Bullet-ridden Building in Liberia Turns into Fair-trade Haven [CNN]

In Africa, World News on August 9, 2010 at 5:55 pm

*side note, click here to watch the corresponding video. tell me Chid Liberty doesn’t remind you of some Liberian-American version of that guy that owns American Apparel.

Monrovia, Liberia (CNN) — Chid Liberty’s family business high-rise was corrupted into a site of conflict, mass graves and executions during Liberia’s fourteen-year civil war.A prominent building on Monrovia’s cityscape, it was occupied by warring factions – including Charles Taylor. The family investment was pillaged, with even the metal electric wiring from the building stolen.

“There was talk that if you crossed the street and looked over, they would pull you in and execute you,” Chid explained of his family building’s role in the war.

“They didn’t want anyone looking at what was going on in here.”

The war is now over, but the bullet-holes remain. So many years after the end of the civil war, they are stark reminder of the challenges Liberia faces in trying to re-build.

And yet, that is exactly what Chid has come home from America to do.

He has refurbished the basement of the building and started the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project. A FairTrade initiative to promote women’s rights, higher wages and most importantly, business.

“We did it in post-conflict Liberia where we have women from both sides of the conflict, affected by the conflict working together, singing together, praying together and doing all these great things but also, exporting t-shirts for major retailers in the United States,” Chid explains.

“In that process we hope those women will lift themselves and their families out of poverty.”

Chid is hoping to exploit a recent relaxation in the rules of importing fair-trade cotton goods to the U.S. from places like Liberia. Providing the women in the basement of his family building a potentially profitable niche in the international market in selling fair-trade t-shirts.

Currently he employs 32 women, but by the end of the next 18 months he hopes to have over 500 women, with 370 sewing machines and a capacity of about two to four million t-shirts a year.

Fair-trade emphasizes good-working practices, higher wages and transparency — a business system that puts people and the environment first when purchasing and production decisions are made.

However, many fair-trade businesses can often lose their focus concentrating too much on human rights and neglecting the need to make profit.

Chid may have a large table for open discussions between himself and the women on fair-trade issues, a prayer room, regular opportunities for the women to sing, and he may be a little too optimistic about the speed of the women’s capabilities after so long out of an institutionalized workplace.

But he knows this is business, not charity.

“It is 100 percent undoubtedly a business and I think our investors and clients will tell you the same thing,” he told CNN.

“There isn’t a time when we can say to our clients, we didn’t get your t-shirts shipped on time, but hey, we’re doing great work in Liberia so we want you to continue to give us your business – it won’t happen.

“We’re very much committed to our financial returns, meeting deadlines and operating under the same conditions that any other trading company or factory in any other part of the world would have to commit themselves to,” he continued.

Working from the basement of his looted family building Chid hopes he can help rebuild Liberia from the bottom up.

“All of those women who are working down in those factory are victims of sexual violence, abuse, many if not all were displaced during the war,” he said.

“This is just their reality and the truth is that something as beautiful as Liberia women’s sewing project can come out of something as broken and decrepit as this building and conflict was.

“We just hope to always be a metaphor for Liberia, that yes, this building has been completely broken down and yes there are bullet holes here, but as we heal the building, we are also healing ourselves.”

By Christian Purefoy, CNN

Read more from CNN.

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