Annalies Winny is an independent journalist based between Monrovia and Baltimore, covering public policy and criminal and social justice.
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.
It’s peaceful at 6 a.m. on Monrovia’s Miami Beach. Against a pinky-yellow sky, the only sounds are waves crashing onto the shore, birds squawking awake, and the clawing of Skippee’s rake, running ridges through the patch of sand that separates the foamy coastline from his beachfront home.
Gradually over the past year, he has built this place up with bricks of hand-mixed cement, whenever he can afford to. First came the foundation, then a small room, then a beautiful mosaic floor made of smashed glass bottles. He doesn’t own this patch of land, nor does he pay rent—but raking it every morning is part of what makes it his. For now.
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.
The beach, which had been a “dump site” for bodies and garbage during 14 years of civil war that ceased in 2005, had since become a social hub. Beach-dwellers, digging holes to install septic tanks for new bars found themselves combing the sand for body parts and shell casings. It remained a hub during the Ebola crisis, hosting a concert fundraiser and a mural project as the disease took 4,810 lives across Liberia. As Ebola swept his city, Skippee recalls, “more and more people were afraid to buy the meat,” and food business dried up all along the shore.
When the epidemic was over, many people, including Skippee, set to work cleaning up and bringing back music and street food. Like many Liberians, Skippee has no bank account, instead funneling savings into a susu, or informal community credit union. Eventually, he hopes to have enough to turn this patch of beach into a bona fide restaurant.
Skippee’s place and a few others back onto a high white wall. Behind it, others have been building, too.
TSMO Investment Corp, a Chinese construction company, has come to town to build T M Mall. Liberia’s first Western-style shopping complex, the glass structure is just a stone’s throw down the beach. Developers have their sights set on a Cold Stone Creamery franchise and H&M. They confirmed to CityLab that Zara had signed on—not the Spanish mega-chain, but a Monrovia retailer whose storefront touts Zara’s logo and those of several other international brands. The Nigerian cinema giant Silverbird has landed Liberia’s first state-of-the-art movie theater in TM Mall, complete with Blade Runner posters and the smell of fake butter. As locals speculate about what will actually fill the mall, expansion plans are afoot for a boardwalk that will run square across the beach into Skippee’s place.
As Skippee laid the foundation of his house brick by brick, the shopping center quickly shot up, built entirely with materials brought in from China on 1,000 shipping containers, according to TSMO staff. (“We paid a lot of tax for this,” one staffer stressed.) The land, leased from a private owner, sits at the foot of UN Drive, a hub of diplomatic headquarters hosting some of Monrovia’s poshest hotels, apartment complexes, and restaurants run by Lebanese entrepreneurs—many born and raised in Liberia—who’ve dominated the hospitality market for decades.
Built around them are scores of increasingly crowded informal settlements and businesses like Skippee’s, which are technically squatting, entitled by law only to the value of the structures they construct on land that’s becoming more appealing to developers.
In the aftermath of a civil war that left much of the city dilapidated, laying claim to patches of beach—considered public land in Liberia—is one way local entrepreneurs have been able to build businesses. A hotly disputed land-rights bill now making its way through the Liberian legislature could upend the meaning of property across the country. But for now, with investments funneling in from China, Skippee expects to be displaced.
“They want to take the whole beach,” he explains. So, on Miami Beach, “everybody worry.”
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.
For some, the mall couldn’t come soon enough. “There’s nowhere to buy new clothes,” said one fashionable expat who lives in Monrovia full-time for business.
Near the mall entrance, passersby stop in their tracks to watch Hollywood film trailers playing on a giant outdoor screen. Sharply dressed Liberians, American and Lebanese expats, and women in hijabs float in and out of the semi-finished building, where fixtures are labeled in both English and Chinese. Still-vacant retail spaces are said to be going for around $35,000 a year. Visits to the mall playground, T M Kidsland, are $10 a head.
In one of the world’s poorest cities, is that too much?
“Absolutely not,” says Patrick Honnah, a well-to-do businessman who lives in Paynesville, a spacious suburb of Monrovia. In their Sunday best, his fashionable family stopped by for a selfie in front of the rooftop terrace’s stunning sea view. Liberia “has never had anything like this,” he says. “This will beat the mall in Accra for sure.”
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.
As the mall reviews expansion plans, Sherman says, the city has issued them “a bill” estimating the cost of relocating the beach-dwellers who are legally entitled to the value of the structures they’ve built. (He declined to give the exact figure.) But for hard-won beach businesses, the intrinsic value is enormous.
For Moe Adams, known locally as Rasta, the mall has already spelled the end of his Pan Afrika Beach club, which he and a group of fellow Rastafarians had built up over several years on a section of beach adjacent to the new structure. They used the space for entertainment—anything from live music to arts and crafts and smoking weed, a spiritual practice for Rastafarians considered a nuisance by some in the neighborhood.
“We looked at the beach as our natural heritage,” Rasta says. “A place Liberians, rich or poor, can enjoy.” The club hosted craft workshops amid six coconut trees its founders planted by hand, which are now fenced off by the mall.
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.
“They were building the mall while they were trying to move us,” Rasta says. A couple of months ago, as T.M Mall was finishing up construction, contractors came down to Pan Afrikan Beach Club and started handing out cash. For a total of $7,800 split five ways, says Rasta, they succeeded. It was far less than they had spent on the place over five years, but most of his partners were too broke to resist the up-front paycheck.
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.
For her part, the mayor says there are “many other beautiful places in Monrovia” where venues can set up shop. As for TSMO: “The company that came in to build that mall, they brought their own money into Liberia,” she says. “Are they not supposed to see a return on their investment, when we gave them permission to come?”