Liberia: the importance of roads

A comparatively good stretch of the road.

A comparatively good stretch of the road to Buutuo.

If, like me, you like playing computer games like “Civilization” or board games like “Settlers of Catan”, then one of the first things you learn is, that you need to build roads if you want to be successful. Why that is so important in the real world and what happens if you don’t have adequate roads, is something that can be seen in Liberia.

In Liberia a lot of roads are so bad that only motorbikes and the rare, big four-wheel drives can use them. This obviously means that it’s a lot harder to get things to the communities and that travelling to and fro takes much longer. However, before I got here I never really appreciated that having a road or not has a direct impact on what kind of future people have.

Cutting branches and trees to make space for the trucks

Sometimes you literally have to hack your way through.

Where is the food?

One of the things that has confused me since I arrived was that while there are plenty of farms and while you can see fruits and vegetables in many villages, the markets in the towns are depressingly empty and it can be really difficult to find food, even if you have money. The reason for this was explained to me in a small village in the west of Nimba County, close to Buutuo.

Their problem, the villagers said, is that they are pretty much confined to a life of subsistence farming. Because the roads are so bad, they cannot bring any produce to the market. What they don’t eat spoils. This also explains why I always see the same things on the markets, for example peppers, spices, garlic, boiled eggs – all things that are comparatively lightweight and don’t break  easily.


Bridge before Toweh Town

If you think the roads are bad, you should hear how some of these bridges creak!

However, the implications are much bigger than a limited choice of meals to put on the table. Because (almost) everything the farmers produce in excess of their own needs rots, they cannot start to save money or assets and without savings they never have the means to improve their own situation. In addition they cannot benefit from any improvements in efficiency because the additional produce would just be wasted. They are literally stuck.

Of course a lot of villages have “road committees” which are responsible for maintaining the roads. However, without the right equipment, diggers and earth compactors all they can do is keep the weeds from growing on the track that is their lifeline.


  • hilary Chambers

    Good Point well made Timo. Commercial companies from the big wide world could do a lot for these guys by physically inproving the countries infrastructure. Perhaps a campaign for Dont give money – build a road – should be started.

    • Not surprisingly the best roads in Liberia are those, where there are strong commercial interests. The road from Monrovia to Sanniquellie and beyond to the north is actually really good. Why? Because there is iron ore in the mountains and the mining company needs the road to be in good shape. So they are fixing it and you can see progress week by week. There is even talk of plans to pave it – now, that would be crazy! But of course most villages don't have rich iron ore deposits :-(.

      I experienced something similar, years ago, when I was in a country which was producing a lot of opium. while the roads were generally not great, I suddenly came to an area where the roads were excellent – they even had two paved lanes! Flabbergasted I asked why that was the case and was told that it basically really sucks, if you have a whole truck full of opium that gets stuck in the mud. So the drug lords improved the roads from where the poppy was grown to the border. Again, there was a commercial interest to get it done.

  • I whole-heartedly agree. I just wrote something similar here:… I've often wondered why this is not a higher priority.

    • Nice post – and delivered much more elegantly than mine.

      I think the main reason is that roads aren't very "cute". Photos of, alternatively, starving babies or laughing children gobbling down fresh, clean water are much easier to sell. I'm not saying it can't be done but it's a much harder sell.