Lebanese in west AfricaFar from home
LEBANESE businessmen in west Africa like to tell how in the 19th century their forefathers arrived by accident, disembarking from ships en route to South America. Making money there is no easy feat and few would come by choice, they say. The sweltering corner of the continent is marked by instability—most recently in Côte d'Ivoire—feeble infrastructure and rampant corruption.
But 250,000-odd Lebanese who live there—the largest non-African group in the region—are faring well. Since a second influx during the Lebanese civil war, their interests have expanded beyond small trading outlets. Today many oversee vast business empires involved in construction, telecommunications and industry which dominate import-export. Some have sidelines in diamond smuggling too.
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Ezzad Eid, a businessman and community leader in Liberia, home to around 4,000 Lebanese, sits in his glassy office in Monrovia sipping Rim water, one of many imports from his home country. His businesses—which include a chain of hardware stores, an aluminium factory and a plush hotel—turn over millions of dollars a year in a country where the government's annual budget is just $369m. Mr Ezzad claims that 60% of Liberia's economy is in Lebanese hands. His boast is probably too high—no accurate figures are available—but it certainly a sizeable chunk.
Those in business say several factors have helped them to succeed. Most crucial are trade networks among the Lebanese diaspora and beyond, says Abdallah Shehny whose office-equipment business spans Sierra Leone, Liberia and Dubai. Contacts in countries Brazil to China—little trade is done with other African countries due to costs of overcoming poor infrastructure—are important for trade. But they also act as substitutes for the lack of local services such as access to finance. Family workers bring down costs.
Thousands Lebanese fled Liberia's long civil war; those who stayed found plenty of opportunities for reconstruction. Many educated and well-off Liberians also left. But competition from businessmen from India and China is now growing.
Flexible responses to the changing political and economical situation has been key to the diaspora's success, according to Mara Leichtman, an American academic who studies the Lebanese in Senegal.
Easy relations with the political elites and the money to pay bribes also help. Liberia's Lebanese are unable to buy property and are banned from 26 industries, but simultaneous patronage by officials is common. "I budget for bribes," admits a Lebanese restaurateur. "Anyone wanting to do business here does."
Widely visible success has fuelled local resentment. Protests over pay and job conditions in Lebanese-run companies occur. "The Lebanese mainly trade, sending money out of the country rather than investing," grumbles Sam Mitchell, the head of the Liberian Business Association. Others accuse the community of leaving little room for local businesses and collaborating to drive them out of the market.
New Lebanese immigrants are unlikely to be deterred. Business is booming. As one businessman puts it: "Anywhere is easier to make money than Lebanon."