Eradicating Poverty

Carrying the Torch for Liberty in East Africa

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About a quarter of all businesses in Africa are started by female entrepreneurs. These women must overcome the stifling bureaucracy their governments impose on any small business while also facing legal and cultural discrimination that deprives women of their economic liberties.

Dorcas is one such entrepreneur, and her journey is symbolic of the struggle faced by many women in Tanzania. Abandoned to the streets by relatives after her husband passed away, she started a microbusiness making bar and liquid soaps for personal hygiene and clothes washing, respectively. But she soon faced daunting obstacles in the form of business licensing and trade regulations that made it difficult for her to legally operate and expand her new enterprise.

Her situation caught the attention of Tanzania-based Atlas Network partner, Liberty Sparks. “In 2019 when we were running an entrepreneur training program for local businesses in Tanzania, I met a woman named Dorcas,” explained Evans Exaud, executive director of Liberty Sparks.

Dorcas’ business, he said, began earning a meager but life-sustaining $1 or $2 a day. She eventually earned enough to put food on the table and pay for her three children’s school fees.

“However, she still faced a number of challenges, one of which was the procedures of registering the business,” Evans said. “If she could register her business and have a proper license, she could sell her products not just in Tanzania, but the entire eastern part of Africa.”

Dorcas is just the type of entrepreneur that Liberty Sparks seeks to empower through their work. The organization has worked extensively to reform and repeal economic policies that put up barriers for Tanzanians seeking to escape poverty and participate not only in local commerce but international trade. Liberty Sparks notes that many Tanzanians have had their goods confiscated and even destroyed when trying to import goods from neighboring countries like Kenya due to overly complex requirements.

The organization has even ventured into documentary filmmaking to support its policy arguments. Backed by grant and production support through Atlas Network’s Lights, Camera, Liberty program, Liberty Sparks created a documentary based on the story of Dorcas and the community of women entrepreneurs she joined. Titled The Winners, the film went on to win the 2023 Lights, Camera, Liberty Film Festival Award.

The short film documents the efforts by a group of women entrepreneurs like Dorcas who support each other in their individual enterprises, which include the making of dyed fabrics and the production of basic foodstuffs like nutritional flour, spicy condiments and bread—despite facing a labyrinth of licensing and trade barriers by local and national bureaucracies. The women each operate their individual microenterprises, but support each other with hands-on help and guidance through the bureaucratic hoops entrepreneurs face operating in the formal economy.

Even more importantly, The Winners connected with policymakers as they deliberated on key reforms. Liberty Sparks used the film as an important tool in their reform efforts, and it helped them convince lawmakers to simplify business licensing procedures and pass tax reductions for entrepreneurs. At the same time, the film brought national recognition to the organization as a group dedicated to fighting on behalf of Tanzania’s disadvantaged.

Atlas Network has provided significant support for Liberty Sparks’ initiatives, and these training opportunities, grants, and awards have helped the think tank grow into one of Africa’s foremost free-market advocates. For example, Evans’ win of the 2022 Africa Think Tank Shark Tank pitch competition helped the organization secure the funds to expand their planned project to address restrictive international trade policy, a project that they carried out with sweeping success.

This ability to plan, pitch, and execute earned them a spot in Atlas Network’s Smart Bets grant program. Liberty Sparks’ participation in this accelerator program promises to further hone their effectiveness and raise their ambitions as a team. Evans’ pitching talent even secured them the chance to present on stage at Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner 2023, which won Liberty Sparks additional grant funding to fuel their operations.

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Evans (second from right) presents the Economic Freedom Audit report at a launch event in 2022

Perhaps Liberty Sparks’ most impressive achievement to date is its Economic Freedom Audit, carried out in 2022 in partnership with Atlas Network and the Fraser Institute, which produced a top-to-bottom assessment of Tanzania’s economic policy and legal systems and identified areas for improvement. They didn’t stop at simply producing an academic report, however. By engaging with scholars and government officials, Liberty Sparks developed reform recommendations based on the issues they identified in their audit and worked with policymakers to implement them. These reforms affected many areas of economic policy, including lowering and removing barriers to international trade, reducing taxes, streamlining labor regulations, and digitizing many government services.

Liberty Sparks has made the most of its partnership with Atlas Network in becoming one of the brightest lights for liberty and economic development on the African continent as it seeks to make economic freedom alive in the laws of the land.

And Evans’ and Liberty Sparks’ success proves the value of the relationship.

“So being an Atlas Network partner, it means everything,” he said. “It means change. It means freedom, it means prosperity, it means dignity.”