Story by Monique John.
In 2013, Wilhelmina Myeonway Cooper did something few Liberian women manage to do – she launched her own business.
Passionate about fashion, Wilhelmina realized that she could work with local bag makers and artists to get them to customize bags for clients. She came up with the idea after observing bag sellers at Waterside Market in Liberia’s famous slum, West Point. And so Myeonway Designs was born.
But there was one major problem: Wilhelmina couldn’t afford to have a shop where customers could buy her bags. So in 2015, she opened the Monrovia African Pop Up Shop. The “shop” is an ongoing exhibition at which small business owners gather to showcase and sell their merchandise at Monrovia’s entertainment hotspots.
“It started out as a social enterprise where I could get local market people and small business people to sell their products for free,” Wilhelmina says. The shop has continuously grown over time: Nine vendors took part in the first exhibition and 30 in the second. At the third, in December 2017, 50 businesses were there to sell their products.
Wilhelmina’s success as a woman leading her own businesses is remarkable considering the economic, educational, and reproductive health challenges that burden Liberia’s female population. The country’s workforce and education system were devastated by the compounded effects of 14 years of civil conflict, as well as the school shutdowns during the Ebola crisis. As a result, Liberia’s development was severely delayed and the country’s instability has only made it harder for women to get ahead.
World Bank data shows that Liberia suffers from an almost 64% poverty rate overall. Only 54% of its women participated in the labor force in 2016. The data also shows a mere 9.2% secondary school completion rate for women, and that just 44% of young women between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate. Issues like early marriage and pregnancy also disproportionately affect Liberian women and girls in comparison to other female populations around the world. In 2016, UNICEF reported that 36% of Liberian girls were married before turning 18, and the United Nations Population Division reports that 107 out of every 1,000 teen girls in Liberia had a child in 2015.
Despite these factors around her, Wilhelmina has dreams of formalizing the Pop Up Shop into a larger business. Her goal is to expand the enterprise with the help of sponsors and banks. She also said she wants her enterprise to travel to other African countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda. Still, finances are her biggest struggle, as banks deem her business as being too small and high risk to lend money to.
There are a host of other problems Wilhelmina is fighting against to keep her businesses thriving. She has trouble shipping her bags to international clients so she has to pay people who happen to be traveling from Liberia to carry the merchandise by plane and then post them in the respective countries. Wilhelmina also is unable to open a PayPal account from Liberia, so she doesn’t have a way for international customers to pay her online without the added costs that come along with services like Western Union. The Ebola crisis also dealt a major blow in Myeonway Designs’ early days, as she wasn’t able to make any sales during the outbreak.
But Wilhelmina has stayed committed. “I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by amazing women who are really impressive, who want the best for you, and the best for themselves and this country,” Wilhelmina says. “They’ll tell me about different grants, how to apply, what to do. I have people in my corner who are very strategic.”
Wilhelmina is creating a website to give a platform to young female entrepreneurs like Simone Witherspoon, CEO and founder of The Word, a t-shirt brand.
“She’s a very influential person,” Simone says of Wilhelmina. She said their collaboration has taught her to be more open-minded and made her demand more from herself as a leader. “She has so much work ethic…[W]orking with her requires you being punctual. It requires you being precise, and thinking beyond what a regular customer would want.”
Leah Seya Stubblefield, the owner of the African clothing line Stubbs Fabrics and Accessories, said she appreciated Wilhelmina for helping build her confidence. She also credits Wilhelmina for creating a space for Liberia’s entrepreneurs to demonstrate what they have to offer to the public.
“Seeing that she’s able to make things in Liberia, I see it’s an inspiration,” Leah says. “If we had more people like her, we’d go far in this country.”
In the coming months, Wilhelmina will be working with Business Start-Up Center Monrovia (BSC Monrovia), a local NGO that supports Liberian startups through fostering job creation and poverty alleviation, to bolster her future business efforts. BSC was created as a partnership between a local association of Liberian universities and SPARK, an international organization that creates access to higher education and facilitates entrepreneurial ventures by promising, energetic youths in underdeveloped countries.
“If I was being inspired by money, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Wilhelmina says. “Certain times I create so that something I create represents my country. I’m inspired by making things, my most favorite thing to do in the world.”