These T-Shirts Fight Ebola

A Liberian-American apparel manufacturer is battling Ebola’s aftermath with a T-shirt company that provides the littlest survivors with a key to education: school uniforms.

When the first few cases of Ebola were discovered in rural areas of Liberia last March, Chid Liberty wasn’t remotely worried.

Born in Liberia, Liberty left for Germany as an infant when his father was appointed Liberia’s ambassador there. When civil war later engulfed his country, lasting 14 brutal years, his family sought refuge in America. In 2010, Liberty returned to his homeland and co-founded Liberty & Justice, the first fair trade-certified apparel manufacturer in Africa.

Living between New York and Monrovia at the time of the outbreak, the Liberian-American social entrepreneur was eventually forced to shut production down in his Monrovia factory to ensure the health of his workers. He assumed it would be closed for a few weeks, at most. But then cases began spiking and the Liberian government declared a state of emergency.

For Liberty, the news was devastating—not just for his company, but for those in Liberia whom it supported. His 303 workers (the vast majority of whom are female) own a 49 percent stake in his factory. Suddenly their livelihoods, and the wellbeing of their families, were at risk.

The odds, much like those for the country as a whole, were grim. Liberty & Justice was unable to complete its orders and was quickly losing millions of dollars in revenue. As the disease raged on, Liberty tried to support his workers with small cash stipends, food, and medicine—efforts he knew would be unsustainable long-term.

Liberty, who had left the country in July, watched from afar as what first appeared to be a mild outbreak turned into an unprecedented epidemic, taking the lives of nearly 5,000 of his countrymen. While none of Liberty’s staff was infected, the enterprise he’d created was on the verge of collapse. His company wasn’t the only one. According to a January report from The World Bank, full-year growth in Liberia declined significantly in 2014. Overall Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea—the three most affected countries—lost over half a billion dollars in one year.

“We were in danger of going out of business and we were in danger of not really knowing if and when we’d ever be able to operate our business again,” Liberty said on a recent spring afternoon in New York City.

But early last month, when the World Health Organization declared Liberia to be Ebola-free, the country seemed to be turning the page. Liberty, like his home nation, is also staging a comeback—this one, with school uniforms.

Using about $200,000 in goods lying on his factory floor—fabric, zippers and the like—Liberty’s company will manufacture luxury T-shirts and school uniforms. For each T-shirt sold, he will donate one uniform to a Liberian child in need. Ultimately Liberty hopes to donate 50,000 uniforms by year’s end.

This new brand, aptly called Uniform, launched a Kickstarter campaign this week to pre-sell the shirts. Just hours after posting on Monday, they had reached more than 50 percent of their goal.

But there is a larger effort at play here too. Although the Liberian government has relaxed its policies for the remainder of this academic year, normally uniforms are required in public schools. Like in many other parts of the developing world, without one, a child can be sent home. If such rules alone don’t prevent children from attending class, the social stigma of not being able to afford a uniform often does instead. With his new brand, Liberty hopes to eradicate this school uniform problem, not only in Liberia, but eventually across Africa and the developing world as well.

Liberty, the CEO of Uniform and Liberty & Justice, has dubbed his new business the “one-for-one remix.” Unlike some similar models where the donated goods are imported from elsewhere, providing charity and little else, Uniform will provide both jobs and tax dollars to a country that’s still reeling from the shock of an epidemic. By manufacturing and giving all locally—thus stimulating economic growth while simultaneously providing a social good—his company is poised to help Liberia make a turnaround.

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“It’s making a remarkable impact on the world,” said Liberty. “Instead of factories falling down on themselves making our product, we are lifting entire communities and an entire generation.”

For Annie Blamo, a machine operator in the Liberty & Justice factory, the impact is personal. Just last week her 14-year-old son came bounding home from school, consumed with excitement. He had just received a new school uniform, one his mother very well may have made. Blamo didn’t know the donations would happen that day and was thrilled by the surprise.

“As a mother it makes me very happy,” she said by phone from Monrovia. “And as a sewing machine operator I know that I am making the uniforms for lots of other schools and I am very, very proud of our work.”

Her son was among the first 1,500 students, all from the Nathaniel Varney Massaquoi Elementary and Junior High School, to receive a Liberty & Justice-made uniform. Located within the impoverished township of West Point, which was quarantined during the outbreak, the school was used as a temporary holding ward for the sick. Residents raided the building, thinking Ebola was a hoax. It required extensive cleaning and renovations, and children only returned to school there last month. Most other schools re-opened in February or March.

Florence Johnson, director of corporate social responsibility for Liberty & Justice, has gone by taxi and by foot to about 100 schools in Monrovia so far collecting thousands of names of children who need uniforms. She was at the Massaquoi school when the students received their new clothes. As word of the delivery spread, children’s attention in class waned, she said. All they wanted was their new uniform.

Exact figures are difficult to determine, but according to the United Nations and Liberian Ministry of Education, there are about 800,000 children enrolled in grades 1-9 in Liberia. Yet UNICEF has reported that net enrollment in primary school hovers only around 40 percent. Attendance rates are even lower. All told, the vast majority of Liberian children are not in school, even though it’s free until 10th grade.

While there are many reasons children don’t go to school in the developing world even when there are no school fees, sometimes the ancillary costs for things like books, pens, lunch, and uniforms are too much for families to afford. Thus a free school uniform can have a significant impact on a child’s access to education.

According to a forthcoming study conducted in Kenya by economists from the World Bank, and Harvard and Tufts universities, the provision of a donated school uniform for three years reduced school absenteeism by 32 percent for the average student and by 53 percent for children who initially had no uniform. Another study found that having a free uniform even contributed to reducing teen pregnancy rates because it enabled girls to stay in school.

The long-term implications, however, are less clear. While noting that the estimates are imprecise, the authors of the Kenyan study found no evidence eight years after the program began that the initial donation continued to positively affect a child’s attendance.

Still, several educators and advocates agreed that many children in the developing world need school uniforms and they are a relatively easy way to improve access to education.

By end of the first day on Kickstarter, Uniform had reached its goal of raising $50,000. It’s a promising start. For Liberty it means he’s on his way toward outfitting schoolchildren with their uniforms, a group he is certain includes Liberia’s “future leaders.” For Liberia, it means progress.

Sean Ansett, founder and CEO of At Stake Advisors and the board chair of Liberty & Justice, said a successful campaign sends a clear message to the world: “Liberia is back in business.”