Green shoots in Liberia

With Liberia’s economic growth projections intact, the new Monrovia port provides a strong incentive for the trade growth the country badly needs to develop. While the port has only been operational for three years, its impact can already be seen and felt in a variety of ways. 

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'Multi-skilled equipment operator' in APM Terminals Monrovia port, Jacqueline Paye: "Many of my friends don't have a job. I have a good job with benefits at a company that has a big name in Liberia. It makes me very proud."

Jacqueline Paye is one of just a handful of the 200 people employed in APM Terminals Monrovia port authorised to operate every machine in the yard. She is a ‘multi-skilled equipment operator.’ And the only female one.

You can see what her job means to her when she talks about her nine-year old son, Joshua.

“Joshua is going to school and I want him to grow up to be a good person,” she says. Her eyes soften and a smile appears as she watches him play with friends in front of the house she rents with a friend in Paynesville, a town just outside Monrovia.

Jackie’s husband left when Joshua was born. As a Liberian and a 35-year old single mother living in a country where jobs—and the skills needed for them—are rare, her job offers her financial security. It is a ladder of opportunity for her and Joshua.

“When I am sitting in my vehicle in the port, I thank God,” she says. “Many of my friends don’t have a job. I have a good job with benefits at a company that has a big name in Liberia. It makes me very proud,” she says.

Opening the door to trade
Unfortunately, jobs in Liberia are scarce, especially those that provide training like Jacqueline’s. Nearly 70% of Liberia’s 4 million people are under the age of 29, and 50,000 young people enter the labour market each year. Most of the working population is in so-called ‘vulnerable employment,’ according to data from African Economic Outlook.

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Edgail Inc. is a manufacturer and exporter of recycled waste oil, initially to customers in China. Photo: Thomas Sonne

With the new business we won't get second chances with our customers, so every improvement helps. We will depend on the shipping lines and the port to perform as expected, so we don't break our promises.

ABIGAIL UREY, CO-OWNER OF EDGAIL INC. IN LIBERIA

Street vendors selling food, drinks, clothes and a variety of other goods line the streets all over Monrovia.

“Everything you see here comes through the port. Without it, the country would grind to a halt. There would be nothing to sell,” says Johnson Liway.

An older man, Liway is a reporter for the Liberian News Agency. He also runs a cell phone charging station and a small cinema in the Snapper Hill district of Monrovia.

“What we need is more jobs for young people. We need more business, we need manufacturing companies to come in and set up in Liberia to give people a chance to learn and develop their careers,” he says.

A source of employment
The terminal itself is a sizeable source of employment in Monrovia, with 200 staff working directly for APM Terminals and another 2,000 local subcontractors doing business in the port. But unlike a factory or business Johnson Liway has in mind, the success of the terminal will not lead to other terminals being developed in the future. Unlike a business, the terminal will not grow any bigger or take on more people.

“Of course, we create a certain number of jobs from just operating the port,” says Brian Fuggle, managing director of APM Terminals Monrovia. “But our real value comes from building a world-class port with a professional workforce that will make it easier and more attractive for companies to invest and do business here.”

“I think you can see some examples of that already. I expect as infrastructure and other improvements come, trade will keep growing and you will see Liberia benefit,” says Fuggle.

As sales manager for Maersk Line in Liberia, 32-year old Jlue Wolo has a unique vantage point from which to view his country’s changing economy. Maersk Line has been in Liberia since 2001 when the country was still being ravaged by civil war. Since then, Maersk Line has cornered the vast majority of the container shipping market, but competition is heating up.

“Before APM Terminals took over the port, the risks kept our competitors away. Theft, safety, operational inefficiency and a lack of transparency are no longer risks,” says Wolo.

“Because of that change, the benefits now outweigh the costs and we have two new competitor shipping lines calling in at Monrovia: MSC and PIL. That’s a credit to the port’s efficiency and processes,” he says. “Competition also means a better product for our customers, even if it makes my job tougher,” he says, smiling.

New beginnings

One of those customers is Abigail Urey, Liberian co-owner of Edgail Inc., a scrap metal exporter that is investing in a new business, the manufacture and export of recycled waste oil, initially to customers in China.

“The port is a huge improvement. There’s a schedule, one fee, and we’re treated as valued customers,” she says.

Edgail’s new factory is located 60 km inland off the Kakata Highway, one of just a few critical but badly broken roads connecting inland Liberia to the port. The Chinese are rebuilding it. Together with a working port, it will mean faster and more reliable shipments and lower costs, she says.

“With the new business we won’t get second chances with our customers, so every improvement helps. We will depend on the shipping lines and the port to perform as expected, so we don’t break our promises,” says Urey.

Next steps

In February, APM Terminals put out a tender for another $32 million investment in the port. The total investment will reach $120 million by the end of the 25-year concession. This latest round will cover complete paving of the terminal footprint, installation of CCTV security and the construction of a new port office away from terminal operations to keep staff and customers away from the machines. Completion is expected in two years.

“In our first two years, we doubled volumes,” says Noah Sheriff, chief commercial officer for APM Terminals Monrovia. “Last year we fell back a bit due to a variety of economic factors but we expect a partial recovery in 2014. The trend over the last three months has been encouraging, and in January we had a 16% boost compared to the same period in 2013, so we’re cautiously optimistic.”

  • Watch an interview with Jacqueline Paye, Multi-skilled equipment operator in APM Terminals Monrovia port.
  • Watch the video about the APM Terminal in Monrovia and an interview with Brian Fuggle, Managing Director.

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Sales manager for Maersk Line in Liberia, Jlue Wolo: "Before APM Terminals took over the port, the risks kept our competitors away. Theft, safety, operational inefficiency and a lack of transparency are no longer risks." Photo: Thomas Sonne