Friday, March 23, 2012

Robertsport Community Works Annual Report 2011

Hello to our readers after a long blogging silence. Now that we've handed our projects over to the Robertsport community, we no longer post the project's income and expenditures online as we have done in the past. It is our hope that Internet access in Robertsport increases so that we can have our project leaders sharing this and other project details in the future.

For now, here is our 2011 Annual Report. It's rather long, but it's here in its entirety. Please feel free to email me ( if you'd like to get involved!


After more than two and a half years working with the Uptown community in Robertsport, we are celebrating the handover of our projects to our local stakeholders, mobilizing partnerships to advance our principles, and taking stock of what worked and what didn't in our community-based endeavors.

We founded Robertsport Community Works with the intention of equipping a community to better advocate for themselves and respond positively to the changes that tourism can bring to an area. Over the years that we worked there, we saw Robertsport gain an increasing amount of international and national press, particularly for its surfing, and saw the number of visitors increase and start to make an economic impact on the community. 

We focused our work with the community on projects jointly identified during initial community consultations and sought to create sustainable income-generating opportunities from these projects, detailed below. But more than starting projects, we wanted to instill and mentor the self-reliance and initiative that comes from working as part of a community. In all our work with the people of Uptown, we sought to improve their self-efficacy and business and interpersonal skills, so that no matter what path they chose in the future, they could be more resourced members of their communities.

The successes, challenges, and lessons learned of our joint undertakings are detailed below. We share them in a spirit of celebration for all that we have achieved together and all that we know the people of Uptown will continue to achieve. We hope that our work will inform and inspire others on a similar path, who want to use their free time to give back to the communities in which they live and surf. 

For Robertsport Community Works, short-term capacity building projects have given way to longer-term partnerships, and though our work will continue, it will be mostly in the form of networking and connecting the Robertsport community to others similarly inspired to share their expertise and professional experience with a rural Liberian community. We are thrilled at the success of what we have attempted, grateful for the warm welcome and participation of the Uptown community, and made wiser and more effective change agents by the experience. 

Thanks for sharing the journey,

Elie and Nathaniel Calhoun
Directors, RCW

Vocational development

Mama Liberia Sewing Co-op

This was one of our first projects, started organically when Elie was learning about women's needs in the community around Uptown. At first, women were very reluctant to join the Co-op, as they said it wasn't going to work and that Elie was going to make the women work without paying or treating them well. We found this assumption of unfair labor practices and relationships quite interesting to note, but this was the only project those beliefs came into play on.   

Starting with three women hand-sewing bags, the Co-op quickly grew to a core of five, then ten, then 15. We received a grant from the US Ambassador's Self-Help Fund to create a website ( and standardize business practices, as well as increase the women's group communication and facilitation skills. However, we found that learning retention of the group as a whole was very low and so was literacy and numeracy. Women depend on the literate members of the group to perform basic arithmetic and follow sewing patterns and standard measurements for beach bags, yoga mat bags and patchwork duvet covers.

We found group interactions to be the most challenging thing to mentor for this project, as the 15 women come from very different backgrounds and social tensions were quick to flare. To help smooth group relationships, we appointed three of the most senior and capable women as Team Leaders of smaller groups. Each Team Leader is responsible for the women in her group and can replace them with others--if the other team leaders agree. Team Leaders distribute fabric and coordinate large orders, checking the quality of work they produce to ensure it passes a set of five quality standards: size, lapa direction, stitch size, stitching quality, and hemming.

Co-op members self-identify their need for increased education and anticipate the positive effect this will have on their business skills. At the moment, their retail business is being run out of Nana's Lodge in Robertsport, which gives them an easy connect with visitors as this is the most well-known tourist establishment on the beach in Robertsport. Bulk orders, as they come through the website, are coordinated by a short-term project coordinator based in Monrovia, but we hope that as the group’s skills and computer literacy improve, they will be able to take on this role.

Co-op Monitoring and Evaluation

Two-year assessments of the Co-op show that the women prioritize spending on their homes and on the health and education of their families. Interestingly, the women report equitable financial decision-making in their households, which does not appear to have significantly changed as a result of their participation in the Co-op. However, they report that the increased income has helped improve their quality of life and that of their families, and the women report receiving increased respect in the community.

Robertsport Community Campsite     

The land being used for the campsite is owned by a board member of Robertsport Community Works and was used commercially as a campsite for years before RCW took over the project with the goal of community-based ownership and sustainable land management. Intensive staff trainings in the second half of 2009 meant that as of January of 2010, the campsite has been operated by the local community, with RCW playing an increasingly limited mentorship role.

For this project, we worked closely with the son of the Uptown Community Chief, Sam Brown, who is also the head of our Community Board. With his guidance and leadership, we recruited and trained campsite managers to caretake the land and manage the business and security of the site. Guest relations were the most challenging aspect of this, as customer service to foreign guests took a lot of cross-cultural skills and some guests would occasionally become aggressive and belligerent, which was quite intimidating for the team. Nonetheless, with regular support from RCW and Sam, we trained a cadre of men from Uptown to understand and manage the business. Over time, Prince Karneh was promoted to Campsite Manager because of his excellent demeanor with guests and his tireless dedication to improving the campsite. He is currently running the site with another staff member, and the campsite fees of $5 per night go towards both of their salaries, with the surplus funding small improvement projects including benches, kerosene lanterns, a tippy-tap for hand washing, a campsite shower, and the pit latrine.  

Rental of tents donated by a board member has sustained the campsite and supplemented much-needed income to keep the project going over the last few years. As the tents experience exposure to harsh environmental conditions, including very heavy rainfall, we anticipate that over the next few years their wear-and-tear will make them unsuitable for rent. Hopefully by that time, there will be more campsite visitors and surplus income from the campsite can be used to buy more tents--potentially from visiting guests who don’t mind leaving/donating theirs.

A good example of problem-solving at the campsite project is the sharing of the beachfront with picnicking day-trippers. When day-trippers used to arrive, they would use campsite land and present security and privacy issues for paying guests. However, the young men caring for the land adjacent to the campsite were very eager to capitalize on this potential business, so we divided the potential business between paying overnight guests, who would stay at the campsite and on the campsite side, and day-trippers, who would sit at the benches built to the west of the campsite and be asked to tip the caretakers, informally, after their picnic. 

One of the sustainability challenges for the campsite is to keep the level of service up to the standard expected by visiting guests. In particular, the hygiene and durability of the pit latrine, the care of the campsite shower, and the state of the kerosene lanterns and benches need to be regularly assessed, with feedback given to the Campsite Manager on what needs improvement. Although local management is very attentive to improvements, they do not always anticipate what amenities the guests will need and what standard the guests will expect them to be at. Informal mentoring by surfers from the expat community has served this function, and we hope that visitors will continue to input and improve the community-based service.


Community Beach Clean-up

Since September 2009, RCW has run a monthly volunteer beach cleanup with members from the Uptown community. Around 9am on the first Saturday of the month, volunteers assemble and are handed out gardening gloves and empty rice bags, then divided up into teams to pick up marine debris and plastics from Shipwrecks to Fisherman's Point. To date, over 3,000 lbs of plastic have been collected and carried, with the help of Nana's Lodge, to the nearby dump site for consolidation and, it is hoped, eventual recycling.   

In addition to its conservation benefits, the clean-up provides jobs for young men in the Robertsport community who are hired during special events to maintain the cleanliness of the beach. With t-shirts identifying them, their visibility improves awareness of the importance of beach cleanliness, increases their social capital, and gives them experience working for RCW. We have been able to hire and recommend beach clean-up crew workers for other jobs on the campsite or in the Robertsport community.

The success of the clean-up lead to interest from other parts of Robertsport in doing a similar clean-up. However, conversations with the sponsors quickly showed us that they expected us to increase the area of our clean-up without support or volunteer labor from their side. Additionally, moving the clean-up to densely inhabited area of the Robertsport shoreline posed serious public health risks to our volunteers, including exposure to raw sewage and rotting household garbage. Conversely, picking up marine debris and washed-up plastics, as they have been exposed to sunlight and salt water for long periods of time, is not considered dangerous by the public health community.

Other beach clean-up initiatives in Liberia have requested and received our project document, which is based on The Ocean Conservancy documents and shows them how to set up the clean-up and maintain momentum for the initiative. 

Regularly, clean-up crews find medical waste, including syringes and vial bottles, washed up on the beach. When a clean-up member identifies medical waste, a pre-selected volunteer with gloves and a closed box is summoned to collect it. This waste, unlike the rest of the debris, is burned on site at Nana's Lodge. 

The costs for this are $30 per month, to cover a meal post-clean-up for the volunteers to share together. Initially, neighbor Nana's Lodge sponsored this cost and assisted the group with the removal of plastic collected from the beach. After a year, however, funding was difficult to secure from the General Manager there for the meal, although Nana’s continues to assist with trash disposal. With a generous grant from the Soul Surfers Foundation, this project is funded until the end of 2012. 

It is hoped, at that point, that tourism partners based in Robertsport will continue to fund the event, as it has made a substantial and documented improvement to the cleanliness and tourism appeal of the Robertsport beaches.

Sea Turtle Rescue

Species conservation projects demand community-based efforts to be sustainable, and our work on the Sea Turtle Rescue project took over a year before we were ready to begin saving turtles. Modeled after a similar project in Ghana that brings together oceanfront tourism businesses in a conservation alliance, our program sought to return captured sea turtles to the ocean and, when possible, attempt to hatch collected turtle eggs for species reintroduction. 

The Sea Turtle Rescue pilot was run over six months in 2010 and 2011, and showed that with minimal seed funding, a sea turtle rescue project could rescue accidentally-captured sea turtles caught in fishing nets and attract paying tourists for its sustainability.

However, seed funding was not available to continue the project and it is hoped that we can support a similar initiative in the future.


Annual Surf Liberia Contest

Since 2009, RCW has partnered to run the Annual Surf Liberia contest. Ever year, the spectrum of interesting partners increases, as does community involvement in the surf contest. This is a project that is rapidly becoming institutionalized and something we consider sustainable, with the help of our partners, far into the future.

Water Safety

Thanks to a generous multi-year grant by the Soul Surfers Foundation, RCW has been able to lead on a water safety project that supports and trains the newly-incorporated Liberian Lifeguards Association. With 2011 training by Surf Resource Network, the skills and viability of the lifeguards is increasing and moving towards sustainability. We hope, over time, to support a network of trained, paid lifeguards as they help to educate communities about water safety and keep swimmers who enjoy Liberia’s beaches as safe as they can be.

Transparency and Accountability

With the handover of projects to both community leaders and organizational partners, we no longer publish a quarterly budget on the blog. Community leaders have been mentored in the importance of transparency and consensus, and how they manage and communicate about their projects’ income and expenditures is now up to them. As RCW continues its work in the community, any new project income and expenditures will be noted on the website.

Next Steps

  • Transition Network leadership training in Robertsport for community and conservation leaders;
  • Climate change adaptation workshop for coastal Liberia hosted in Robertsport and at campsite;
  • Cotton tree campsite to showcase permaculture design and best practices for climate change adaptation;
  • Continuing partnership with Surf Resource Network,
  • Soul Surfers Foundation and others to advance surfing hand-in-hand with community development.

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch, please email me at:

No comments:

Post a Comment