Too many cooks

A girl selling pastries in Monrovia. Thousands of women have been training in baking and pastry making by NGOs, but very few of them are sucessful in making money from it
In Liberia, 50 percent of teenage girls interviewed had been pregnant (Kate Thomas/IRIN)

The shelves of Monrovia's premier bakery are lined with freshly baked bread, cream buns and iced doughnuts. A customer stands at the counter enquiring about a wedding cake while a baker in a white paper hat slides trays of warm baguettes out of the oven.

The bakery is owned by a Lebanese company that trains its own employees itself. Thousands of Liberian refugee women were trained by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in pastry-making, baking and cooking during the country's 1991-2003 civil war but none of them are behind this counter.

A few metres down the road, 25-year-old Florence Karmeh is selling sticky doughnuts on the sidewalk. Florence earned a certificate in pastry-making while living in a Ghanaian refugee camp in 2000, but when she returned home five years later she found it too costly to set up her own business. On the street her simple doughnuts sell for the equivalent of US$0.02 each.

"I knew how to do all the things like bake bread and make special cakes, when I came back to Liberia in 2002 [but] I didn't have access to the money to start my own business," she said. “I have met lots of other women who had the same problem - we all have skills but we aren't able to use them.”

Too many doughnut makers

Women like Florence Karmeh are unable to put their skills to good use because there are simply too many of them, according to a report from the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children (WCRWC).

NGO skills-training programmes that typically focus on skills such as soap-making, hair braiding, baking, tailoring and pastry-making have turned out far more people than there is demand for, the report found.

"The majority of [skills training] projects lack direct links to current or emerging market demand," the report says. "Hairdressing, cosmetology, baking, tailoring, soap-making and tie-dye are offered in location after location.”

Like Florence Karmeh, many graduates of skills-training programmes are sitting on the side of the road peddling doughnuts, fried plantain and grilled bananas. Others complain of boredom and empty pockets. "There has been little attention to simultaneously improving the quality of the labour supply and expanding labour demand," the report says.

''...There has been little attention to simultaneously improving the quality of the labour supply and expanding labour demand...''


Business grants and loans are typically only offered to women who already run profitable businesses. And when everyone is trained in the same discipline, profitability can be hard to maintain.

Market assessments are still "largely absent" from project design, the report notes, citing the case of a tailor who has been employed by four NGO clients in Monrovia to train workshops of women, even though she herself does not make enough money from her tailoring shop to feed her family.

Yet NGOs pay her to train others in the trade.

Case by case

Anna Stone, Gender-based Violence Coordinator at the American Refugee Committee (ARC) in Liberia said working out what is going to get women work needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis.

"Liberian society needs to invest properly in women and to believe that they are capable of filling all kinds of roles,” she said. “Nobody's going to go to a village and teach all 100 men to be mechanics because they'd all be in competition with each other, but that very thing is happening to women,"

Many NGOs issue start-up kits to skills-training graduates, which go some way towards establishing small businesses offering services like soap making, baking, tailoring and hair braiding. But most female beneficiaries struggle to access credit or loan capital once back in Liberia. Many traditional susus [money lending circles] only admit men and often place conditions such as high interest rates on members.

A lot of the women make soap in their homes. “For some women, perhaps that is the best choice because they have several children at home,” Stone said. “But for others who have childcare available, learning to do something different might be a better option. No one i


Photo: Obinna Anyadike/IRIN
A snack seller in Ganta. It is hard for women in Liberia to get together the small amount of money needed to start their own enterprise

s going to give a doughnut-maker a loan to start a franchise, but perhaps they might for someone who wants to make candles or open a shop selling mobile phones."

Making it work

The most successful vocational training programs appear to be those that include a job placement component for graduates.

Teacher training graduates have a high employment rate after course completion. During Liberia's war, the International Rescue Committee trained thousands of Liberian refugees to become teachers. In 2006, 500 of them passed the government teaching exam and are now qualified teachers working in Liberia.

Other skills-training programs with high success rates include those with an agricultural component such as the training of fishermen and rice mill installation, the WCRWC report says.

Nonetheless, some NGOs are sticking to the basic skills model. Earlier this month, one NGO initiated a six-month training module in pastry-making and tailoring for 120 women in the tiny coastal town of Harper, where Liberia meets Cote d'Ivoire. Upon graduating, many of them will probably struggle to find customers.

Although it is rare to see anyone wearing tie-dyed clothing on the streets of Monrovia, NGOs continue to launch programmes training women in the craft. "My only customers are aid workers from Mercy Ships," says Mamie Hunt, who runs a clothing stall selling tie-dyed dresses in one of Monrovia's markets.

Skills training programmes are designed to empower women, but NGOs risk alienating beneficiaries unless they branch out," said Stone from ARC. "Skills training is not about finding quick-fix solutions.”

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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