Dualu Group, Inc: A Possible Solution to Liberia’s Sanitation Woes
Written by Ansu Opa Dualu, Sr.
Wednesday, 10 February 2010
A little over two years ago the Liberian Investment Commission, headed by Richard Tolbert, decided, with EJS’s encouragement, to visit Liberian communities in the US and petition Liberians abroad to come home and invest. Your country needs you! Your country is open for business!
Your country is ready and able to protect and encourage Liberian-owned businesses! We encourage young professionals to seize this opportunity. This was the message. The message was loud, clear, timely, and by any measure, very patriotic. Anybody at one of these Symposiums heard this same message.
One day at work, I sat at my desk pondering what I had heard. I began weighing everything: my family, my job (at the time I was working as a financial analyst with Raytheon), the financial implications and everything that could go wrong if we made this bold move. Then again, I thought about home and how I miss Liberia; I then realized that I haven’t been home since I was a 13 year old in 1991! I felt it was time. After all, I thought to myself, I had heavily supported Ellen’s ascendency, it was incumbent upon me to do my best to ensure she succeeded. This was not the time to feel comfortable far away and only criticize; instead, it was an opportunity to put boot on the grounds and help work towards the elevation of Liberia. If ever there were a golden opportunity to quickly transform Liberia, this was the time. Moreover, we had an expert at the helm: a woman with enviable credentials and experience to match. How could we not support her and allow this once in a lifetime opportunity to pass us by? I was going to support our president all the way even if that meant sacrificing all. So I quit my job, left my family behind and decided to go home.
It became a matter of what area are we going to channel our contributions. The issue of seeking government job was out off the question – I felt it was too cliché, we needed to do something that will have a direct impact on the common citizen.
Then I remembered Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist whom I had study in graduate school. Known as the banker of the poor, Yanus transformed his homeland throw micro credits, giving small loans with no collaterals to the poor and thus lifting thousands of his fellow countrymen out of poverty. He won a Nobel for his efforts. I felt we had found our niche and we were going to channel our efforts in this area and try to replicate Prof. Yanus’ genius in Liberia.
I read everything I could find on the subject and after two months of studying, I decided it was time to go home and conduct a feasibility study.
I arrived at RIA at night. Everything was chaotic! I was not disturbed because I had seen more chaos as a Marine but most importantly, I had expected some degree of chaos. We were just out of a civil war, it was going to take some time to fix things up, I murmured to myself.
The following day I went to work gathering information for my venture. I visited government ministries, the investment commission especially – nobody seems to know anything about anything at these ministries! In fact, the people who supposedly know hardly ever show up for work! Moreover, investment commission’s employees told me they only dealt with multi-million dollar foreign companies; there was no time to talk to petty Liberian businesses. To date, there is no department dedicated to Liberian businesses or any business with total capitalization under one million U.S. dollars! They also stated that the focus was on foreigners with money, thus making the entire symposium a scam!
On the other hand, I spoke to people, organizations, banks, where I got most of my information, and felt this will be a lot more difficult than I had initially thought. Most of our people have this freeloading mentality; they feel paying back a loan to a person they perceive to be rich is the stupidest thing one can do! They believe financial decisions should be made based on pity, not considering that their refusal to repay could jeopardize the organization that try to help them.
Nevertheless, I had not visited the courts and law enforcement arms just yet and felt we could still make this work if they did their jobs as described by the investment commission delegates. Was I in for a shocker! The courts and police, to put it simply, are the breeding grounds for everything that’s wrong with Liberia! Open corruption, demanded bribes, justice for the highest bidder, etc. I thought how the hell am I going to get my money back if the courts or the police won’t do their jobs? After a long consideration, I decided I was going to scratch this plan and find something else but still holding true to form – undertaking a venture that will help as many common people as possible.
Going up and down Monrovia I could not help but notice feces and urine stain on every corner, women squatting in the open to urinate, men with their penises in hand on city sidewalks and whole communities with open sewers. As for the food markets at Redlight and Duala, they were an epidemic willing to happen! There were poopoo and peepee streams running down most streets, causing the entire city to smell like a huge government toilet!
Most of the offices and businesses we visited had no restroom and as I begin to ask questions, I realized that the city was facing a serious sanitation problem and a possible outbreak of diseases.
People were using the outside walls of the health ministry (shocking, but true) and most other ministries to relieve themselves. Secluded corners in some government buildings were being used as pissing spots! Even the beach outside the foreign ministry, where the president has her office, was being used as an open defecation zone! And then it dawn on me: how about bringing portable toilets and septic trucks in the country and help clean up some of this mess? This could help a lot of people and improve the image of our country, I thought. I became energized once again, asking the right people and strategizing to undertake this new venture.
My first stop was at city hall. I was fortunate to get an audience with the city mayor and her directors. I told them about my plan to bring a private sanitation company to the city to address some of the toilet issues the city was facing. I lay out the benefits to the city and our people and explained how such venture could shift some of the burden from the mayor to private entrepreneurs like me. The mayor and everybody present were ecstatic; they could not believe such venture was possible especially since it was not going to cost the city a dime! Madam Ophelia Hoff- Saytumah immediately instructed her staff to schedule another meeting and ask that every relevant staff be present at this meeting. She also asked that I put my requests in writing and detail specifically what I wanted the city to do.
I immediately put together a proposal (similar proposal was later delivered to Mary Broh) asking the mayor to help me with two tasks: enforce the city ordinances related to sanitation and help designate those areas that most need toilet services. The proposal also detailed how we will operate, the amount we will charge per use ($5-$10LD), our company registration information, etc.
The second meeting was held with all interested party present. Everybody was in agreement; they supported the idea and concluded that this was a service the city desperately needed.
Similar meetings were held with the Liberian Water and Sewer Corporations. I also spoke to a few directors at the health ministry. The results were the same: encouragement, enthusiasm and a willingness to see such a venture in the city to remedy some of the poor sanitary conditions the city was faced with.
After a few more research, I caught a flight and headed back to Boston to begin preparation to ship to Liberia.
I did a quick study of the mobile toilet industry, got some figures, ran some numbers and began purchasing all the material and equipments.
Now, I am not going to discuss in detail how much I spent, but I will give you an idea of the prices, shipment costs, etc, of the kind of money I am talking about. Each mobile toilet costs anywhere from $600-$1,200; we put in for 500 toilets but committed 40 to start; it took two forty foot containers to ship them to Liberia. Cost: $7,000-$9,000 apiece! We bought two used septic trucks. Those cost anywhere from $20,000-$45,000 each. The shipment for these trucks costs around $8,000-$12,000 apiece! Our expenses included a pickup truck ($5,000) for everyday use, airline tickets, chemical for toilets (a year’s supply), portable toilet carrier, twelve brand new spare tires at $350 apiece, maintenance equipments, countless number of miscellaneous costs, and many more. And finally, you had to clear all this through that hell hole called the Freeport of Monrovia. Clearing those things remains the toughest thing that I have ever done. I remain grateful to Madam Mary Broh for helping me at the Freeport.
Once the things were shipped, I caught a flight back to Monrovia to prepare a place to start my operation. I built a $30,000 headquarters in Bernard farm, trained men to operate these equipments and waiter for their arrival. Around June of 2008, the shipment finally arrived. I immediately when back to the people I had spoken to and informed them of the arrival and suddenly everything changed! People saw me as this new potential drunken sailor in town, and when I did not perform as demanded everybody withdrew and at times making it difficult for me to do business. City hall even demanded $35,000LD before I could put the toilets around Monrovia. I refused and the toilets had never gotten to the people who need them the most. Mind you, this was a registered and incorporated business in the Republic of Liberia.
Nevertheless, I went on the airwaves 2-3 times a week; went on TV and did an in person tour of Monrovia, visiting LU, Redlight, Duala, Westpoint, NewKru Town, beaches, shuting down Broad Street when onlooker rushed to see the toilets, etc. I even placed a total of 16 toilets in Redlight, ELWA Junction, GSA Junction & Duport Rd Junction for two weeks to acquaint the public with my facilities. Close to 95% of the population had never seen these portable toilets before, we notice this during our tour. We seized the opportunity and educated. Many thought the president brought these toilets to address the sanitation issues; we encouraged the rumor and went alone with it. But with all our efforts we were getting no results.
I decided to go back to city hall and water and sewer. They told me since I was not willing to “play ball” (still trying to figure what that means), they were bringing in some South Africans with magical toilets that automatically convert human waste into fertilizer! Don’t laugh, I am serious. They even showed me the pictures. I could not believe what I was hearing. Two years later, the South Africans have not arrived. Both city hall and water and sewer started giving me the run around. One official flat out told me saying, “you think we’re going to come enforce the law so you mun [sic] get rich? You will stay long inside”. I started wondering what was wrong with me getting rich in my own country if I created an opportunity that benefited Liberia and our people. I could not understand his logic.
Anyhow, I began to re-strategize and refocus my efforts at other clientele – namely the Americans and other Westerners whom I felt understood the importance of these mobile toilets. This approach paid off very quickly. The Kadeja project sign on and began using these mobile toilets; the American Embassy soon follow; missionary groups, and other entities started taking a toilet here and there.
And then suddenly my people decided it was now cool to use these toilets for themselves but not the general public despite the urgent needs around the city! Most of the officials couldn’t care less whether the people poopoo in their own eating bowls. The little space the officials inhabited was cleaned, they were fine and it was all that mattered to them!
Government officials started calling in to use the toilets at their weddings, funerals, and other get together. Even the highly publicized just held colloquium at the SKD sports complex that our beloved president chaired, utilized my toilets. The colloquium boasts the highest number of dignitaries that ever visited Liberia at one time. There were presidents and ex-president, wives of presidents, distinguished women from around the world, women groups from around the country and many more. The colloquium committee put in for 25 toilets to be placed at the SKD sports complex to service between 15,000-25,000 people every day for 5 days. My trucks were busy 24/7, removing about 1800 gallons of waste each day. Every fellow citizen that saw us working was proud, and commended us for our efforts; they were happy that we saved face and we were not shamed in front of all those foreigners with our public display of restroom behaviors.
Furthermore, the president’s office even called to have my toilets followed the president in Cape Mount at the launching of her NGO, Mensuagoon (sp). Anybody who is somebody in government was probably there. Our Foreign Minister, Olubanke King-Akerele, was even surprised to see such facilities in Liberia. She praise the venture, and spoke highly of the person that brought the toilets to Liberia not realizing she was talking to me. I thanked her and instructed my guys to keep working. She used the facility soon after our conversation.
After this encounter, I decided that I was going to try to speak or write to as many big wigs as possible. Maybe if the guys on the bottom did not care, our top officials will. I wrote the vice president, wrote and spoke to no less than 20 legislators, spoke to UNICEF during and before world toilet day, wrote ministers, deputy ministers and everybody in between. I went back on the air and revisited communities to encourage them to petition their legislators to have these facilities in their communities. The results were the same: great idea, the city really needs this but they all gave me that what’s in it for me swagger.
However, when I read recently on FPA about our sanitation problems (Re “Liberia’s Sanitation Hell: In Claratown, Scarcity of Toilets Pose Health Risks”, 02/02/2010), I felt compelled to write this and inform our people that the beginning of the solution to our sanitation woes is right there in Liberia: 1000 O’Nahfuon St, Bernard Farm, Paynesville, Liberia; 077969724, 06847828. They should know that no government official can deny that they have never heard of these facilities. Some have even used them. The facilities are there and parking because the owner is not “willing to play ball”. But what most of these officials do not realize is that I am not willing to compromise my ethics for anything, even at the cost of failing and losing all that I have worked for. Fighting corruption must start at the cold water counter. I believe that and live that. On the other hand, let them know that if our people die or get sick from an epidemic outbreak, it will be due to official neglect of responsibility and not the lack of toilets.
Thanks for the space, Mr. Editor.
Ansu Opa Dualu, Sr.
President & CEO, Dualu Group, Inc.