TONY COX, host:
Farai also spoke with one of the high-profile participant at the Liberia Investment Forum. Alexander Cummings is president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola Africa. He oversees the company's operations in Africa with nearly 900 million consumers and 55,000 employees. Mr. Cummings, who was born and raised in Liberia, told Farai he wants to promote business in Africa for both professional and personal reasons.
Mr. ALEXANDER CUMMINGS (President, Coca-Cola Africa): This summit is personal manifestation of the fact that Liberia is literally back in business. That confidence has been and is being restored to the country. And so as a Liberian, as a businessperson, I'm personally gratified for the leadership being provided by the government under Mrs. Sirleaf and for the support we're beginning to see from the international investment committee, particularly the American investment community.
FARAI CHIDEYA: Liberia has a long road ahead. The infrastructure has been so damaged by the wars and the battles there. From what I understand, you have a situation where almost half of the population is under the age of 18. How do you take those kinds of challenges and turn them into business opportunities?
Mr. CUMMINGS: Well I think the devastated infrastructure in Liberia is clearly the opportunity. On the one hand, you could view it as a challenge, which it is. But the opportunity to come in and help to rebuild that infrastructure I think is a tremendous opportunity for business looking to expand in Africa and in Liberia.
I think the relative youth of the population is also an asset for any consumer products firm who is interested in building the brands, interested in shifting the perception of the brand or that company. I think a young population is one of our opportunities to begin to influence and do that. So what may appear to be obstacles on the surface I believe are opportunities. Are they challenges, difficult to get at? Yes. But can they be solved and can business address those opportunities? I believe they can.
CHIDEYA: Tell us a little bit about your childhood. I know that may sound like a strange or random question, but what was Liberia like when you were growing up?
Mr. CUMMINGS: Boy, Liberia was a country that worked. In the context of Africa, it was considered and was very stable, the infrastructure actually worked.
So Liberia was a very different place from what it is today. I think the good news is that we now believe in Liberians, that we have the opportunity to return Liberia to what it once was and actually to take seat where it was 15, 20 years ago. But it was a warm upbringing, one that I cherish and still have fond memories of. But the country is at a very different place from what it was when I grew up.
CHIDEYA: Today, though, there are many signs of hope. The U.S. just cancelled Liberia's $391 million in debt. The World Bank is taking a look at Liberian debt. That could provide an opportunity for the country to get on solid economic footing again. How important are those actions?
Mr. CUMMINGS: It communicates clearly that the United States government and multi-lateral institutions all believe that Liberia is on the right track, that the government is making the right decisions, making the right moves to return Liberia to its nationhood, if you will.
So I think symbolically and tangibly the limitation of the debt by the year's government will free resources. The government is reinvesting infrastructure that's been so destroyed. It makes me very, very and even more optimistic about Liberia's future, given the recent announcements.
CHIDEYA: How did you get to where you are? You're obviously in a very powerful corporate position. How did you get into this business? And what does it do for you to be a part of the business infrastructure across the continent?
Mr. CUMMINGS: You know, I always start by saying that I was actually blessed to, you know, find myself where I am. Any number of Liberians or Africans or others could have had this opportunity, but I've been fortunate. And in addition to being blessed, I got here hard work, tenacity and a lot of focus.
And it's a wonderful opportunity to lead an enterprise that has a very significant impact on the economy of the African continent. To lead an enterprise that just by its mere existence and by just growing creates jobs, creates opportunities. But it's also an obligation to give back as well, and so we give significant amount of our profits back into our foundation where we invest in education, we invest in health - primarily focused on HIV/AIDS and malaria - and we also do work out on water and the environment.
CHIDEYA: I'm sure that in the course of your work you've come across young people who are hungry, and I don't mean for food but for opportunity. What do you tell them, if they're Liberian, if they're 14, 15, 16 or if they're in college, and they want to have a hand in creating enterprise in their nation and helping to rebuild their nation?
Mr. CUMMINGS: I tell them to believe in themselves. I tell them to believe in the opportunities that the country now presents for them. I tell them that it'll come with very hard work. It'll come with tenacity and resilience. That along the way we will have a lot of challenges and obstacles, but they have to persevere and be prepared to overcome those.
And I tell them that with all of those things - and a bit of good fortune - they can achieve what I've achieved and what many others have and will achieve in Liberia.
CHIDEYA: Thank you so much.
Mr. CUMMINGS: Thank you.
COX: Once again, that was Alexander Cummings, president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola Africa. He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.
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COX: Just ahead, black lawmakers and President Bush finally have a chat. And Valentine's Day is over. Our commentator says so, too, should be a romantic view of marriage.
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