Bonlah is a border community deep into the thick forest along the Liberia-Guinea border. It’s nearly three hours away from the mining city of Yekepa, in Nimba County. Residents of this community rely on subsistence farming and animal husbandry as a source of livelihood.
When the Ebola crisis swept through west Africa, villages like Bonlah suffered great losses. With borders closed and the movement of people and goods restricted, not only across borders, but within Liberia itself. It was very difficult to earn a living let alone make a profit.
Elijah Kpahn, 65, raises pigs in Bonlah to earn money for his family. He bought his first three pigs from Guinea, but the challenge in feeding them became a weekly chore that cost a lot of money. “We used to walk several hours and spend over US$7 to get food to feed our pigs,” he said.
It was a precarious business practice. The Ebola crisis exposed the vulnerability of people like Kpahn and his neighbours. Recovery would take time, but there was also a need to build the resilience of people like Kpahn to any future shocks while strengthening the ability of the systems to handle a contagious outbreak like Ebola.
In response to a complex set of post-Ebola needs, UNDP and its partners rolled out a cross-border project in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. With funding from the Government of Japan, the “Supporting and Strengthening Sub-regional post-Ebola Medical Surveillance and Socio-Economic Recovery Initiatives in West Africa” aimed to address health, socio-economic, governance and peace building needs specifically in Ebola-affected areas.
The economic recovery aspect of the project had great impact on people like Kpahn. With a loan from the project’s village loan and savings scheme, Kpahn grew his business from three pigs to 17 pigs.
The project also helped the community with a new palm kernel processing machine. The machine has since started producing palm kernel oil on a larger scale, and the residue (cake) is sold to pig farmers as feed, thus raising additional income for the group, while making it easier and cheaper to feed the valuable income-generating animal husbandry work.
“Now we just have to pay something small for fuel and maintenance and we get the kernel cake to feed the pigs,” Kpahn said.
The small grants given to beneficiaries have had a tremendous impact, according to project coordinator, Eric Opoku.
“With the relatively little funding investing in livelihoods recovery, see how the lives of the beneficiaries, their families and the communities are being transformed. With dedication and efficient use of resources, many more lives can be touched positively,” Opoku said.
The economic recovery portion of the project focused on training and skills building for selected beneficiaries in the affected communities. The trainings focused on animal husbandry (small ruminant value chains); fresh fruits and vegetables value chains; oil palm and kernel processing and value chain (small plants); small business management; rice processing and value changing; village savings and loan (saving for change); life skills; hygiene, food safety, preservation and marketing; and agri-business development and management.
This training has had a huge impact on people like Grand Cape Mount resident, Isatu Massalay, who at 22, never moved past her 11th grade schooling due to financial constraints.
She received an initial loan of LRD$1,000 from the Bomberhum VSLA in Grand Cape Mount County to start a mini business selling rice cakes.
“Through the rice cakes, I paid my first semester school fees and now I am back in school through the help of the group,” Massalay said.
She spends LRD$650 to buy ingredients and generates LRD$750 as profit daily. She has repaid the first loan and is considering getting another one to enable her to expand the business. “I want to say thank you to UNDP, Japan and VOSIEDA (the implementing civil society organization) for what they are doing for me and other members of our community,” she said.
The loans are part of the project’s support to village savings and loans associations (VSLA), which have had tremendous impact on not only bolstering small businesses, but in generating financial literacy.
The Bonborhun (Grand Cape Mount) VSLA Chairman said their activities started with trainings, receipt of a grants, goats and sheep. He expressed appreciation to the donors and emphasized that the initiative has brought immense changes in the lives of members of the group and the community at large.
“All members of the group have taken at least two loans from the VSLA, which have been repaid and members are all involved in various businesses. As a group, we are united to promote each other’s business,” he said.
For Tenneh Kroma, the self-confidence and boldness gained from one of the trainings to express herself in public gathering is highly recommended.
“The training has empowered me to stand in public and boldly express myself,” Kroma said. “Before this training, I couldn’t stand in front of people to say anything.”
In addition to the self-confidence and boldness gained from the training, she also received a loan from the group to open a business. Kroma has repaid the loan and boasted that she now has money to take care of herself and her family.
“I am selling fufu, gari and assorted goods. I have a plan to make a big cassava farm this year,” she said.
There are knock-on effects to the project, according to local officials. Magdalene Fahnbulleh, Tewor District Commissioner, said that communities that are empowered in these income-generating activities are improving social structures.
“I am impressed and really happy that the group members especially the women are happy that they have received the grant and equipment provided by the project. We are now receiving fewer cases of non-child support from these communities,” Fahnbulleh said.
The project has changed lives, says Nimba government official, Michael Yarkpah. According to him, this project is not only yielding positive results in communities but promotes local capacity in the county.
“The local economy in targeted communities are recovering and beneficiaries are happy and boasting of positive changes in their lives with food on their tables,” he said.
The project supported regional institutions’ operational capacities; regional early warning responses, mechanisms and policies; local governance in cross-border areas; local authorities, communities and civil society capacities; strengthened for economic opportunities and promotion of local development; and social cohesion, dialogue and peacebuilding.