In Liberia, crafting school uniforms — and social consciousness

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, opening a new fashion frontier in Africa. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has a report from Liberia on one man’s effort to use his success in Silicon Valley to bring decent jobs to Africa, part of our series, “Agents for Change”.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Every morning, nearly 100 women at this garment factory in Monrovia begin their workday with song.

Liberian women wake up, they sing, “You are the Leaders of the Nation”. Most of them grew up in nearby slums. Many had no formal education. Yet, now, they have become leaders in their communities and part owners of this factory.

The man who built the factory is Chid Liberty, a social entrepreneur born in Liberia, son of a diplomat whose family sought asylum in the U.S. during the country’s 14-year-long civil war.

Liberty was raised in Wisconsin, became an American citizen, and was working in Silicon Valley, living the American dream, he says, when he had a revelation.

CHID LIBERTY, Co-Founder, Liberty & Justice: I was living in the Bay Area, you know, I had a nice salary, I had a very expensive foreign car. I had everything you think a 20-something-year-old kid would want. But I realized that without going back to Liberia, I would never really know who I am truly as a person.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Liberty returned to a country which had been devastated by the war, nearly two-thirds of the population lived in poverty, more than half of all adults were illiterate. Although the country exported iron ore, rubber and diamonds, those industries didn’t create many jobs, he said.

CHID LIBERTY: To me, that was crazy. How can we expect to pull so the many people out of poverty if we’re not actually making something, if we’re not adding value to something? So, I looked to countries who have done it in an amazing way in Asia and I said I feel like this is Africa’s time to do this.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He decided to build a fair trade garment factory paying women competitive wages. He went looking for U.S. investors with this pitch.

CHID LIBERTY: Hey, I want to go do this ground-breaking world-changing thing and everybody would look at me and say, manufacturing, not just in Africa but Liberia? Are you crazy? You know, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Did you have any self-doubt that maybe this was, indeed, a very silly idea?

CHID LIBERTY: What I knew I could believe in is the people in Liberia.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Liberty scraped together $200,000 from socially minded investors, enough money to buy 30 sewing machines and hire 30 women to work in his aunt’s basement. They started by sewing simple things, t-shirts and tote bags which were sold locally.

Four years of aggressive door knocking finally yielded a jungle prize, a multimillion-dollar order from trouser maker Haggar and another from a second company. New buildings and new machines were purchased and 300 workers hired.

CHID LIBERTY: When this was all done, it would have been about $40 million a year that we would be making from these two companies. We thought it was a pretty great business, as did our investors and everybody else.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And then this —

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Ebola outbreak in West Africa —

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ebola. Seventy percent of the employees lived in West Point, the neighborhood that was ground zero for the deadly virus. Employees were fully informed about precautions to take and thankfully, all of them survived.

CHID LIBERTY: On the business side, we basically went to zero. We lost all of our contracts, we didn’t deliver in time.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And they weren’t coming back even when the crisis abated.

CHID LIBERTY: I would call back people and say I think the outbreak is almost over, do you want to come back to Liberia? And they’d say, no, son, there’s no way we’re coming with you.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Stuck with the factory full of fabric and idled employees, Liberty got an idea, why not make school uniforms required for all students across Africa and which parents often cannot afford?

CHID LIBERTY: So, we knew that education was a really big problem. Kids were out of school for a year. The one thing I could contribute was the uniform.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: To pay the workers who would sew and donate the uniforms, Liberty launched a Kickstarter campaign selling t-shirts. He raised $230,000 in just over a month. That got the attention of the Manhattan retailer Bloomingdale’s which invited him to start his own clothing line. He called it appropriately enough, Uniform. It includes basic t-shirts, pants and jackets and they’re marketed as socially-minded products.

With each sale of a garment in the U.S., money is donated to the Uniform Project in Liberia. We went with him recently as he delivered t-shirts to the Monrovia Football Academy. So far, he’s been able to donate 8,000 uniforms to schools across Liberia.

Chid Liberty says he never thought he would be in the fashion business, but now he says he’s happy not to have to depend on other clients.

CHID LIBERTY: I really thought there was no way we could do this on our own, but it’s been amazing to see our own brand and lead with generosity and help with kids in school, and that’s what ended up making the factory successful.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The women seemed happy, too. They make more money than average, civil servants, receive healthcare and basic school course work. School was not an option for many during the war.

You heard there was a job here.

MUAYEN SWARCEY, Garment worker: Yes.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And you came and how long would you like to be in this place?

MUAYEN SWARCEY: How long would I like to be here? Forever.

LEONA MONGU, Garment worker: This has helped me providing for my children and sending them to school.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Liberty is able to pay high wages and keep his prices competitive with Asian factories because his garments can be imported duty-free to the U.S. thanks to a law to encourage trade with African nations. Massive problems remain in Liberia: the lack of roads, irregular power supply and bureaucratic corruption, but Liberty feels he has created an oasis for his workers.

CHID LIBERTY: It’s been so amazing to watch people have the dignity of a job, so much so that at times that, you know, when we shut down because of Ebola, kept telling them, don’t come, they still came. They see each other as a family and they belong to each other.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s a tiny effort in a country in desperate needs of hundreds more, but a prototype, he says, of what Africa needs, decent jobs making African products from African resources in Africa.

For the “PBS NewsHour” this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Monrovia, Liberia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Undertold Stories Project at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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