“It is not a fund!” Abraham Ndofor declared, and threatened to toss me from his car near the Red Light Market in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Ndofor wasn’t serious about the tossing, but he was genuinely angry about the word. In the market, in the mud, merchants peddle toothpaste, sandals, mangoes, and skin bleach from wheelbarrows and keeling stalls that stretch toward a horizon of patchwork shacks and a water tower from which United Nations peacekeepers fill their jerry cans by hand.
The neighborhood is called Red Light because once, before civil war ravaged Monrovia’s electrical grid, a single traffic light stood as a gesture of order in the area’s madness. Now the insanity is complete: screaming vendors, stuck cars, roving thieves and vigilantes. This is the heart of the capital’s economy, where, it’s probably safe to say, more Monrovians come to make their scraps of money than anywhere else.
Ndofor, a bank officer and former math teacher from Cameroon, is struggling to change that, to seed an array of businesses that will offer the hope of a more functional economy here in the city and in Liberia’s countryside. He manages the Liberian Enterprise Development Finance Company, which was originally called the Liberian Enterprise Development Fund. During the week I spent with Ndofor several months ago, his round, nimble face grew rigid with disgust every time I slipped up and used the final word of the initial name. Fund, to his ear, means aid. And aid, to Ndofor, is a curse, a blight devouring his continent. He is making loans – meticulously considered and cautiously calibrated loans that, he insists, will be repaid; that will stand in contrast to all the philanthropy that saps the strength of Africa; that will help to create a spine of responsibility in this nation that is crawling forward after 14 years of civil conflagration that ended in 2003.
In his early 60s, small and nattily dressed, sporting Western suits and sharply pressed shirt collars or crisp African-cut tunics, Ndofor embodies the arguments of Dambisa Moyo, a Harvard-trained economist from Zambia, whose 2009 book, “Dead Aid,” stirred plenty of controversy— and won her the nickname “the anti-Bono” from The New York Times. In 2005, Bono, the rock star, brought his campaign for increased aid from the world’s wealthiest to the planet’s poorest countries – most of them in sub-Saharan Africa – to a loud climax before the G-8 summit. But more recently there have been signs of a backlash, with Moyo among its leaders. In the past five decades, she writes, starting as African colonies gained independence, a trillion dollars in donations and rarely repaid loans have flooded the continent. Greater sums of such aid, per capita, have been given to Africa than to any place else on the globe. Yet, Moyo points out, the continent’s per capita income is lower today than it was in the 1970s. More than 50 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, double the percentage of two decades ago. “The notion that aid can alleviate systemic poverty is a myth,” she declaims. Instead, it kills off a people’s entrepreneurial spirit, nurturing an inert dependence; it chokes off the chance for healthy economies to emerge.
Moyo’s point was made unintentionally by a taxi driver who took me to Ndofor’s office one afternoon. The driver rhapsodized about the war’s end, then said his nation needed to develop. I asked what he thought the first step should be. “The U.S. must send us money.”
Ndofor isn’t indebted to Moyo for his exacting outlook; he’s come to his ideas over a 30-year career in small-scale banking that has taken him from Kenya to Togo, from Madagascar to the Democratic Republic of Congo. But he’s part of the anti-Bono spirit. His position isn’t pure; the program he directs is the product of philanthropic impulses. Moved by a speech given by Liberia’s new president, in 2006 Robert Johnson, America’s richest black entrepreneur, founded the Liberian Enterprise Development Fund the next year with his own money, along with capital from an arm of the American government, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the help of an American non-governmental organization called CHF International. Yet such beginnings, for Ndofor, are merely background. His institution and its backers may not need their money repaid, but he is driven to scrutinize applications and collect debts because Liberia needs self-reliance. “You understand this is a loan?” He leaned forward against the desk in his stark office and quizzed a new borrower – of about $10,000 – one morning. “When is your first payment?”
In its first three years, Ndofor’s program has lent only about 15 percent of its $20 million. Ndofor has been chary. A previous manager backed big projects that have faltered and entrepreneurs who, in a nation with scarcely any legal system, have vanished with their cash.
The borrower at Ndofor’s desk, the owner of a blacksmith shop in the countryside, had laid out a business plan for Ndofor and his team of Liberian loan officers. He would buy an electrical generator and some tools, then manufacture and sell crude mechanical grinders that make palm oil. The oil – used for cooking and making soap – is generally produced in Liberia, and much of West Africa, by foot, by stomping the boiled palm fruit. The man would be bringing a bit of modernity, a miniature industrial revolution, to his town. “This is different from a grant,” Ndofor lectured. “It is very important for you to understand. The lives of Liberians depend on you repaying on time.”
It was the same with the cinder-block maker, whose dust-glazed staff shoveled mix into molds and let the blocks dry in the sun at the side of the road, and with the doctor who was slowly constructing a clinic, and with the others whose businesses were less vital but still held the promise of making tiny dents in the country’s estimated unemployment rate of 80 percent -- like the business belonging to a self-taught horticulturalist who supplies flowers to the embassies and dreamed of exporting his jungle blooms to the States. With all of them, Ndofor stressed the rigor of meeting their repayment schedules, as if this could guarantee the success of their enterprises and start to infuse the nation with strength.
At moments, with me, Ndofor spoke as though the flourishing of all Liberia was certain. The cinder-block maker would sell great quantities, pay on time, qualify to borrow more money, buy more advanced equipment that would enable him to sell yet more and sturdier blocks. The price of housing would go down, its quality would go up; the health of the people would improve as a result; education levels would rise; productivity would soar. The benefit spread quickly from every loan Ndofor described. Then he would catch himself.
“For you,” he said, as we talked one evening in the almost lightless city, “it took a year to walk and sixteen years to drive. There is gestation, there is infancy, there is development. Development takes time.”
The manufacturer of palm-oil grinders, Ndofor told me by phone recently, has been dutifully repaying his loan. The cinder-block man, like most of Ndofor’s other clients, is making good too.
Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa.