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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wheelbarrows Push Along Liberian Economy

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Ask Moses Kollie what his job is and he answers not with a profession or a trade but with an object.

"Wheelbarrow."

"Pardon me?" his questioner asks.

"Wheelbarrow," Kollie, an 18-year-old grade-school dropout, replies, scowling. "I have a wheelbarrow."

It is a simple technology almost as old as the wheel itself. But in a war-scarred city with no electricity or running water, where gasoline is sold from large mayonnaise jars stacked next to broken fuel pumps, the wheelbarrow is the cornerstone of the vast informal economy.

That economy, with its complex and well-established pecking order of market matrons, shoeshine boys, kola nut hawkers and orange sellers, sustains almost everyone in a country where the official unemployment rate exceeds 80 percent. As Liberia struggles to put itself back on track after a decade and a half of brutal civil war, it is young men like Kollie who keep things moving.

The wheelbarrow has been so important to Liberia's development that it holds a prominent place in its seal, along with a shovel and a palm tree. A ship looms in the background, under the words "The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here," a reference to the founding of this nation by freed slaves from the United States.

On Thursday, Kollie's wheelbarrow was laden with bars of cheap, harsh-smelling bath soap imported from China. He worked a busy corner in Red Light, an impoverished Monrovia suburb named for a traffic light that stopped working long ago.

"Special today: Soap 10 dollars, soap 10 dollars!" he cried, hoping to drown out the competitors around him, who were selling everything from notebooks to women's sandals to batteries from their wheelbarrows.

At that price, about 20 U.S. cents, he says he hopes to make about $5 for the day if he sells a decent number of bars, not a bad haul in a nation so poor it does not register on the United Nations human development index. Many Liberians live on less than a dollar a day.

Kollie bought his wheelbarrow for $25, used, raising the cash by selling anything he could find on a tray he built from scrap wood. Back then he made half as much money and, as he tells it, had half as much dignity. "I don't want to sell with my hands," he said, gesturing with a tinge of superiority at a clutch of young boys selling plastic bags and rags.

In central Monrovia, Harris Kakulah controls a fleet of more than a dozen wheelbarrows, dispatching them to businesses all over the city to pick up sacks of cement, tanks of water and bushels of towels.

On the capital's potholed streets, thousands of wheelbarrow operators jog along under punishing sun and pelting rain. Kakulah is the head of the local chapter of their union, the National Wheelbarrow Operator Union of Liberia, which has about 5,000 card-carrying members in Monrovia alone. He was a driver before war came in 1990, when the warlord Charles Taylor ousted President Samuel Doe. But work for drivers dried up as the war ground on and fewer cars plied the battered streets of Monrovia.

"There was no job for me, so it was the easiest work I could see," Kakulah said.

"We call it a war car," he said of the wheelbarrow. "We don't have any real cars."

During the long civil war, wheelbarrows played another role: that of ambulance, ferrying the wounded and dying to hospitals.

In peacetime, it is a highly organized business. The wheelbarrows are numbered and lettered, indicating their zones of operation, and the fees for certain kinds of loads are fixed. Getting a bag of cement from the port to central Monrovia costs about $1. Moving a load of used clothing, a popular market item here, from downtown to the suburb of Sinkor, more than 6 kilometers away, costs $3.

"It is hard work for an old man," Kakulah said. "If I get another job I'll leave my wheelbarrow tomorrow."

But for the young a wheelbarrow means opportunity. Many young wheelbarrow operators are former child soldiers who fought in the militias of the warlords who struggled for control of Liberia. Demobilized fighters were given cash grants for their weapons, and many used the money to buy wheelbarrows.

As the country slowly comes back to life, with the end of the war two years ago and elections Tuesday, wheelbarrow operators stand ready to do their part to rebuild. Like entrepreneurs everywhere, Kollie is looking to expand.

"I would like to buy another wheelbarrow," he said. "Because business is good."