When Barkue Tubman decided to return to her birthplace, Liberia, in 2006 to set up her PR and event management firm, she knew it would be challenging. But nothing could have prepared her for the whirlwind decade that followed. After all, Monrovia is no New York.
Tubman was exiled from Liberia as a young child. She is the granddaughter of William Tubman, who was the president of Liberia from 1944 until his death in 1971. He was succeeded by the vice president William Tolbert Jr, who was assassinated in 1980 during a military coup. It was here that Tubman, who was just starting primary school, was forced to flee the country with her family.
She grew up in the US, studying at the United Nations International School in New York and The Hun School of Princeton, before attending Elon University in North Carolina. And in the 1990s she pursued her interests in the entertainment industry, working in the promotion and management of prominent artists such as Usher, Queen Latifah, Macy Gray and Outkast.
In 1999 she used her artist management industry experience to launch her own company, Miss Boss Lady Entertainment (MBL). According to Tubman, the name is a reference to her Liberian roots, although at the time she had no intention of returning to the country. “In Liberia… the head of the household or a woman leader is often referred to as a ‘boss lady’,” she explained.
Tubman often visited family in Liberia, including her mother. But when her mother suffered a stroke around the mid-2000s, the idea of returning to her home country on a permanent basis started to take root.
“So that was the first thing that happened that got me thinking about how I can structure my life to spend more time with my family in Liberia – specifically my mother… It was just an eye opener that you can’t take things for granted and you have to start looking at what is really important in life, which is first and foremost always family.”
But it was the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President of Liberia in 2005 that made Tubman look at the country with new eyes. Sirleaf, a respected politician who served as Minister of Finance under President William Tolbert before the coup, is Africa’s first elected woman head of state.
“I visited Liberia right after she had been elected… There was this major sense of hope amongst the people of Liberia, and also this excitement to see a female head of state.”
It was the final push Tubman needed. Soon after she officially relocated to Liberia and expanded Miss Boss Lady Entertainment International to the country. Today the marketing company mostly works with clients in Liberia and the US, with some in other West African countries. Clients include the Office of the President of Liberia, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, United Bank of Africa and the National Oil Company of Liberia.
Liberia a blank canvas
A major attraction for setting up shop in Liberia in the mid-2000s was the business opportunities. “As I spent time here I recognised there was so much need for everything. It was like a blank canvas,” recalled Tubman.
“And as an entrepreneur you can actually do whatever you want. You can create industries and build whatever you want in an environment like this.”
In the public relations, marketing, event planning and brand-building space, there was virtually no local industry. This allowed Tubman to be a first-mover and lead the way with MBL, but also presented challenges. For example, unlike New York, most local companies and organisations had not yet woken up to the benefits of public relations services.
“I think the biggest challenge was people not really understanding the value of the service that I was trying to offer.”
She added that for many clients, marketing was simply about putting up billboards and she had to spend time educating clients on PR strategies.
“And the interesting thing is if you go next door to Ghana or Nigeria, there is a major value for this service – for branding and things like that. So I am hoping that within the next five to 10 years, when hopefully the economy and private sector becomes very vibrant, people will understand the need for, what I call, the creative industry.”
One of the reasons why Liberia’s marketing industry hasn’t blossomed like it has in Nigeria and Ghana is due to its smaller consumer population, noted Tubman. According to the World Bank, the country’s population sits at just over four million people, compared to Nigeria’s 170 million and Ghana’s 26 million.
“There are also not that many people or businesses that can actually afford this type of service, although they want it… That is also why I felt it necessary to continue to make sure that I continued to work in the US because we are in such a small market here.”
However, Tubman believes the marketing industry will grow alongside the private sector. “I honestly believe this will be the case, but we have to work as a country to encourage more private sector investors to come in.”
Advice to returning diaspora
While Tubman believes the ease of doing business in Liberia is improving, she noted that it is still very challenging.
“I did not realise the challenges that would come with being an entrepreneur in a developing country, as I had spent all this time in the US. So needless to say, I changed strategies several times to end up where I am right now, with the company that I have, in the position that it is in at the moment.”
Her advice to returning diaspora is to not only spend time trying to understanding the business environment, but also the people who have survived through the past political conflicts and the current, everyday challenges. “Come with an open mind,” she emphasised.
She added that Liberia also forces entrepreneurs to be innovative because, unlike developed markets, business people do not have everything they need easily at their fingertips. “Here you have to be extremely innovative and creative in order to achieve and deliver the level of service that your client would want.”
As the country recovers from last year’s devastating Ebola crisis, Tubman said there are a number of opportunities for entrepreneurs – especially within the tourism sector.
“I feel it’s a much untapped sector that has a major role to play in Liberia’s economic and human capacity development. We have land that is just absolutely beautiful… and areas that are absolutely gorgeous for eco-tourism.”