MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. In all the coverage of Darfur, the woman's voice has often been missing. A new memoir aims to remedy that. We speak to the author in just a few minutes.
But first, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf held a press conference yesterday announcing another initiative aimed at rebuilding her war-torn country after years of civil war destroyed its infrastructure. It's a plan that involves frequent flyer miles. Beginning next June, Delta Air Lines will provide direct service between Atlanta and the Liberian capital of Monrovia. At President John-Sirleaf's side at that press conference was African-American business leader Bob Johnson. He's the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television. He now heads the RLJ companies. Johnson has been a strong advocate for investment and economic development efforts in Africa in general and Liberia in particular. He's with us now by phone. Welcome back to the program, Mr. Johnson. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. BOB JOHNSON (Co-founder, Black Entertainment Television; Founder, RLJ Companies): Michel, thank you. Delighted to be here.
MARTIN: Let's talk about this new air service. I'd like to ask why it's important to be able to go from the U.S. to Liberia on a direct flight and how did the deal come about?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, Michel, you know that commerce between nations and travel between business people and families and tourists is much better when there's direct, non-stop flights between the two destinations. And so with Delta going directly to Monrovia from Atlanta, it means the whole U.S. Diaspora, not only of Liberian ex-pats but also African-Americans who have strong cultural ties to Liberia can now go direct to Monrovia via Delta. That will, I think, create stronger binds and ties between the U.S. and Liberia and at the same time give a big, big boost to the Liberian economy, and that's why these flights are so important.
Instead of flying all the way to Europe and then down to Liberia, African-Americans and business leaders and non-government organizations, international organizations, as well as the Liberian executives in the government can come back and forth in a straight, eight-hour flight, non-stop to Monrovia.
MARTIN: How did the deal come about?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the deal came about for couple of reasons. One, I give my - I take my hat off to Delta. Delta's been one of the only carriers flying into West Africa for a long time, and I think Delta recognizes the economic potential of flights between the U.S. and the African continent. And so they've been aggressively pursuing routes into West Africa. They've been flying to (unintelligible) for some time. They've been flying up north to Senegal. And so I think they looked at Liberia as ready to take on Delta flights.
But prior to that, Ambassador Andrew Young, who served on a Delta board, he was preaching the idea of flying into Africa, of course. And then former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who went with me to Monrovia on my first sort of mission to Liberia, was also advocating the flight, so I think it was a combination of those things. And then I met with the CEO of Delta and talked about my involvement in Liberia, the things that I'm doing, building a hotel and investing with entrepreneurs. I think it was a confluence of all those things that made it happen. But again, Delta recognizes the economic benefit of flying into emerging African nations that represent an economic opportunity.
MARTIN: You mentioned that you're building a hotel there, and I want to mention that you were on this program about a year ago talking about your efforts to try to increase U.S. investment in Liberia. I want to play a short clip from that interview.
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. JOHNSON: We've done that. We raised $30 million in partnership with OPIC, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the African Development Fund.
MARTIN: And what's that money for?
Mr. JOHNSON: That money is targeted to Liberian entrepreneurs to help them start small businesses that will employ people as quickly as possible and give people hope that they can repair their country.
MARTIN: Now of course, you reminded us at the time that there are historic ties between the U.S. and Liberia. They go back to 1822. Liberia is a country founded by former enslaved African-Americans who went back. And there's been, you know, there's a long history. There's periods of stability followed by the long and sort of devastating civil war.
But is this a harder sell now? The headlines are all about worldwide economic turmoil. Yesterday the U.S. stock market touched a five-year low. Is it a harder sell now that so many of the European and the American economies are in such difficulty? Mr. Johnson?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. I - I was listening. I figured I was probably still on tape. Sorry. But it's a harder sell in the sense that the whole global financial system is in tougher shape. But you know, Michel, one of the things that I find is that when it becomes more difficult to make money in your normal commercial lane, some people look for the higher returns, albeit a little bit higher risk, by going into emerging nations. And so I think that as a result of what Delta is doing, (unintelligible), for example, is over in Liberia as we speak, looking at redeveloping the entire airfield at Roberts Field to make it obviously more attractive for flights to come in, but also to do some development in and around the five acres or the 500 acres or more of land next to the airfield. So you know, you're thinking industrial park, office park, hotels, other kinds of businesses, bonded warehouses and the like.
So you know, emerging nations offer returns that many other countries don't offer during an economic downturn. I think, for example, our hotel is going to do exceedingly well because there's very little hotel-room capacity in the entire country. So if you're making an investment right now in Liberia and Monrovia as opposed to building another hotel, say, in downtown New York, could represent for us an economic return that could be significantly greater than if we were to go into a market like New York or other places where the economy is taking a strong hit because of this current situation in the U.S.
MARTIN: Have you seen any impact of this credit crisis on the projects that you have planned?
Mr. JOHNSON: Not at all. Again, mainly because we're partners with OPIC, and OPIC's charter is to invest into developing nations, and they have capital set aside for specifically that purpose, and they look for equity investors who are willing to put up their capital in front of the additional capital they bring in.
So recently, Michel, we just announced a hundred-million-dollar protocol with OPIC to invest in housing in Liberia. We will raise 30 million of equity. They will provide $70 million of additional financing, equity financing, and then we can lever that up with additional debt to begin to build housing in Liberia. And I think with over 200,000 Liberians still living in the U.S. who came over here after the Civil War, many who were here before then, they may be looking to return home or they may be looking to build housing for their family.
So we think that the opportunity right now for investment in Liberia is getting better and better every day under President Sirleaf's inspirational leadership, her commitment to an economy that's transparent, an economy where there's no corruption, government has no corruption, and a people who are committed to making Liberia sort of a gateway to West Africa, much the way Ghana has become, and also a nation that's committed to building stronger ties to the United States.
MARTIN: Well, will you keep us posted on your efforts?
Mr. JOHNSON: I certainly will. And I just want to thank you for always giving me a chance to talk about it. It's sort of become my passion and something that I believe in, and we should talk again in March when President Sirleaf has planned an International Women's Conference in March that will take place at our new hotel that will open up at that time.
MARTIN: We will count on it. Bob Johnson is the co-founder of BET, the founder and chairman of RLJ Companies. He's also the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. He joined us by phone from his office. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.
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