I’ve been to nearly half of the countries in Africa, but this is my first visit to Liberia – the first African country to elect a female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Sitting in the window seat of an old Ethiopian Airways plane, I noticed a fleet of UN helicopters as we descended over the Atlantic beaches and into Robert Field. We joined the only other aircraft – a Kenya Airways flight that had left Accra shortly before us.

I’m excited for the eight days ahead.

The tall and affable immigration officer, who was wearing a pressed brown uniform, was the most welcoming person to have ever stamped my passport.  My bags emerged last on the smallest luggage carousel that I’ve ever seen.

The airport was destroyed during the 14-year civil war that claimed an estimated 250,000 lives and left one million people displaced. A once viable and functioning economy was destroyed, entire villages were deserted and every family was impacted.  I’ve seen first-hand from Rwanda, Sudan and Mozambique the wreckage that war leaves on government institutions, commerce, households, landscapes and the people, especially women and children. Evidence of the conflict remains everywhere, with bombed out-deserted buildings, crumbling infrastructure and young people missing a hand or walking on crutches a common sight.

However, progress is also visible.  The Chinese have built a new tarmac road from the airport to town. Markets are thriving with stalls of locally grown produce, necessities and imported Chinese goods; petrol stations abound in Monrovia’s busy streets crowded by new cars (many shiny SUVs); buildings are getting coats of paint and lots of multi-story ones are under construction.  But the task of rebuilding this country’s infrastructure and human capital is monumental and every sector competes for donor aid and investment.

I’m here on mission with the Foundation for Women – a San Diego-based micro-finance firm headed by my friend Deborah Lindholm.  Deborah and Ann Lovell (we serve on the Women’s Leadership Board at the Kennedy School together) stopped by the Foundation for Women’s Monrovia office this morning. Several groups of women had come long distances when they learned Deborah was coming.  We were welcomed with songs of praise.  The women take out small loans starting at $100 for income generating activities and have a payback rate of 98%.

Even though thousands of women are earning income, they still have to buy candles,  kerosene for lighting or cheap battery operated Chinese-made lights that don’t last more than a few months. The current options are costly, hazardous and damaging to the environment. That’s why Lifeline Energy and Foundation for Women are teaming up in a new initiative, Women Lighting-up Africa, starting in Liberia which will see women set-up in renewable lighting enterprises.

by Kristine Pearson

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