‘I never had this idea before’: In Liberia, using entrepreneurship to improve lives & forests

March 22, 2017

It’s not even noon and already Patricia Wantoe has sold most of the cooking oil she brought to her village’s small market.

In the stalls next to hers, other sellers are offering okra, peppers, spices and soap, but it’s Wantoe’s product that’s moving.

“Everyone wants rare oil,” she says, using the local name for the red-gold liquid that’s ubiquitous in food in Zolowee, a remote community in Liberia’s Nimba County.

A 32-year-old mother of four, Wantoe began selling rare oil a few months ago. Every couple of weeks, she travels to the nearest population center and buys it wholesale in six-gallon containers, then hauls it home and portions it out into small bags, which she sells at the market for 20 Liberian dollars each, or about US$0.20.

Her profit works out to about 1,200 Liberian dollars a week.

“For me, it’s a lot,” Wantoe says. “I never had this idea before – buying and selling to make money.”

Patricia Wantoe.

It’s one of many things she’s gained through WORTH, Pact’s global program that reduces poverty and empowers women through village banking and entrepreneurship.

In Liberia, Pact is implementing WORTH with funding from USAID as part of the FIFES project, which is working to preserve the West African nation’s forests and biodiversity. Through WORTH, Liberian forest communities that once survived by hunting and clearing trees instead are developing alternative livelihoods that don’t destroy forests.

Wantoe joined WORTH in the summer of 2016 when new groups were forming in Zolowee. A volunteer trained by Pact, called an empowerment worker, explained how WORTH works. In groups of about 20, women come together to save money, access credit and start businesses. Unlike micro-lending, WORTH gives its members no capital or seed money; instead it provides groups with ledgers for recordkeeping and training books including “The Road to Wealth” and “Successful Selling.”

Members are required to make small savings deposits at weekly meetings, and when groups’ funds grow large enough, members may begin taking loans, which they use to start small businesses.

Groups elect officers, receive literacy and numeracy training, and learn the fundamentals of running a small business.

Wantoe was selected to be the secretary of her 18-member WORTH group, and at each of their weekly meetings she deposited the requisite 100 Liberian dollars (about US$1). After a few months, she took a low-interest loan from the group for 3,000 Liberian dollars and bought her first haul of cooking oil.

She paid back the loan within a few months and started saving more and more.

Wantoe, fourth from left, listens as another member of her WORTH group speaks.

Besides how to run her business, Wantoe is learning to read and write and improving her numeracy skills through WORTH. She’s also learned about the value of saving money and of preserving the Blei Community Forest, which touches Zolowee.

“Before,” she says, “I had no income. We were cutting the forest to grow rice because we thought it was the only choice. Being in this group has put many new ideas in our minds. We know we need the forest for our future. We are thinking different now.”

And living better, too, Wantoe says.

With her newfound income, she’s able to provide better food for her children – a boy and three girls – and can afford to send them to school. 

The same is true for other members of her WORTH group.

“Before, we didn’t do much,” she says.

“Now we know we can.”

The FIFES project (Forest Incomes for Environmental Sustainability) is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by ACDI/VOCA and Pact. The project is conserving biodiversity in Liberia’s community forests by improving forest governance and management capacity, reducing pressure on forests through new economic opportunities and improved agriculture methods, expanding the number of hectares under improved forest management, building local capacity to conduct bio monitoring of forests, and increasing public knowledge about forest conservation and enterprises and the importance of biodiversity.