Thursday, 28 August 2014

How does a business cope with an ebola-struck economy?

Contributed by Farzana Rasheed
and
Haresh Karamchandani


It is doubtful guidebooks written by business gurus appearing on the prestigious New York Times bestseller list or a graduate of the Harvard Business School could advise a company on how to handle the deteriorating situation as the likes of which we are now facing in ebola-struck Liberia. Not that we doubt these institutions!  Basic principles apply to business anywhere you operate in any part of the globe but many models and practices applicable to highly developed economies would not apply to fragile ones as in an emerging market such as Liberia.

Experience of the country, practical gut instincts, calm head, firm resolve, a do-as-the-Romans-do approach and a positive attitude are required more than anything else.

Most of last year, 2013, was kind of slow for business to begin with. Many of our clients in the mining and agribusiness sectors had tightened spending since they were transitioning from an exploration phase to trying to acquire mining and full operating licenses.  The public sector too was not spending as it had in the previous couple of fiscal years.

Besides IT services, NATC also regularly participates in public bids and has imported goods for various Liberian government ministries and the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

The deadly epidemic struck Liberia in the first quarter of 2014. It has also hit Sierra Leone and Guinea. The official number of victims killed by this deadly virus are 1,200 but this number is probably much higher.

Ebola first hit Liberia in Lofa Country (close to the border with Guinea) earlier in the year but it was not until people in Monrovia started falling ill with ebola, where at least one-third of the population resides, that the government declared emergency: the porous borders were sealed, non-essential government staff were told to stay at home and even travel restrictions were imposed between the 13 counties.  As the situation stared to deteriorate - the healthcare infrastructure simply could not cope - the government placed one of its the biggest slums under Army-enforced quarantine after an ebola treatment center was attacked by residents. A curfew was also put in place from 9 PM to 6 AM. 

Some international staff of NGOs have been evacuated. Some of NATC's clients are operating with bare essential staff and have halted operations for now. Almost all regional and international flights including British Airways, Air France, Gambia Bird, Arik Air and Kenya Airways have suspended flights to and from Liberia. One of the long-standing carriers to and from Europe, SN Brussels, first announced it had suspended flights but later informed the public it would continue service, to the relief of expatriates, many of them working in NGO and private sectors. It feels as if Liberia itself has been put under quarantine.

Some of our friends who were away on holidays, especially those with children, decided to remain abroad. This includes myself (Farzana, CEO of NATC). The head of operations, Haresh, was away on holiday for almost a month but is back since 17 August. But I wonder how long I can stay away?

Things are extremely uncertain and worrying at the moment. The country has been isolated by the regional and international community by suspending flights and refusing entry to visitors from Liberia despite WHO advice. The containment of West Point, a crowded slum where some of the poorest folks of Liberia live, is creating frustration and fear of riots and chaos. Many shops and businesses remained closed on Wednesday, 20 August when the curfew was announced. 

A view of Randall Street a day after the curfew was announced.
Photo by
Haresh Karamchandani
I heard from a friend lately that Indians who were employed with Indian businesses were trying to leave, too.

News from the media and health NGOs operating in Liberia stressed the inability of Liberia's healthcare system and the limited infrastructure to handle the crisis. Moreover, people suffering from other illnesses or pregnant women could not receive care since hospitals and clinics were already over-stretched. This reality struck hard for NATC since our senior staff, Jonathan Barwon, complained of illness. He was not able to receive any adequate care anywhere. To get decent medical care has always been a nightmare in Liberia but during this crisis, it has become acute.

Jonathan was suffering from the usual typhoid and malaria combination that seems to inflict everyone in Liberia as well as a very bad stomach ulcer, he sought care from local clinics. He was told by the doctor that his blood count was getting low which may be caused due to internal bleeding from the stomach ulcer.  We took  him to Air Med a South African new clinic behind Royal Hotel where for $ 190.00 he was examined and confirmed that he was generally better from the typhoid and malaria treatment but the ulcer needed further medication. He has been going back for regular check ups and seems to be recovering. If the situation gets worse, and since flights are suspended, we would have to evacuate him through Air Med at an expense of more than US$45,000.00 as he does not have any insurance cover. 

Business it self has definitely slowed down. Calls for IT support and requests for supplies have all but dwindled. Many of our clients have drastically down scaled operations. We are still receiving RFQs and public bids though. For instance, the US Embassy put out a huge RFQ (Request for Quote) for printers, toners and office supplies. We have submitted our bid and keeping our fingers crossed. Another RFQ from the Liberia Revenue Authority to link 5 Ministries and Government Agencies via WiMax has been submitted. There are many more RFQ’s from UNMIL and Government Ministries. This will keep us busy, and hopefully we will win a few tenders.

Our colleagues in the private sector are all complaining about bad business. Many of them have traveled out and cannot return due to the flight situation. There seems to be a looming cooking gas shortage on hand, too.

The general environment is not normal. Traffic has reduced considerably. Many shops on Water Street are still shut. The Waterside market has moved up to Ashmun street. It's like a wait and watch situation. Streets are dark and quiet in the evenings. Most businesses close early so their staff can get home before the 9 PM curfew. Banks are over crowded as people are trying to withdraw and keep their cash in their pockets, just in case. 

All offices, banks are observing strict sanitary rules. Everyone has to wash hands and get their temperature checked before entering.

Haresh was walking down the street one evening this week and overheard a group of private security guards complaining about police brutality during the curfew hours.

Businesses who import and stock commodities will make more money as they will hoard and increase prices gradually as the situation deteriorates. Staff are being relieved of their jobs at the slightest opportunity to reduce cost.

In the end, NATC which has worked too hard to try to establish itself as a premier IT Services and Products company. We just have to dig our heels in, remain patient and hope for things to come back to normal. We will continue to provide the best possible IT services and patiently wait for good times which are inevitable.

3 comments:

  1. My best wishes to Johnathan, and to the two of you and the boys at NATC.
    Thanks for posting such a clear description of life in Monrovia these days..
    Better times will come! Luca

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for Luca for your good wishes. This too will pass.

    ReplyDelete