs.
Basically, we said to the women, ‘Okay, well why don’t we put aside all this NGO BS and start a company together.’ And they thought that was a pretty good idea. Not everyone got it straight away, some of them were like, ‘Okay, so when does this NGO thing end?’ And we were like, ‘No! No NGO! This is real, this is work!’ But the women’s movement basically organised all of them.
In South East Asia there’s been a series of studies on the effect of women’s liberation and empowerment on the male community, you know, how violence against women can actually spike when they become educated or financially equal, and I mean that’s just… things are always so much more complicated than you think they’re going to be when you set out to create change—what’s the reaction of the local men been to your factory, especially when there’s not a lot of other jobs being created?
You know I think there are two reactions that kind of stand out for me. The first is the reaction of the men who actually work in the factory: the security guards and the powerhouse operator and the facilities manager. I’d say about ten per cent of our workforce are men, even though our focus is on women.
It’s actually been quite beautiful to see the men work in a context that’s very women-focused.
Not all of the guys get it, but when they’re actually sharing amongst each other—we do a lot of sharing, we’re a very touchy feely workplace—they will say how they’ve matured so much and how they respect women so much by doing this job and sometimes I’m like, ‘Really?! Because you don’t always seem like you do, but you know that’s cool!’
But for some of them it’s potentially been very powerful, and I’m sure for some of their family outside the factory too.
Something that I was most surprised by early on, though, and this is the second thing, was that within the first three months divorces were happening like every frickin’ week. It was just crazy. Every time I came to the factory there’d been another one. The most dramatic one was a Muslim woman who I’d always known by a very heavily Muslim name, she’d always worn a scarf in the factory, and one day I come into the factory and she says, ‘Boss I need to talk to you about something.’ And I say, ‘Okay, wassup?’. And she says, ‘I need to change the name on my bank account, my name is now, like, Rebecca Grey.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?!’ And she says, ‘I was basically married to this Muslim man as a young child and I had to adopt a Muslim lifestyle and a Muslim name and I just divorced him, and so I’m going to be assuming my birth name which is Rebecca Grey and that’s how it’s going to be now!’
So Capitalism: Raising Global Divorce Rates, that’s going to be your advertisement!
[Laughs] That’s how we actually see it! A little bit of financial independence… I would say it’s something that I’m really proud of, because all of those relationships—I shouldn’t say all of them because some of them are interpersonal problems—but a lot of them were terribly abusive relationships.
Another woman had a child from a previous marriage and from the day that we met her, literally from the first day she walked into our training program, all she was interested in was getting us to help her intervene with her husband and her daughter.
Her husband refused to accept this daughter, who was only sixteen and getting ready to graduate from high school. He refused to have her in the house. Period. She had just gotten on his nerves at some point and he said, ‘You have to pick me or your daughter.’ The worker went out to her church and her community for advice, and they told her that her duty as a wife was to choose her husband. ‘So you’ve gotta kick out your sixteen-year-old daughter.’
The worker was trying to find people or friends, or anyone, who would support her. For the first few months in the factory this worker essentially lived off her husband’s income, kept eighty per cent of her money saved in her worker savings account, then took twenty per cent of her money and bought coal. She started a coal micro-enterprise in addition to her work with the factory, so she’s making a hundred per cent off of her savings match—part of the program at Made in: Liberia is that we match, dollar-for-dollar, any savings the workers retain in their savings account for the first year—and she’s making I don’t know how much off her coal business but I’m guessing it did pretty well. And this is beautiful. Because within three months, she was out of her marriage and supporting her daughter.
Made in: Liberia’s factory, the actual physical space, actually belonged to your family before the war. It was the site of a whole lot of the fighting during the war, so it’s a pretty powerful place for all these women to be working from.
IIt’s not actually a factory, you know. It’s an old highrise building. Back in the day it used to be considered Liberia’s only high rise building. It’s just four stories, but people would be like, ‘Dude look at that crazy building!’ It belonged to my Aunt Francis and Uncle Allan, and they built the building with the proceeds from a transport business. The way my aunt tells the story, she fl ew to the United States to print the dedication records—they were going to dedicate it to their late father and ma—and while they were in the United States, fi ghting really broke out in Liberia. And when she came back to her building, so many years later, this beautiful gorgeous building, everything had been looted, every single thing. Because it was this great strategically located building in such an important part of town, everyone was constantly jockeying for position in it.
So yeah. Bullet holes, mass graves. Everything you could imagine…
And now you’re there—
Well, actually, we’re moving out of there! We need more space, unfortunately. We have about sixty-five employees at the moment. But we’re taking over another building because we’re going to have 500 workers soon. We have so much going on. We also just acquired another factory in Ghana, where there should be about 500 workers as well, and we’ll probably be up to about 1,500 by 2013… by the end of maybe 2014 we need to be at about 2,400 workers altogether.
Wow, okay. But in Liberia, with the women you have working for you at the moment, how do they feel about leaving the building? Is it sort of symbolic to them as a site?
Ha! Um, well, part of the community… the women are very empowered… No I shouldn’t say that, because that’s not exactly true. It’s that the women are very outspoken. And let’s just say there was a tussle…
Totally [Laughs]. So they’re happy to go and we’re happy to take them. The new building has been designed by a really amazing architect, John Padmore, another Liberian–American guy, and you know… it’s just going to be cool.
You’re working in a grey area really, moving between cultures… what part of yourself do you consider Liberian, and what do you consider American? Do you divide it up?
You know it’s funny. Obviously identity is something that it would be really natural for me to struggle with. I’m a third culture kid: somebody who grew up away from their parents’ culture but is also not 100–per cent part of the culture within which they live. It’s a bit… I hate to sound clichéd, but it’s made me a bit of a global citizen. You know, I’m really proud to be American. I’m a naturalised citizen, and I really take that seriously. Travelling around the world all of the time—I’m very rarely in the same city for longer than two weeks—it would really suck if I had to get a visa in my Liberian passport. So I take my American-ness as this amazing gift in my global nomad lifestyle.
I think it almost bothers people, to a point, that they can’t categorise me, but it’s just not an issue for me. You know if I’m in Liberia and I throw out a little bit of my bad Liberian English and get to hang out with some people and then somebody comes up to me and is like, ‘Oh my God, you’re an American,’ that’s okay, or vice versa. My friends in America come up to me when I’m dancing and are like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so African,’ and that’s true, too!
So you self-identify as a third culture kid, one of those strange chameleon animals?
Yeah, and you know, you were talking about your longdistance relationship before we started the interview, and you know, I think third culture kids like us, or global nomads, naturally have a history, clinically, of not being very committal… although I think the truth is that we actually do commit, it’s just later in life.
I can see that I’m not going to stay in the same place for a very long time. Since I heard about the idea of third culture kids a lot of stuff has begun to make sense to me. I really see how being who I am, how I grew up, has made Liberty and Justice and Made In: Liberia possible. I’m not sure that without my upbringing this particular company would have yielded these results so quickly.
It’s given you an advantage, being able to move between cultures. As far as working with the Liberian government and the US government, how’s that gone? I mean, one’s so huge and powerful, the other one so small and, well, probably pretty corrupt still, right?
You know, I don’t want to basically give this away as the experience that everybody is having, but for me it’s been heavenly dealing with both governments. I wasn’t in Liberia when the US trade representative for Africa came for his visit. He went to our factory, though, and then when I visited him in Washington DC there was a poster of one of our t-shirts hanging in his office. On the wall. In the US trade representative’s office.
Just to give you an idea, you know what I mean? That’s the level of engagement. And in the same way, in order to qualify for the US government’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives us a thirty per cent trade advantage over countries like China and Bangladesh, right, you need to get this special apparel and textiles visa. The Act is basically a trade agreement. But the visa you need to qualify for it requires Liberia to pass new regulations and run its customs division completely differently.
And we got it done in six months in Liberia. I don’t know of any other trade agreement that gets done in six months. They did it specifically to get ready for our factory.
There’s no way we could have changed national trade policy if we were doing business with Mexico. But there was so much interest in the USA, there’s so much goodwill, it’s such a bizarre story and it’s something they could actually get done, so they did. That’s one of the opportunities you have working in fragile states. If you’re really trying to move the needle, you can get some things done pretty quickly and easily.
Of course not everybody is going to have the power of our story, and our salesmanship, or whatever you want to call it. But in terms of government relations I don’t think things could be going any better. I think this is one of the misconceptions about doing business in third world states. People think that necessarily because you’re doing business there you’re going to have challenges, and it’s true you are going to have challenges. But the thing is you have no idea what those challenges are going to be. They’re going to be, like, people don’t work on Sundays because there are funerals every week. It’s gonna be weird, bizarre stuff.
Liberia has some of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world, right? The thing I found when I used to work in the development sector was how interconnected problems were: sometimes you just don’t know where to start. Why fair trade, for you? Why start there?
The most important aspect of fair trade, for me, is poverty alleviation. We need to make tough decisions in order to set up economies that don’t succumb to the draws of capitalism and the race to the bottom. I’m a big believer in market-based solutions to global problems like poverty. Markets won’t solve every problem, but I think poverty is definitely something they’ve shown themselves to be able to tackle throughout history.
You know, it’s very natural in capitalism to accept bad because it’s not ridiculous, and at the end of the day… I mean our Fair Trade Auditor was a great example, she said listen, the hardest thing, the worst thing I can ever do, is find child labour in a factory and then shut that factory down because of it. Because the problem is: I shut down that factory, and sure, that child isn’t working in a factory anymore, but now that child is broke. And they might be the only wage earner in the family. So now the whole family is broke, and we’ve got ourselves a more serious problem.
The market’s rules need to be monitored quite heavily, and unfortunately the government of Liberia has a lot on its hands right now!
Asking it to play a regulatory role in the garments sector, which is nascent, which is only one factory, is just silly. So you need to be in there on behalf of the worker, and we go above and beyond on behalf of the worker, we actually are kind of stupid—our workers are paid better and fed better than anybody. We do that because we like that: we’re willing to sacrifice some of our own income, but we don’t necessarily want to make it a system where you need to do that in order to have a factory. We just want to make sure that whatever is going on in there is fair.
We know the harsh reality is that the worker is going to make a pretty nominal wage, and they’re going to work a pretty aggressive workday, it’s going to be eight hours, and they’re going to work hard for those eight hours. But we hope that if that is the case they can absolutely 100–per cent rely on the fact that their kids can go to school, and their kids are going to eat, and their kids can see a doctor, and I think our factory is a good example of that.
School enrollment in Liberia is 38– to 40–per cent baseline. 98 per cent of the children of school age that belong to the women in our factory—and if they belong to them it doesn’t necessarily mean they had them—98 per cent of their children are in school. 100 per cent of them have access to a doctor, so malaria is a nuisance rather than a threat to their very existence.
I think that’s the basic deal that we’re trying to make with fair trade.
How do you cope with other international companies working in Liberia, are you talking to them? I mean with companies like Nike, are they actually interested in setting up a model like yours?
Nike doesn’t actually work in Liberia, the Nike Foundation does, which is the charity.
Are they one of the charities spending money and walking away so they can say, ‘Hey! Look! They’re totally trained!’, but then leaving people in the lurch without jobs?
But I mean there’s something so beautiful in that and I don’t want to poo-poo on charity and training women in Africa. I mean I think that’s genuinely a good thing. But I think that it’s been very clear that if we’re looking at pure charity, you know, ‘Let’s throw dollars at Africa,’ it hasn’t worked so well.
Africa’s got hundreds of billions of dollars in aid now, and what do we really have to show for it? Microfinance is rampant in Africa, and what do we have to show for that? There really is a very clear idea about how to tackle these problems, but unfortunately I think people get wrapped up in, number one: what they’re comfortable with, and number two: narratives they love. You know, the idea of this woman in a village, and we help buy her a goat, and now she has twelve goats and she’s supplying milk to the whole place, and next thing she’s going to be buying a house in Beverly Hills!
That very rarely happens. You know one out of maybe ten thousand microentrepreneurs becomes that crazy success story. And that’s not to say that we don’t need microfinance—we absolutely do—in the same way that in the United States and Australia and developed economies we need access to credit. But it’s access to credit in the context of our job, and our assets, and our larger life. Everything needs to come together.
How do you deal with the mental double think that fair trade might be ‘fair,’ but most other trade isn’t? I mean, every time you buy a product in the USA in your personal life, and you can’t trace where it comes from, how do you deal with that feeling in the supermarket when you’re like, ‘Holy crap where are my Cheerios from?’ Sometimes it all just feels so huge and daunting, it’s hard to know whether it makes a difference.
[Laughs] You know that’s… you know it’s funny, the first menial job I got, my paper route, I started shopping for my own clothes. I was just really interested in buying from these small stores, these local stores. It’s the same when I’m buying food; I’ve always been interested in local organic food. I’d say that where I shop has subconsciously been my way of sort of making sure that I’m not…
But yeah, I don’t know. The traceability problem is a huge problem, especially in things like electronics.
And it’s not only where our things are coming from, but where they’re going after we use them.
If you’re a clothing manufacturer in Africa, a local tailor or whatever, you’re constantly flooded by either terrible used goods from all over the West, or cheap goods from China, and there’s no way for the local markets to survive. That’s another big question for me.
So you really think we can look forward to a day when all trade is fair trade, though?
Absolutely! I mean that’s our mission!
There’s something slightly socialist about it. You do realize that. I mean, being a capitalist and still grabbing the good parts of socialism. Does it work?
Even on the Fair Trade USA website they use the phrase “ownership of the means of production.”
But that was a part of our original theory of change! That the women, the workers need to own the means of production.
You do realize that Marx is turning in his grave, screaming ‘Damn you stealing capitalists!’
[Laughs] But I mean it’s like bourgeois socialism. It’s been proved that the system works really well. I haven’t worked for a company since I was eighteen where I didn’t get some stock options, and that absolutely motivated me.
I can’t think of a place where workers perform better for their companies than in the Bay Area, to be honest with you. I think that it’s crazy for us to look at a factory and say to these people, ‘We need better productivity, and for your productivity we’ll give you lunch tomorrow,’ and that’s all. People use the excuse, ‘Workers won’t understand the long-term, you know, how dividends work.’ But I just think that’s a bunch of BS.
We keep on talking about poor people as if they don’t make rational decisions. But they make much better, much more rational decisions than most wealthy people. They just have to do it with this completely tiny pie. If we were in their shoes, ever, we would be making the same decisions.
These days, I’ve sort of strayed away from the fully-owned worker means of production. I do see this need for a management class, but I think that the workers need to have some ownership of the means of production, even with the management class. And they need to be local people, so that the profits are reinvested locally.
My family comes from a very artsy background, and I went and did all these boring corporate and government jobs in my twenties, which is so different to the arts approach where you’re directly involved in the production of your own wealth, but also in creating your own life. I’ve always been attracted to the ideas of Marxism, because especially in those big companies, you don’t feel like your work belongs to you; you can’t create any more. You can’t make your workplace better, you can’t really make it worse; you just have to sit there and let it happen to you, in this very passive state.
You know, I believe this is probably the biggest disconnect with the American worker. I believe that there are just these… I mean, people have literally come to believe that by virtue of being born here you deserve a place where you can go to work and sort of check out and give your work to this person, it doesn’t belong to you, and in exchange for that you should have some job security. I feel that’s the assumption that’s been sold. And the truth is, what I think you’re seeing now is what happens when those lines start to break down and people are sort of having to actually create their own lives.
The corporations, that we thought were fully functioning rigged machines, hit these terrible times, and everything has become so amazingly impersonal that people just don’t understand why they don’t have a job, why they’re not being paid more, why wages are stagnant and decreasing. So I think there’s this interesting thing going on where the design, the artist, the creative thinking now need to seep into not just the corporate world, but also the relationship between worker and owner.
I think that there’s been a huge problem in America in the way that unions and managers have communicated here over the last however-many years. They’ve lost any sympathy for each other, and I say that word, like, very deliberately.
In our factory in Liberia the workers wouldn’t come late because they see it as something offensive for me. It’s the same for me with them: when I know that we can’t afford it but they need something I’ll make that concession for them because I actually feel for them. I think one of the bizarre things that has happened in the unions in America is that it’s become this constant battle for one-upmanship. What I would love to see is a return to the day where everybody is in it for a win in the long-term, a win in terms of profit, and I think that’s done through worker ownership. And I mean ultimately, for me, a long-term win in profit has to be in terms of the triple bottom line: economic, environmental, and social. That might be a little idealistic…
I won’t start banging on about the importance of unions. And I think we’re going to let you be a little idealistic.
You know people always say, ‘You guys are causing such large transformational change in Liberia.’ In terms of supply chain management, though,
all we’re looking to do is move the needle a little bit at a time every day.
I mean we’re attacking loads of health problems, we’re doing all these things at the same time, and the stuff that we’re doing for the worker, the health programs, sure, these things cost more.
But at the end of the day, we think that that’s why our workers are more productive than workers in other parts of Africa, because of what we’re doing. I mean Africa isn’t known for its productivity rates. And Africans aren’t known for coming to work on time, or at all, for that matter. But here we have workers that come on time, come every day, and are productive.
There’s got to be something we’re doing right. So this is probably part of my motivational speaking series, but: it’s always those little steps that you can do now. Making a choice.