Sunday, February 27, 2011

Photographs from the 1926-27 Harvard Expedition

All my posts on Harvard last week reminded me that I have never written about the Harvard Expedition to Liberia and the Belgian Congo in 1926-1927. The journey mostly concerned Medicine, Zoology, Ornithology, and Botany, and could be imagined as a classic jungle safari with pith-helmeted professors taking samples and specimens.

The venture resulted in a 2-volume, 1,064 page encyclopedic report, published in 1930, which chronicled the journey and its findings. The African Republic of Liberia and the Belgian Congo: based on the Observations Made and Material Collected During the Harvard African Expedition, 1926-27 (yes, that is the whole title) contains both interesting reports, such as accounts of elephants and even beached whale bones, and also pages and pages of rancid tropical diseases. Forsaken African villagers, crippled with elephantitis or ravaged by other horrors, are chronicled in bleak photographs. Surely this was for the betterment of all in advancing man's conquest of these ailments, but it makes for a rather grotesque document over all, especially if the history of tropical medicine isn't your thing.

Most germane to this blog, however, the beginning of the volume concerning the time in Liberia contains a series of photographic plates of Monrovia in its pre-war splendor. I'll mostly let those speak for themselves below, as they are some of the best documentation of the late-Settler town.

Its not particularly helpful that, for all the scientific exactitude that these scholars brought to their own area of enquiry, they were rather vague in the specific location of each photograph. Its possible to make some educated guesses on some, with the feel of Broad or Benson Streets, and others are more obvious. The first one, above, is clearly from Snapper Hill, although without the lighthouse or the Ducor, it seems quite different. A classicly-shaped palaver hut sits about where the Ducor pool might be now. The view from the harbor, below, gives an excellent sense of the overall prospect of the city.

Several of the plates show quite grand, multi-story mansions, two of the most imposing are labelled the President's Residence (whether a state building or a private house, its not clear) and Monrovia College. The residence looks to be on Broad Street; the college seems to be away from other buildings--perhaps even where the University of Liberia is now? Neither of these exist today.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

By the way, T-shirts are made in Liberia

Amid the debate that heated up in the past two weeks over World Vision's distribution of the NFL's cast-off t-shirts, which fired up keyboards from boutique Aid blogs to the Huffington Post, I felt like I was the only one pointing out that, amidst all the very interesting economic development conjecture about the global garment trade, local vendors, and real consequences, there is actually at least one t-shirt manufacturer in tropical Africa: Monrovia's own Liberian Women's Sewing Project, part of Liberty & Justice and backed in part by Root Capital.

I thought this had been well-exposed during the high-profile story by Christian Purefoy on CNN last August, but in all the blog posts and related comments about this as well as the lesser-known move some time ago by Bono's feel-good couture brand Edun to move its production from Africa to China, there seemed to be a lack of awareness that making garments in sub-Saharan Africa is not purely theoretical.

Purefoy's video report on the sewing project suggests that the company plans to be able to produce millions of t-shirts this year. Aside from whether NFL t-shirts are the type of purchase order they would even care for, and apart from any of the other questions about the true impact of giving t-shirts away, it is worth pointing out again that Liberia is successfully manufacturing garments, right now.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Report from Harvard Business School Africa Business Conference: Post # 3: Infrastructure Panel

Moderator: Elisabeth Koll, Associate Professor, Harvard Business School.


Alain Ebobisse, Global Head, IFC InfraVentures and Chief Investment Officer, IFC

Gavin McGillivray, Director, UK DFID

Chuka Mordi, Director, CBO Capital Partners

Nick Rouse, Managing Director, Frontier Markets Fund

Amadou Wadda, Senior Vice President, Infrastructure, Africa Finance Corporation

The afternoon panel offerings at the Harvard Africa Conference featured a number of compelling options, and as in the morning, it was a tough choice. I ended up attending the Infrastructure-track panel: The $1.0 Trillion Africa Infrastructure Opportunity. For who can pass up a $1 trillion opportunity?!

This was a large panel, a mixed representation of donor funded agencies and private sector executives. This seasoned contingent fostered a fascinating and at times oppositional conversation--especially given the presence of Alain Ebobisse, senior official of the IFC, and to his left, Gavin McGillivray of UK's DFID, rubbing elbows with the forthright Chuka Mordi, of CBO Capital Partners always polite, but at times dismissive in his frankness on what he sees as fellow panelists' failed models, which drew audible gasps and rounds of nervous laughter from the audience. Such was the case when Mr Mordi jocularly asserted that:

'Multilaterial donor agencies are part of the problem…but not in a bad way…Fundamentally, they mean well, but they are a charity.'

That left more several of his co-panelists looking perplexed--but he was not alone. Mr. McGillivray had started out by narrowly defining the effectiveness of donor agencies and governments, with his initial remarks that:

'Governments are generally bad at spotting opportunity. What can the donor community do? Not much. There are three areas where donors might be able to help: governance, regulations, and planning, and regional projects.'

It seemed left to Mr. Ebibose, to defend the multilaterals' position. He handled this delicately, and proved neither afraid to admit the shortcomings of agencies such as his own World Bank Group, nor to defend a meaningful space for them--dovetailing with Mr. McGillivray's thinking.

Mr. Ebibose was also not reticent to point to a lack of capacity in the private sector, not least being: "there are not enough private developers of infrastructure in Africa," and therefore in turn a real need for groups like the IFC, which come in not only with cash, but with expertise.

Mr. McGillivray readily concurred with this particular lack of talent in both multilateral aid agencies and governments--and pointed out that this is where the IFC has leant meaningful assistance to governments, which has yielded positive results and should be expanded.

Mr. Rouse had several very insightful comments here, too:

Some African governments are just suspicious of the private sector. There are places which have the private sector ethos where we can operate, others not. Kenya is great, he said, but next door Tanzania is not.

A number of unpleasant issues--the elephants in the room of infrastructure investment in Africa--were addressed by members of the panel: the challenges of making a long term play in a high risk region; competition from the Chinese; and the often-times unworkable reality of Public Private Partnership models, especially in an environment of corporate and governmental corruption.

One of Mr. Wadda's most insightful comments was his insight into states' lack of capacity in negotiating effectively in PPP transactions. This leads to breaches of contract terms, reneging on contractual obligations, even cancellation of contracts. This has set a bad track-record for PPPs, discouraged future ventures, further eroded the ability of states to attract investor interest, and caused capital's appetite for such arrangements to flag, and given the entire model a poor reputation.

This was a fascinating revelation. Unfairness does not necessarily result in carpetbagging investors raking in huge profits by taking advantage of inexperienced public counterparts, but instead risks transactional collapse, and in turn a further wariness for such risky, long-term, capital- and capacity- intensive ventures in challenging frontiers.

Mr. Mordi expanded on this--repeating that one cannot separate the financial from the political--and that corruption pervades both arenas. Early on, he put it simply: "you cannot do a deal if the company or the country is run by gangsters." If lack of capacity is a weakness, corruption is the parasite that bleeds infrastructure projects to a premature death. This, he said at the start, was the primary challenge: governance. It is impossible to have a short term outlook when looking at infrastructure, and you need competence for implementation--even if corruption isn't crippling the venture, bad management surely will.

Later on in the question period, Mr. Mordi returned to this issue:

Nigerian banks have a systematic problem: a simple one of corruption, nothing else. Five years ago they didn't have the funds to do big investments, and they still don't have the scale, really, but are getting there. The banks are not going to put out money for longer than the government itself, and are for the time being, sticking to government debt because its safest form of liquidity.

This was one of the more technical moments of the session. Several panelists expressed a desire to move away from local currency transactions, and there was a bit of detailed accounting banter about this.

Lekki Toll Road, Lagos.

There were a few references to specific projects, with frequent mention of Lagos's Lekki Toll Road, with its 15 year tenure, by far the longest of any infrastructure deal in Nigeria; future phases of the massive Inga Hydropower in the DR Congo, and talk of the potential for smaller-scale hydropower in Guinea. Mr Rouse asserted that 200-300mw local stations were the solution to Africa's power problems, revealing it as a strategy, but giving no specific examples.

From this lively, revealing debate, it clear that Africa's problems in developing infrastructure are not just a lack of capacity of the physical plant itself, but the operators, investors, and the local, national and international partners who support these deals. Until investment is not made just in hardware, but in improving the talent pool of government stakeholders, infrastructure proposals destined to remain on the drawing board, a failure not of feasibility and financials but of inability and fraud.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Report from the Harvard Business School Africa Business Conference: Post # 2: 5 Take-aways from the Private Equity Panel

Moderator: Lena Sene, Director at New York-based Deer Isle Capital LLC. Her articles on the "missing middle" from and Huffington Post can be found here.

Yemi Lalude, Founder and Managing Partner, Adlevo Capital Partners, Lagos. Also has Jo'berg office.

Paul Kavuma, Fund Manager and CEO for Nairobi-based Catalyst Principal Partners, reportedly closed first $70m on 24-Dec 2010, and expects US$100m by June 2011. East Africa-focused.

Hurley Doddy, MD, Founding Partner, and Co-CEO of Emerging Capital Partners, based in Washington, D.C., over US$1.8b in the last decade in at least 6 funds, more than 28 investments spread across 40 countries.

At any good conference, it can be painful to decide which sessions to attend, which means missing all the other concurrent discussions. Despite some compelling options, the Private Equity panel was excellent and informative, with three brilliant, veteran African PE panelists and an equally accomplished and knowledgable moderator, all of whom provided revealing, insightful, and at times unexpectedly frank advice on fund-raising, deal-flow and transactions, as well as career advice on ways into the African PE field (general consensus: its a tough go, better off doing something else, like starting a business-see below).

Lesson 1: Africans are buying things-- and not just scratch cards.

It might be a stretch to think of the current investing milieu as PWM-- Post-Walmart, and the deal wasn't as prominently discussed as the Penn Wharton Africa Business Forum in November, which occurred not long after the deal was announced, and Walmart did not come up in the PE session. However, throughout the day speakers, panelists and students were discussing the emerging middle class, and African consumers.

There is unquestionably a rising attention on manufacturing for, marketing to African consumers. Growing demand and incomes are there now to be captured. The reigning trifecta of African investment: Telecoms, Banking, and Extractive Industries-- are not yet deposed, but they are now discussed alongside talk of consumer products, both in general terms and with reference to specific transactions: the day saw mention of a toothpaste company in Dar Es Salaam, a plastics company in Accra, a food processor in Kampala. There was a sense that the low-hanging and near-ripened fruit of telecoms and banking have been picked at this point. There was some talk about agriculture and mining, and power and other infrastructure was given more emphasis (more on this in a later post on the afternoon's infrastructure session). The connectivity conversation was seen throughout the day's panels to be expanding beyond mobile phones to address the wide-open field of fixed-line broadband access, presumably pushed by the coming undersea cables (see also my next post).

Lesson 2: Get on the ground and start a business. Don't look for a job in PE.

As mentioned before, this new focus to the consumer has in turn shifted attention towards local, indigenous entrepreneurship, and the PE panelists put far more emphasis on encouraging entrepreneurship than in recruiting to their own field.

To some degree, this is of course natural. Mr. Doddy of ECP underscored that his firm, with US$1.8billion put to work across six funds over the past decade, employs only 35 full-time investment professionals across the continent, with a full-time global staff of around 50 people. His fellow panelists joked that they didn't need any more competition from any more PE funds, but there is an objective truth in their repeated assertion that what Africa can most use are quality, investment-grade enterprises--and MBA-quality management to run them. All three panelists underscored that one of their biggest challenges was--cue a classic line about working in Africa--a lack of capacity.

The three PE panelists concurred that they'd be happy to invest in a top-tier MBA's venture on the continent, and that the students stood a better chance as enterprises ripe for funding rather than knocking at the doors of low-turnover the dozen or so Africa-focused PE offices, which, as Mr. Doddy reminded the audience, are still boutique by global standards. Mr. Doddy pointed out that ECP's US$600m fund is big for Africa, but small by global standards.There simply isn't enough turn-over to absorb new classes of graduates.

Lesson 3: If PE is not easy, then African PE is really, really not easy.

Beyond the shortage of quality management and entrepreneurs, all three panelists mentioned a wide range of skills and bona fides that they and their colleagues have needed to cultivate for success in such a challenging milieu. On the ground knowledge is key-- as paraphrasing Mr. Lalude, "compared to the due-diligence we conduct in Africa, we do almost no due-diligence in the United States." Feasibility and research are long, complex, and expensive (just consider the airfare bills compared to deals on other continents) Skepticism is the norm here, where trust is more the norm with counterparts elsewhere. All of this takes more time, and costs more money, meaning the team has to be even more efficient than in other markets.

Everyone knows that "You have to have a good team, who gets along together and knows a lot." --but there was some real insight behind this bromide here. Mr. Kavuma made an interesting comment that the most sought-after investment management recruits now possess technical skills and experience in various sectors (emphasizing both in-country experience and work in sectors and enterprises) which helps in evaluating, managing and exiting deals. They report that there is a shift in opinion; its not enough to have a Wall Street internship and blue-chip MBA to be ready for this kind of endeavor.

Deal exists are always an art, and all three panelists concurred with Ms. Sene that exit planning and investor skittishness over liquidity remain challenges, especially at the smaller end of the scale. Mr. Doddy commented that regional expansion is key to getting companies to an appropriate size. Mr. Kavuma underscored that, post-2008, the big-buyout, debt-leveraging model was on ice, with a shift toward sector attractiveness and solid fundamentals--working harder for the pay-off.

Lesson 4: "Pitching Africa"-- its still "one country"

The veteran panelists dealt out other insightful epigrams worthy of passing along, particularly as the conversation turned to, as Mr. Doddy put it, "pitching Africa" to global investors. It was remarkable to hear Mr. Kavuma comment that, despite the high sophistication of his own investors, "most investors continue to think of Africa as one country." Anyone with experience in African knows that has long been the case, of course, but it was interesting to hear that this (mis)conception pervades at the highest-quality levels of investors, and a real shift away from this viewpoint isn't evident.

Its important to view the recent, high profile media spotlights-- the McKinsey report, Walmart, GDP growth, new oil frontiers--all talking about the continent as a whole, perpetuating the bias that it is a single market and investor space-- and introducing new audiences the continent through this prism. There is a truth to this notion, too, as underscored by the common difficult of lack of capacity and infrastructure, human resource talent, the need for regional strategies given the tiny sizes of domestic markets, the not least the still-ubiquitous challenges of corruption and instability. Yet there are more than 50 countries, each demanding its own attention and requiring local knowledge.

Lesson 5: What PE guys really think about "Impact" investing and ESG.

The session's discussion touched briefly on the twin issues of ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance Accountability) issues and Impact investing--and in so doing, showed how the conversation was evolving, and how wide the gap between mainstream investors and so-called patient capital can be.

None of the panelists' firms are specifically mandated to foreground such issues, so their views were especially interesting. While ECP's Doddy was adamant that "anyone looking to attract capital in Africa better have ESG compliance plans in place." --this was framed in the context of attracting a wider pool of capital into funds. In response to an audience question about the nature of ESG marketing to potential Limited Partners, Doddy was rather dismissive of presenting a strategy that profiled charitable aspects over investment returns. As he put it, you don't discuss poverty reduction when you are talking to people about maximizing returns on investment. This got some laughs from the audience.

Then, paraphrasing Mr. Kavuma:

Impact investing is one of my 'pet herrings'. I believe it has good aspirations, but could have negative implications: for Impact investors, if the track record is just a 2% return, or even just a return of principal capital, than [Equity Investors focused on Africa] are not going to have a business; we need to be able to make risk-adjusted, commercially-competitive returns, or else [African investments] will be stuck getting the crumbs off other people's plates. In coming to markets, there is a place for social good, but we need to remain focused on financial returns, if we are going to track capital.

Afterwards, in the typical post-panel student mob, Mr. Kavuma affably expounded upon his viewpoint. He has great respect for the concepts behind impact and socially-responsible investments, but is absolutely adamant that the fundamentals of transactions have to be competitive on the open market. He reports that he has been invited to speak soon at the Aspen Institute on a panel about Impact investing--he presumes he will be the contrarian in the debate. Aside from watching the fascinating evolution of this still-young field of investing, by both its own players and its detractors-- it is very telling that three successful Private Equity CEOs, focussed solely on Africa, closing funds and arranging deals with ESG fundamentals in place, but not adjusting their numbers or marketing their opportunities as "Impact." Another sign that there are multiple "business in Africa" storylines, which are changing rapidly.

Report from Harvard Business School Africa Business Conference. Post #1: New Themes

This past weekend was the 13th annual Africa Business Conference at Harvard Business School-- the world's largest student-run event focussed on Africa, and one of the biggest annual events in the US for African investment. Not only does HBS enjoy an active Africa Business Club and robust African alumni, but the conference increasingly yields a wide net of quality students and professionals. The overall theme was of the conference, Your African Legacy: Defining the Contribution of the Next Generation--demonstrated in both the remarks of the speakers and the eagerness of the students--manifested an evolution in the ways that business in Africa is developing and being understood.

Cleverly, the HBS conference organizes its panels in "tracks" which is very helpful in aligning the day's events along themes--each of the day's three panel sessions had one panel under each track. This year the themes were: the Business of Infrastructure; Entrepreneurship: Starting and Funding and Business; Healthcare; Moving Up the Value Chain; and Opportunities for Technology. In these headings alone, with their emphasis on tech-savvy enterprise-development over big-play investment banking, its possible to detect a shift in tone from the story lines about Africa from even a year ago.

And what a year its been for African business--some would say the most intense media attention that Africa has ever received from the global business community. While attention on Africa has burgeoned over the past decade, the past year was particularly intense. with McKinsey's much-talked-about "Lions on the Move" report, (which was the subject at the conference of an afternoon presentation session), to the paradigm-shifting plays like the Wal-Mart move for Massmart and KFC's aggressive expansion plans--put Africa above the fold of the business section in 2010.

Yet this not a rest-on-laurels atmosphere, and the HBS conference attendees, from seasoned veterans of African business to native-African MBA candidates, are collectively and individually forging ahead. Africa is not due to arrive, or in the process of arriving. The message is clear: Africa is here, and in ways big and small, the tone and content of the Harvard conference reflected this new reality.

I've separated my reports from the day into two further posts, covering each panel session that I attended. First report from the morning's Private Equity Panel.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Review: Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley at the Fowler Museum, UCLA

For anyone who might be closer to Monrovia, California than Monrovia, Liberia between now and late July, I cannot more highly recommend the exhibit Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley on view now at the Fowler Museum at the University of California at Los Angeles. It may be the best exhibit on African art that I have ever had the opportunity to view. Beyond the medium-sized exhibit's incredible assemblage of exquisite masterpieces from dozens of the world's finest collections, the curation itself, with its sleek graphic design, its enlightening text, and especially its multimedia aides, provides an enthralling insight to the history and uses of the beautiful objects displayed in this tremendous show.

The art itself is magnificent. Each display is full of handsome, finely crafted objects from the multicultural Benue River area of Central-Southeastern Nigeria. The exhibit is well-organized to relate the geographic organization of the cultural area, and succinctly conveys the ethnographic hierarchy of the region. The text also commendably discuss both pre-Colonial history as well as frequently referencing how colonial and post-colonial events not only governed the art's creation, but also how the nascent art market itself influenced the production and emergence of the works onto the international stage, as well as its anthropological understanding. This includes frank references of the effects of the Biafran conflict and the questionable provenance into which Benue art in general, and even works in the galleries, came to leave Nigeria.

Introductory Video: Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley from Fowler Museum on Vimeo.

The exhibit presents a comprehensive range of the several types of work that meaningful juxtaposition is achievable, showing a range of variation across villages, periods, and zones. There is just enough art to take it all in, and the strength each piece compels lingering throughout the chambers, but visitors won't be overwhelmed.

Most of the figures and objects are carved from dark wood, and many of the masks are presented complete with flowing curtains of vegetal strands. The freedom to examine these objects at such close range reveals the beauty of West Africa's native plant fibers and timber, particularly in the large display of massive vertical masks, which must have caused the felling of thick-trunked trees. There are also several magnificent metal works in bronze, and beautiful ceramic pieces.

In many of these works, with the help of accompanying placards, these multivalent morphology of these exotic forms can be discerned and more fully enjoyed. Many of the pieces are not only hybrid representations of man, beast or chimera, but also were worn as a ceremonial mask or headdress. The boundary between anthropomorphic elements and animal features, fused with the ornamental agency of a religious costume, manifest the liminal frontier between worlds that their spirits occupy.

Beyond the gorgeous works on display, with their powerful, otherworldly forms and fine craftsmanship, what makes an already excellent show truly captivating are the two screening areas, which show about 15 minutes of video each, ranging from 8mm reels from the 1960s, to handheld videos from 2010. Brilliantly, the Fowler has posted these online as well.

Although they do nothing more remarkable than straightforwardly present short clips of the masquerades in ceremonial use in Benue Valley villages, these loops are strikingly profound. The displayed pieces, crowned atop full ceremonial garb, become animated apparitions, performing a haunted choreography.

These fantastical forms come to life, gyrating and jittering, mingling among festive crowds, facing off as if to battle, whirling, jerking, and collapsing. "Stunning" is a regrettably overused word these days, but these films take the already mesmerizing works of the gallery and evince the spectral dimensions of their spiritual symbolism. In witnessing the rituals of faith performed and transmitted to wary villagers or nervous adolescents, the viewer, in the company of the surrounding art work of the darkened gallery, is initiated into their belief system.

The videos allow the viewer to go back and forth between contemplating the powerful but dormant objects on display, and then return to the screening areas and photos to see the masquerades alive with their complete regalia and in their original milieux. Thoughtfully, the exhibit also provides maps, locating the specific villages in which the clips were filmed. In this and other ways, the curation successfully executes its determination to provide an understanding of the exchanges, translations, and adaptations within and among this anthropological territory.

As immediate as the unique formal and material aspects of the works are, the complexity of the multiple meanings, purposes, and traditions of art--at other times and contexts thoughtlessly unexplored in the presentation and appreciation of "primitive art" --is thoroughly foregrounded as a contextual supplement to the exhibition. In this way the Fowler's exhibit, its rooms arranged with lovely objects, can, after an hour-long visit, graduate an audience not only more knowledgeable of a particular heritage of African art, but also infused with its spirits.

Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley is on now through July 24, 2011 at the Fowler Museum, on the campus of UCLA, off of Sunset Blvd, which is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and does not charge admission.

Ducor Palace Hotel Postcard 1964

Although last week was officially M2M Ducor Hotel week, but I had to put up this latest addition to the Moved 2 Monrovia postcard collection. It was sent in 1964, so it depicts the hotel when it was nearly brand new, and shows how denuded the hill was when the hotel finished.
The back of the postcard is embossed "DUCOR PALACE HOTEL" which is confusing because the Neil Prince memorial website credits him with designing the Ducor in 1962 as part of his worlwide portfolio of properties for Intercontinental Hotels, which was at the time the hospitality arm of Pan American Airways, which was obviously very focussed on Monrovia. But I looked back closely at an earlier M2M post on Pan Am's 1963 World Guide, which recommends the "brand new Ducor Hotel" --so it seems the property was originally called the Ducor Palace, then called the Intercontinental, then back to the Ducor Palace.
Below is a picture I took in 2008, showing how wooded the top of Snapper Hill is now, by contrast.

The postcard was sent to Wadsworth, Ohio, and shows classic ex-pat love for the city:

"This is a fabulous place--beautiful country-- Temp average 70degrees- Rainy season now -- 6 more weeks, then Liberians tell me it get hotto-- everything has an O on the end of words. Ha!"

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Vintage Photos of Broad, Ashmun Streets & Ducor

Continuing with the Ducor Hotel theme this week, celebrating the announcement that the hotel's refurbishment will commence imminently, here are a few Monrovia photographs-postcards, which I'm guessing here taken around 1965 at the latest, with the Ducor looming over Broad and Ashmun Street. I love these photos; they really give a sense of how modern the whole city must have appeared in that golden era decades ago, and how ultramodern the sleek, luxurious Ducor appeared, hovering over the entire city.

One of the main differences between these photographs and a similar view today are the trees: those shading the median strip of Broad Street were uprooted and newly replanted around 2006, and are at present much smaller than the above, with much less canopy; whereas in contrast the summit of Snapper Hill is now forested with a large covering a foliage, which obstructs the view to and from all but the very top of the hotel.

Presumably, a lot of vegetation had to be cleared during construction of the hotel complex, and this took some time to grow back. Given that the hilltop appears freshly denuded in the middle photo, and the Ducor opened in 1962, and also judging by the automobiles, which probably weren't the latest models, I'm putting these photos safely in the Kennedy/Johnson era.

In the bottom photo, The large block at right currently houses the Bureau of Immigration. The top image is of Ashmun Street: at center left the building which is currently the General Accounting Service, part of the Executive Grounds complex, is clearly visible, but the later phases of the Open Door building boom, specifically the blue-tiled Chase Manhattan Plaza (today the Ecobank/Brussels Airlines complex, officially known as the Episcopal Church Plaza) had yet to rise at the corner of Ashmun and Randall Streets. Monrovia is both surprisingly the same as five decades ago, and completely different.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Vintage Ducor Palace Hotel Luggage Label

I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of this old Ducor Palace luggage label, but I have no way to confirm it, either. I bought on eBay a while back, and it just seems fitting to share it this week, celebrating the announcement that the Ducor's refurbishment might be commencing soon.

The illustration itself is interesting, not the least because it shows two buildings, when the Ducor only ever had one (not sure if that was ever the plan-- where would they have fit a second tower?). Maybe its just an artistic device here. The big palm tree is reminiscent of the Ducor Intercontinental's seal, itself modified from the Republic of Liberia's seal. My understanding of the history is that the property was built in 1962 as the Intercontinental by Pan Am, which started the chain, and when IC pulled out around 1980 or so, the hotel became the Ducor Palace. This seems to be confirmed by the homage site to the Ducor's original architect, Neal Prince. To see an original Ducor Intercontinental brochure, here's the link again.

Although not fully faithful to the actual, single-tower structure or the circular porte-cochere, there is a great little detail on this sticker in that the J.J. Roberts monument is included at left. Nice.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Ducor Hotel Redesign to finally commence?

A recent allAfrica article about Qadafi pledging assistance to the Sirleaf administration in handling the inflow of refugees from neighboring Côte D'Ivoire mentioned that Qadafi (or however you prefer to spell his name) also stated his commitment to accelerating the refurbishment of Monrovia's Ducor Hotel. This, along with my last post on the photo artist JR, who installed one of his piece's at the bottom of the Ducor's empty swimming pool, reminded me that although I have talked about the Ducor a good deal, I don't think I have ever posted the 2009 series architectural renderings on the proposed revamp of the hotel. So here they are.

The old Ducor Hotel, which has been vacant for more than twenty years, has attracted a Libyan development concern, the Libyan-African Investment Company, which released these renderings in late 2009. However, the involvement of the Libyans has been in the press since 2008, along with occasional news about a series of meetings/confrontations with disgruntled local residents of the surrounding Rock Hill section of Snapper Hill, many of whom built fairly substantial dwellings around the complex. Although there has been occasional activity at the hulking hilltop structure, it remains basically unoccupied. As a friend of mine stated: "What is going on? The Libyans have been buying that thing for a while now!" I presume that the delicate issue of relocating or compensating the neighborhood has had a lot to do with it, not to mention the murky complications involving the property's status as part of the powerful Episcopal Church's assets.

But in writing this post, I came across this press release giving late February as a start date, and quoting the cost at US$65,000,000. This has processed its way through the Liberian and Diaspora press. Not to sound snarky, for I do hope the job begins soon, but I caution to consider the source.

The Hotel remains an incredible, haunted relic, although there are plenty of loiterers, and there is usually a very friendly UNMIL contingent guarding the site, who I think disallow squatting at this point. It is also one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for Liberia-based ex-pats, with the view from the deserted pool area being almost a stock I'm-in-Liberia photo.

The sleek, five-star interior renders of the refurbished hotel differ widely from their current post-apocalyptic condition, as well as the hotel's golden era under the Intercontinental brand. One of the highlights of a visit to the empty Ducor is the unfailing encounter with some of the old guys who worked in the hotel in its pre-1980 glory-- one of which has a dog-eared copy of the Intercontinental brochure.

For more images of the present and past eras, please check out the M2M architectural tour, and for more beautiful and professional photography of the Ducor in its current dilapidated state, I highly recommend my dear friend Glenna Gordon's Scarlett Lion site, where the Ducor has featured regularly as a prominent character is her fantastic work from her time in Monrovia. Be sure to watch the amazing film piece she made for PRI with Jason Margolis, in which they interview some of the former hotel employees.

In my ever-optimstic attitude, I hope that the Rock Hill residents are happy, the Libyans are ready to employ lots of locals in remaking what is truly a breathtaking spot for a hotel into a property that will once again be the pride of West Africa, and attract lots of people to visit Monrovia.

Note: Renderings were obtained via Liberian Observer, and remain copyright original owner. Second image from top is ©Glenna Gordon, reposted from Scarlett Lion. All other images are original to Moved 2 Monrovia, all rights reserved.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Queen Rania's Twitter Problem

The news is dominated by Egypt, so much so that hardly anyone is talking about Tunisia, which just revolted two weeks ago. There is so much that has already been said and written, and so much that will be debated, analyzed, and put forth in the future, and so much still developing, that I would know where to begin . Furthermore, this isn't a foreign affairs blog, and I'm not an expert in international relations or Egypt, which are not really the topics of this blog.

However, I am something of an expert on Twitter, and this is being called the Twitter Revolution(s), even social media only helped lubricate any already-overboiling engine of discontent. But the ways in which Twitter is changing and even democratizing our globe and global communication is on display in interesting ways these last few weeks. It was interesting to see veteran New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicolas Kristof being mocked for his tweets about Egypt on Monday:

A more startling example of the Twitter Revolution: Queen Rania of Jordan, with her 1.43 million followers. She is a monarch. Her husband King Abdullah was not elected and is the head of state over a country where police brutality, unjustified detention and torture are shockingly common. But she is also a global philanthropy celebrity, despite the problems of her home realm, where between 14% and 30% of Jordanians live in poverty. Look at her Twitter profile, "mum and wife with really cool day job." Oh, its also so light and fun, isn't it?

But, in the middle of January, the Queen sent out a compassionate, au courant tweet about Tunisia:

Suddenly, the twin poles holding up Queen Rania's tent are being ruthlessly collapsed on Twitter. People are being openly rude to her majesty, the Queen.

This is a different situation than international development bloggers wittily sniping at Nick Kristof's tweets, or the lightning-strike outrage at Kenneth Cole's thoughtless, crass self-promotional controversy, in which its plausible to imagine the ploy was calculated in an any-publicity-is-good-publicity maneuver.

Queen Rania's case is different. She is the target of all this activity, completely unable to recast, engage, or co-opt these events. She isn't the champion of the poor, she is the symbol of their angst. That "really cool day job"? Would that be living a life of luxury while around a third of your subjects live in inescapable misery? The next few days and week will continue to amaze the world as the people of the Middle East take control of their destiny. Queen Rania has been mostly silent on Twitter since the 15th, whereas her husband has sacked his cabinet. Let's see if that's enough to satisfy her tweeps, or even an older following: the people.

Tweets by @moved2monrovia