There are few better records of the shifting fortunes of Liberia than the guest register at the Mamba Point Hotel. When Chawki Bsaibes opened up in the old Dutch embassy on Monrovia's bullet-pocked seafront in the dying days of Liberia's first civil war in 1993, his customers were peacekeepers, war correspondents and development workers. When fighting started again in 1999, the reporters returned, followed by mercenaries, and then with the arrival of a second fragile peace after President Charles Taylor's defeat and exile in 2003 a wild-eyed group of Western carpetbaggers after a quick buck. It was only when Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won office as Africa's first elected woman head of state in 2005 and promised wholesale reform that the Mamba Point began to welcome what Bsaibes calls "respectables" executives from multinationals eyeing Liberia for opportunities and, to Bsaibe's delight, government ministers. "This is the only time we feel that when the government come to use our hotel, they pay their bills, just like everyone else," he says. "We do not feel we have no right. We feel protected."
Feeling protected surrounding an enterprise with the law and security to allow it to prosper is essential to business and development, no matter where you are. But it has been Africa's pre-eminent blight in the half-century since colonialism that many of its rulers offered nothing of the sort. The businesses that thrived amid the war, autocracy and corruption of postindependence Africa were of a depressing sort: emergency aid, arms-dealing, disaster journalism and security-ringed extractive industries for whom development was too often someone else's problem. There were exceptions, countries like Botswana and Mauritius and businessmen like Bsaibes, whose 19th century Lebanese forebears were tricked into disembarking in Liberia after buying passage to America, but who thrived anyway. But the exceptions only highlighted how far the rest of Africa was falling short.
That's changing. Africa still has too many catastrophes, places like Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. But in other parts of the continent Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and much of southern Africa a new generation of African leaders has embraced democracy and the rule of law, and is making clear a preference for business and self-reliance over aid. Despite the global downturn, the International Monetary Fund predicts sub-Saharan Africa will grow by an average of 1.5% this year. Seven African countries will grow by 5% or more, with Liberia expecting 4.9% growth in 2009 and 7.5% next year. While the G-8 leaders discuss how to help, some parts of Africa are getting on with business. "Whereas Africa had military rule and dictatorships, today we have 18 or 19 functioning democracies," Johnson Sirleaf tells TIME. "Africa is growing equal to or better than all other regions. We have gone from [a stance of] noninterference in our internal affairs to respect for the principle of the responsibility to protect, so that today Africa is intervening in African countries where governments have suppressed the rights of their people. Major changes are happening."
Liberia represents one of the best tests of Africa's capacity for regeneration. A small nation with a population of just 3 to 5 million the new government has yet to conduct a reliable census it has a reformist leader, two ports, rich resources and a history of exporting. In the 1950s, rubber powered economic growth of 8%, second only to Japan that decade. Fixing Liberia should still be a relative cinch. "It's everybody's favorite model," says a Western economist in Monrovia. "If it doesn't work here, it doesn't work anywhere."
Old Trees, New Growth
Head east from Monrovia, past Firestone, the U.S. rubber giant's worker town, past Smell-No-Taste, a town known in years past for the fine cooking aromas that would waft in from a nearby expatriate housing colony, down a 50-mile (80 km) stretch of road whose potholes can swallow a small car, and you'll come to Buchanan. When Joel Strickland, 47, first visited Liberia three years ago to scout for opportunities, he was a partner in a Toronto hedge fund. In Buchanan, Strickland was struck by the number of moribund rubber plantations. Untended during the war or destroyed by marauding militias, hundreds of thousands of acres of trees were standing idle. Even in productive plantations, old trees were being burned as waste.
Strickland knew there was a global market for rubber wood, which is used for furniture and medium-density fiberboard. He also knew there was an emerging market in wood power generation. Wood may not be the most efficient energy source, but replacing a tree with a growing sapling is basically carbon neutral because the sapling sucks in more carbon dioxide per mass than a mature tree. With volatile oil prices and environmental concerns boosting interest in wood energy on both sides of the Atlantic, Strickland saw an opportunity. "We're the closest supplier to Europe and the U.S.," Strickland says. Back in Toronto, his hedge fund formed a company, Buchanan Renewable Energies (BRE), and readied an IPO.
Enter fellow Canadian, John McCall MacBain, a self-made billionaire who founded the Auto Trader classified-advertising empire, but in 2006 sold it and set up a foundation to promote health and the environment in the developing world. In April 2008, McCall MacBain bought 90% of BRE's stock. Strickland invested $1 million of his own money, and quit the hedge fund to become BRE's president.
The new company discarded the old extractive-industry model and formed a power-generation arm to build biomass power stations for Liberia, starting with a 35-megawatt station for Monrovia due to be switched on in 2010. (The capital's million or so residents currently make do with just two megawatts.)
The company also began signing partnerships with Liberia's tens of thousands of small rubber farmers. Under the deals, BRE builds roads and bridges to the plantations, removes old rubber trees and pays the farmers for them, smooths the land, replants it with new saplings grown at a BRE nursery and even plants cash crops like beans and peanuts between the rows. These crops give the farmer an income for the five to seven years until the rubber trees start producing latex. The rubber farmers have to do or pay nothing. BRE even trains and employs up to 1,000 people in the process. "They couldn't believe it," says Robert Baines, 32, manager of BRE's fuels division, which imported $50 million of equipment for the job.