Resplendent in turquoise-hued traditional dress, Kabeh Sumbo stood before attendees of the Clinton Global Initiative on Sunday evening and declared herself a proud Liberian woman and business owner. She cited 10,000 Women, a global female-empowerment initiative backed by Goldman Sachs, as a prime cause of her success.
“I believe that if you train one woman like the 10,000 Women trained me, you train a nation,” Sumbo said.
Whether Sumbo’s success is reproducible was one of the subjects of a panel moderated by Newsweek and The Daily Beast editor in chief Tina Brown on Sunday night. Joined by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Melanne Verveer, columnist Nicholas Kristof, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, the panelists dissected some of the challenges facing women in the developing world today.
Yet Sumbo, the star of the evening, may remain the exception and not the rule in Liberia for years to come.
Mounting evidence shows that small and medium-size businesses run by women can have a dramatic positive impact on local communities, Kristof said, in what he called a “virtuous spiral” that can lift a nation over time. Asked by Brown what else the Liberian government was doing to encourage more female entrepreneurs in the country, Sirleaf acknowledged that not every woman who wants to start a company will be a success story like Kabeh.
“There’s not going to be 1,000 Kabehs. She’s an exception,” Sirleaf said. “Even if we don’t have 1,000 Kabehs, we’re going to have hundreds of them at cross-sectors,” the Liberian president said.
Sirleaf’s administration has given Sumbo 100 acres of farmland to help grow her palm-oil business, which Sumbo started with a single tank of palm olive oil and a microfinance loan.
Far more than the patch of land granted to Sumbo by the government, however, has been going to foreign corporations and investors, sometimes at the expense of Liberia’s citizens, some say. Activist Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor and Rachel S. Knight wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in January, shortly after Sirleaf began her second six-year term, that private logging, mining, and agricultural interests were awarded massive tracts of Liberian land, and that the country’s citizens were told that to resist the concessions might bring financial ruin on themselves.
The two wrote that 1.6 million acres of land ripe for palm-oil production was given to two companies based in Malaysia and the United States, a move that the activists said could adversely affect the more than 1 million Liberians who live in the region.
For Sumbo, the substantial plot of land she received from the government represents a once-unthinkable opportunity to grow her business and improve her life, as well as those of her family members and employees.
“Kabeh, your 100 acres of land awaits you,” Sirleaf said to enthusiastic applause Sunday night. “I have chosen to put it in my own county so I will be able to monitor you firsthand.”