Though Liberia has begun recovering from the Ebola crisis, the consequences of the epidemic continue to shock the country. Since March of 2014, Ebola claimed 4,500 Liberian lives, left 50 percent of the population unemployed, kept children out of school for eight months, and devastated food security and business, suspending much of West Africa’s commerce with the world.
International institutions such as the World Bank have been working in collaboration with West African governments to facilitate recovery from the epidemic. But given the hugely complex task of sparking growth in countries with fragile economies, ethical brands such as Liberty & Justice (L&J) are stepping up with innovative solutions to some of the most nuanced obstacles facing post-Ebola Liberia.
As the first Fair Trade Certified apparel manufacturing company in Africa, L&J acutely felt this disruption. Due to the risk of spreading the virus, L&J was forced to shut down its factory in Monrovia, where it employed a 303-person workforce made up of 98 percent Liberian mothers.
As the number of Ebola cases declined, L&J was eager to reopen the factory — not only in hopes of making up millions in lost revenue, but also to get the factory employees back to work. But even with the push to get the factory up and running, L&J’s client companies did not want to return to Liberia to do business. Without any corporate buyers, the factory could not restart operations.
In the context of this nationwide standstill, Liberian-born entrepreneur and L&J CEO Chid Liberty took the initiative and launched UNIFORM, an original clothing line that gets women back to work and children back to school. Under the UNIFORM model, L&J sustains jobs at its factory by employing Liberian mothers to manufacture t-shirts to be sold worldwide, as well as school uniforms to be donated to children in Liberia.
With each purchase of a UNIFORM t-shirt, L&J gives a school uniform to a child in Liberia, where uniforms are mandatory even at free public schools. Costing around US$10, uniforms keep hundreds of thousands of children from attending school in Liberia and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. By providing children with free uniforms, UNIFORM aims to remove this financial barrier to accessing education.
Dubbing its model the “one for one remix,” UNIFORM goes beyond the traditional “Buy One, Donate One” model by which companies often manufacture abroad and then dump free products into developing areas. L&J keeps the entire production process for UNIFORM in Liberia. The “remix” means that UNIFORM is empowering women with dignified jobs in the communities that receive the uniform donations; Liberian women get jobs making tees for international customers and school uniforms for Liberian children.
Since L&J’s factory had depended entirely on third-party buyers, the Ebola crisis left the company with no way to resume business as usual. When companies fall into this sort of position, they are essentially left with two options: to abandon the disrupted enterprise in hopes of avoiding further losses, or to respond to the challenge with an inventive solution that taps into new sources of profit and impact.
Liberty chose the latter. When L&J’s original business model was no longer possible, he conceived of a solution to an apparent dead end. By launching an L&J original clothing brand to create demand at the factory, the UNIFORM initiative not only rids the company of its factory’s prior dependence on client companies, but also mobilizes a new base of loyal customers: the ever-growing group of conscious consumers who gravitate towards ethically made products.
UNIFORM’s attractiveness to investors is a testament to the business ingenuity behind the brand. On June 2, UNIFORM launched via a 45-day Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the initial production run of T-shirts and school uniforms. In less than a day, the UNIFORM campaign surpassed its original goal of $50,000 and has tripled this amount with over two weeks still left in the campaign.
UNIFORM now aims to get 2,000 backers by the end of the Kickstarter campaign. Each UNIFORM tee is made from premium fabrics, including 100 percent African organic cotton and a blend of nylon, silk, and 63 percent recycled beechwood. The UNIFORM t-shirts are being sold exclusively through Kickstarter until July 17.
Aside from its potential for social and environmental impact, UNIFORM should also be seen by the business community as a model for problem-solving and entrepreneurial grit.