Letter to Groundwork Board October 23, 2007
Dear Board Members,
I just got back from Liberia. It was a fascinating and exciting trip with very positive outcomes. The project is for 600-800 houses as a demonstration of a low income, environmentally healthy community. It is intended as the first step in a national housing program. We met with the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. She is a remarkable person and the first woman President in Africa. We discussed the project with her at length. Her understanding of the details was impressive and she is highly supportive of our approach. The fact that she met with us for over an hour in the midst of an extremely demanding schedule was encouraging to us and shows the priority she places on this project.
I felt the conditions were good for a successful project. In Liberia we have the natural resources, government support, mortgage financing, some open minded, intelligent and energetic professional and business people and a motivated local population that needs and wants work and is open to new solutions.
The Context. Liberia is in difficult circumstances. They have just come out of 14 years of war. Our driver, John, had 11 children, 4 of whom were killed in the war, apparently when they asked for food. There is no electric grid. The only sources of electricity we saw were gasoline generators. We visited Johnís family at his house. They are 5 people living in 2 bedrooms with no kitchen, no bathroom, no sewage, no water, and no electricity. For that he pays $30/month, which is about 1/3 of his income.
Against this socio-economic backdrop Liberia is rich in resources. In my view the problem is seeing that those resources are used for the benefit of ordinary Liberians. We havenít had time yet to research the local resources but some that are visible on a first trip are the land, which is strikingly beautiful; water, which is plentiful and nurtures the luxuriant landscape; timber, bamboo and palm; and laterite soil which can make excellent earth building materials.
The People. We found a lot of enthusiasm in people and a lot of potential for making things better. We met informally with people in our driverís neighborhood and discussed their ideas and ours about how to improve their housing and community. One of Johnís sons is studying sociology at the University of Liberia. He said he would like to do a case study for us of how people in his neighborhood like to interact with each other and how this affects the physical design of a new or improved community. The neighbors participated with animation in our conversations. There is a will and energy to get things done.
The Team. During this first visit to Liberia we found interesting, intelligent and energetic people to work with in the government, professional and business community. There was also a lot of support for our emphasis on high quality housing for everyone, not just the wealthy, the use of local materials, development of local business, industry and jobs, education, community participation, sustainability, and protecting the environment.
* We have an excellent development & financial team. We were invited to this project by Jim Brenner, a partner in Broad Cove Partners, a private equity management firm that has done a number of projects in Africa including starting a bank in Ghana. Jim is a very energetic and creative guy. He has the realistic view that to be sustainable and have long term impact the project must pay for itself. However, he doesnít let that stifle the project. He is clearly committed to doing something to benefit low-income people and is willing to take risks and spend money in the effort to do that. He is also working on a high-end project in Monrovia. Everything I have seen indicates that our low-income (actually mixed income) project is driven more by doing good than by profit.
* Prior to meeting with the President we met with the National Housing Authority (NHA), Ministry of Lands and Mines, National Housing Secretariat, representatives of the U.S. Embassy and Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), local architects and builders, a local building materials factory, an attorney dealing with land tenure, a local Polytechnic school and residents of several local communities.
* The Director of the National Housing Secretariat, Frank Krah and a Liberian architect, Sylvanus OĎConnor (a U.S. architecture graduate who also teaches at the Stella Maris Polytechnic Institute in Monrovia) wrote a housing policy report for the government that could have come directly from Groundwork. We expect to be working closely with them.
Capacity Building. For many reasons we feel it is beneficial to engage local educational institutions. The students and faculty help involve the community. They learn. We learn from them. They tend to be creative and explorers. They can be the ones to carry out the next phase of the project. Sylvanus OíConnor arranged for us to meet with the Dean of the Stella Maris Polytechnic and about 30 students. The students were excited with the work and goals we discussed with them. They raised excellent questions and also had useful knowledge. They were anxious to participate. With the faculty and students we can do research that is not possible with a normal design budget. The Dean is willing to do this in the context of a class at the Polytechnic and Sylvanus indicated his willingness to teach the class. The University of San Francisco architecture department is also willing to participate which adds an energizing piece of interaction for the classes in both countries.
Property and Finance. The NHA (National Housing Authority) has optioned 2 sites of 100-150 acres each. We would build approximately 600 houses for Liberians who can afford payments of $125/month on average. That is not the lowest income people and we will also look at some options for people who can afford something like $30/month. We may look at cross subsidies from higher income houses.
Jim Brenner of Boston-based Broad Cove Partners is organizing long-term funding for the project. Last year Broad Cove helped a team of local entrepreneurs in Ghana establish a new mortgage lending institution with a credit line from OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation) a U.S. Government agency that has lent $1.5 billion for housing internationally from 2001-2006. Broad Cove has OPICís preliminary support for a construction and home-owner loan facility for this project. OPIC sent a representative for their due diligence who visited the site with us and participated in meetings with NHA. The project also has preliminary support from prominent U.S. and European socially responsible institutional investors who are looking at equity investments, micro-mortgage funding, and alternative energy infrastructure loans.
Conclusion. I am convinced we have enough positive factors here to do an exceptional project. I think we will be able to do a project that is both beautiful and within the means of the majority of people in Liberia. There are many open questions and a lot of work to do. Weíll keep you posted.