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The Chinese Developers Turning Liberia's Beach Into a Luxury Playground?

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Boosters say this mall complex will jumpstart the economy in an area decimated by Ebola and war. But longtime locals and entrepreneurs wonder what will be left for them.

Before Ebola decimated Monrovia’s ubiquitous informal street food scene, Skippee was one of the city’s ever-present vendors, selling bite-size portions of “sweet cow meat”—beef filet and popular specialities like cow heart and intestine-wrapped stomach—from a wheelbarrow-mounted oven.

In the wake of the civil war, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s courting of foreign business has brought economic stability and lured foreign investment. While Ebola left investors skittish, “Liberia is getting better” for doing business, says Nina, a Chinese staffer living at TSMO’s compound who declined to give her last name.

Liberia’s ongoing election season has slowed just about everything in the country, as investors wait to see if stability will remain. One contractor cut a check for a mall contract dated four days after the election—only to find the vote had been delayed indefinitely after a Supreme Court intervention. Developers say that’s one reason the mall, slated to open in September, is still largely empty.

“Through civil wars and Ebola, there’s been a drainage” of wealthy and educated Liberians, says the city’s mayor, Clara Doe Mvogo. Liberia’s close ties to America make the U.S. a favorite destination for those leaving the country. Still, Mvogo says that 90 percent of land in Monrovia is privately owned by this elite class, leaving much of development to the whims of private owners, and those to whom they choose to lease.

For Monrovia, “there’s some serious benefits to having a mall of that size,” Mvogo says, bringing tax revenue and other places for those who do have money to spend it. GDP has risen steadily under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Still, with 64 percent of Liberians living below the poverty line, “the mall is not going to cater to 85 percent of the population,” Mvogo says. But to thrive, it doesn’t have to.

The mall is only the beginning. Following the growing trend of prolific building by Chinese contractors in Liberia, and across Africa, the project’s long-term vision includes rollerbladers skating down a boardwalk, playgrounds, more hotels, and a new port on Miami Beach. The construction wave has brought state-of-the-art roads and municipal buildings, but also, at the mall, complaints about exploitative labor practices and displacement of residents in informal settlements.

But for Eric Sherman, a Liberian vice president of TSMO who is working on the mall project, competing with West Africa’s mega-cities is still a long way off. The key problem: To do business in Liberia, “you have to spend a lot to get a break,” he says. After bringing in over 1,000 shipping containers of goods to build the mall, he says, TSMO finally hit the threshold to import duty-free. When it comes to the mall development, “the size of the project is what makes it bearable.” To make money, their best bet is catering to the elite in a neighborhood where you can buy a foil sachet of meat for fifty cents, or a $12 cocktail, and not much in between.

“We have no middle class,” Sherman says, pointing to prohibitive taxes that scupper growth for small and medium-sized businesses. Materials extracted from generous land concessions are not matched with manufacturing, forcing large projects to import materials.

Years before they started construction on the mall, Rasta recalls, contractors began stopping by. “The Chinese people used to come on the beach on Sundays, sometimes Fridays, which are beach days. They came around and asked a lot of questions.” Lawyers and businessmen came too, he says. The gist of their message: People are coming ‘round here bringing billions of dollars. Time to move along.

While street selling is technically illegal in Monrovia, Rasta has paperwork showing that Pan Afrikan Beach Club was a registered, tax-paying business. But when the land-owner signed on with developers, they lost the space.

As the development spreads down the beach, “I hope to be included,”says Jasahme, a Rastafarian veteran of Pan Afrikan Beach Club with dreads down to his ankles. When Pan Afrika shut down, Jasahme moved down the beach, rigged up a solar panel, and continued sewing knit caps, whittling masks, and fashioning elaborate handbags out of coconuts. Sherman says local vendors will have first dibs on rentable retail kiosks on the new boardwalk. Whether they’ll be able to afford them is another matter.

“We’re not against the investment, and we’re not against the development,” Rasta says. “We welcome every good investment.” But he believes the city should make it a priority to re-house cultural venues, not just pay them off. He points to the mall in Accra, which he praises for its sensitivity to local artisans and entrepreneurs.



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