During the period of political unrest and the bloody, 14-year civil war that rocked Liberia, many Liberians left their country. Many moved to the United States, Europe or neighboring countries in West Africa. However, after the country’s political climate stabilized following the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005, they returned to their native country. Many said they had longed for years to return, others contend that moving back was a snap decision. But they all speak of the fertile opportunity that exists in business in Liberia and the warmth of the people in their country as factors in deciding to return. In part one of a seven-part series on going back home, BET.com reporter Jonathan P. Hicks talked to Karton Zawolo about his return.
For years, Karton Zawolo managed one of the most successful nightclubs in Houston. However, when the recession hit, people gradually spent less and less money on entertainment experiences, like nightclubs. As a result Zawolo’s business began to struggle.
By this time his father, a former minister of the country’s office of Lands and Mines, had moved back to Liberia, after years in England and in the United States. He encouraged his son to return to the country that had played such a significant role in his formative years.
Still, Zawolo was not convinced. The downturn in business has made returning to Liberia attractive, but he wanted a plan that would assure him economic success. He had previously done promotion work in the entertainment industry, working with some of the giants in that field. Yet, he thought about his nightclub business in Houston.
“I remembered that, no matter how our business was, the people who always made money were the parking lot operators,” he said. “They always did well.”
With that in mind, he began traveling back and forth between Houston and Monrovia. Eventually, he was able to secure a three-month trial run as the first operator of Liberia’s downtown parking business. With that contract in hand, he finally moved back to Liberia a year ago.
With downtown’s incessantly snarling traffic and no parking meters, Zawolo took advantage of a ripe opportunity. He started a business in which he placed parking attendants throughout Monrovia’s busiest downtown thoroughfares. The program was so successful that he secured a six-year contract from the mayor of Monrovia. His company, City Parking Management, now employs 300 workers, all of them young people who are students or recent graduates of Liberia’s colleges. The company employs young people to collect funds and give receipts to drivers parking in downtown Monrovia, acting as human parking meters.
That was just the beginning. He moved from there to constructing bus shelters in central Monrovia, replacing the older unsightly brick structure with sleek steel structures, most with solar lighting — and advertising from Liberia’s largest companies. So far, he has constructed about 30 of the bus shelters, with the intention of reaching about 100 within a year.
He said he is now thrilled he made the decision to move back. “I’m absolutely glad I came because there is so much potential. There is so much I can do here to make a difference.”
Previously in this series:
Part One: Coming Home: Barkue Tubman
Part Two: Coming Home: Musa Shannon
Part Three: Coming Home: Mary Broh
Part Four: Coming Home: Hesta Baker Pearson
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(Photo: Jonathan P. Hicks/BET)