When Ben, a regular guy from Utah who held a steady white-collar job, received an email from a stranger in Liberia with a business opportunity, he didn’t know what to think. On the one hand it seemed like it might be a good idea, and Ben needed some extra money. On the other, his mysterious new friend kept acting suspiciously. Ben decided to invest money and the two began a business venture, but his new partner’s unpredictable behavior led the project to take many twists and turns. Ben could never have predicted where his new business would lead him in the end.
A Message From Africa
Ben was a 32-year old man from Utah. He worked as a marketer and lived a comfortable lifestyle with his family. However, he was of the opinion that people should always strive for more so that they can provide a better lifestyle for their families. For this reason, he was always open to new opportunities when they came up.
One weekend, he received just such an opportunity – a mysterious message on his computer from a stranger in an exotic location. Perhaps this was the chance that he’d been waiting for to move up in the world – he opened the email and read.
Looking For Help
The message was from someone called Joel, who lived in Liberia – a developing country in western Africa. He was asking for assistance because he wanted to empower himself. Ben saw an opportunity in this – maybe he could start a new business. He asked Joel what services he could provide. Joel had no clear answer, but Ben had an idea.
If he could get Joel to send him photographs of everyday life in Liberia, perhaps he could sell them to people. There must be a market for people interested in gaining an insight into the lives of people in faraway places.
Joel said that he had a camera on his mobile, but it wasn’t very good. When Ben received sample photographs from Joel, he saw that the quality really was very poor. So, he asked Joel how much it would cost him to buy a better quality camera in Liberia.
Joel told him that it would cost around $20 – but when Ben said that he’d buy it for him, Joel said that the price was actually $50-$75. Ben asked him why the price had gone up, and Joel changed the subject – he had a different business opportunity for Ben to get involved in.
Joel said that if Ben were to send him electronic equipment – such as laptops, TVs, printers and such – Joel would be able to sell them for a very good profit in Liberia. Joel would then share the profits with Ben. This sounded like a good plan, but Ben wondered how he would get the items to Joel.
Luckily, Joel had an answer. He had a contact in the US – a man named Musa in New Jersey – who would arrange the shipments. When Ben heard this, he said: “Let’s do this Joel.” Ben then got in contact with Musa to arrange things.
A Suspicious Address
Musa gave Ben an address, but when Ben looked it up using Google Maps, there was something strange – it looked like a wrecking yard. There was even an image of a police car checking the place out. This gave Ben some doubts about the enterprise, so he began by sending an inexpensive radio to Musa, just to be on the safe side.
When he informed Joel that a package had been sent, Joel was very happy. He began to ask Ben all kinds of questions, and it seemed as if the two were becoming friends as well as business partners. But a problem was soon to develop between the two.
Money In Advance
After the package arrived at the address, Musa got in contact with Ben. He wasn’t pleased with the radio – he said that it wouldn’t sell for much money in Liberia. He wanted items with a higher market value.
Ben insisted that he try to sell the radio – after all, he wanted to be sure that this was a viable partnership. Musa eventually agreed but told Ben that he would need $60 to send it to Liberia – in advance.
Camera Prices Going Up
Ben distrusted this man, and his concerns were confirmed when Musa stopped replying to his messages. He told Joel that he didn’t trust Musa, and that he wanted to go back to his original idea of photography. Joel wasn’t happy about the idea, but he eventually agreed.
The only catch – Ben would need to buy a new camera, which cost $125 in his area. Ben decided that he would purchase the camera himself instead. And that is exactly what he did.
Money Up Front
While Joel was waiting for the camera to arrive, the two discussed payment. The Liberian said that he wanted $12 payment for 20 photographs, plus a $16 email fee. Ben agreed. When the camera finally arrived, Ben wired $14 to Joel and told him that he’d get the second half of the money after the pictures were sent.
Joel was not happy about this at all – he said that it would take him all day to line up at the bank and collect the money, and $14 wasn’t worth it. Ben was dead set on his decision though, and Joel had no choice but to accept.
The Truth Comes Out
Joel set to work taking the photographs, but there soon developed a complication. He told Ben that his camera was seized by the police, and he needed a further $20 to get it back. At this point, Ben decided to end his experiment. He didn’t reply to the message.
This whole time, Ben had only been playing a game with Joel. He thought that the Liberian was just making up stories to persuade Ben to send him money. Ben decided that enough was enough – but then something happened which he had never expected.
An Unexpected Package
He received another email from Joel telling him that the photographs would be sent in a couple of days. Ben was surprised but skeptical. But after a few days he received an email from Joel, with 20 pictures attached!
The pictures were terrible – so blurry that Ben could barely see what they were supposed to be. But he sent the remaining $14 to Joel anyway. He thought that this would be the end of the story – but he was wrong.
No More Mister Nice Guy
Joel wrote to him again. He said that he wanted to devote time to this business, and wanted to take more photographs. Ben was surprised by this development and considered if all this was worth the effort. He decided to continue, but with a big difference in the arrangement.
He was fed up with sending money to Liberia for nothing. He told Joel that he was prepared to pay for photographs, but he had some new demands.
A Serious Business
First, he told Joel that he had to take decent photographs. He told him how to hold the camera, how to frame pictures, how to make sure that there was enough light. Joel agreed to do his best, but he also said that he needed more money.
Ben told him no – from now on, Joel would send pictures, and if they were good, he would receive payment. That is, after all, how a business works. Joel was not happy with this at all. He said that he needed money in advance because it cost him money to send emails.
Ben stood firm. He refused to send another cent until he saw that he was buying something worthwhile. Joel then asked him to send an old computer to Liberia so that he wouldn’t have to pay to send emails. Ben refused.
However, he agreed to buy pictures for $7 each this time. Could this actually become a legitimate business? Was Joel was serious about this at all? Ben had his doubts. But a week later he received another email.
A Window Into Another World
There were 35 pictures attached to the email, photographs taken by Joel, and the improvement was remarkable. These were clear and well-framed pictures of everyday life in Liberia.
Ben could see the hand-made houses which lined the muddy streets, people drawing water from wells, cooking food and going to work. Joel was pleasantly surprised – but he was about to get an even bigger shock.
He received an email from Joel which said that Musa had sent his radio to Liberia after all. Ben was floored. Musa? He had completely forgotten about that – he’d written Musa off completely.
Suddenly it seemed that Musa was honestly looking for a real business opportunity. Ben couldn’t help but feel guilty that he hadn’t trusted these two men.
A Suspicious Mind
Ben had been publishing this ongoing project in his blog, and he received many comments from people that confirmed some of the things that Joel had been telling him about life in Liberia. People really did charge a lot of money to send emails, and it really did take all day to collect money from the bank.
Ben’s mind was blown – all this time, he had assumed that he was dealing with a liar. Apparently, he had been completely wrong.
Thinking Cap On
Ben realized that he would have to think of a way to make money from the photographs that Joel was sending. This was a challenge that he had not expected to face.
While he was considering what to do, he looked at all of the comments he got from people all around the world. Many were touched by Joel’s story, and all the effort he was putting in to take photographs and send them. This gave Ben an idea.
Ben decided to compile and publish a coffee-table book about Liberia, which would be full of Joel’s photographs. He decided that he’d sell them online, and divide the profits 50/50 with Joel.
He began working on the book right away – but he decided to test Joel one last time. He asked Joel to send him a photograph of the line at the bank. Joel’s reply was suspicious.
Is He For Real Or Not?
Joel said that he could only get the photograph if Ben sent him a deposit for a computer. Ben was hesitant, but he sent the money anyway. Joel didn’t send the photo immediately.
Ben told him that he could not complete the book without this specific image, but Joel kept making excuses – even claiming that he had taken a picture but accidentally deleted it. Ben began to believe that Joel was lying after all.
Finally Comes Through
But Joel eventually came through. It seemed that Ben had not realized the difficulties that Joel had to face to get these photographs – Joel had no money, so even a small journey was difficult to make.
When Ben saw the photographs of the lines at the bank, he knew that Joel had been telling the truth. He finished the book and put it up for sale online. He wasn’t sure how many he would sell, but he was very happy with what he and Joel had produced.
Ben priced the book at $10 each, and he sold more than 1,000 copies in 40 countries – the story had become very popular. He was left with $1,000 in profits.
As per their agreement, Ben and Joel split that money 50/50, and Ben sent Joel his $500. Ben wanted to donate his half to a Liberian charity – but he couldn’t find one that he trusted. He asked Joel what he should do.
Can He Be Trusted?
Joel told Ben that there were children in his local community who needed school supplies and that if Ben sent his $500 over, Joel would buy them stationery, bags, books, and other such things. Even at this stage of the relationship, Joel knew that this was a risk.
$500 is a year’s salary in Liberia, and Joel was very poor. At this point, Ben would not have thought any less of Joel if he’d just taken all the money for himself. But he got yet another big surprise a week later.
Who Would Have Thought
Joel used the money to buy supplies for all of the children in five local schools, and sent Ben photos to show what he’d done. Ben sat back and looked at his computer, in complete shock at the direction this project had taken.
What had begun as a game to make fun of a suspicious stranger had ended with Ben helping an honest man and an entire community in Africa. Joel even told him that children who didn’t usually go to school were now attending because they heard about the free book bags.
Beyond Their Wildest Dreams
And the book kept selling. Ben continued wiring money to Joel, who kept some of it for his own family and spent the rest on local children. Together, Ben and Joel paid teachers’ salaries, school utility bills, and stopped schools from closing down.
So popular was the book, they were able to buy and give out clothes and food for needy families in the area. They even began making loans to local entrepreneurs.
Teach A Man To Fish
Eventually, Ben flew to Liberia to meet Joel. From all the pictures that he’d seen, he felt like he knew the place already. When he turned the corner and saw Joel sitting outside his house, a smile spread across his face and the two shook hands and hugged.
Joel told him how he was once a desperate man, with seven children to feed and debts that he couldn’t hope to ever pay off. The book had given him hope and dignity. He had never wanted charity – he wanted to be empowered.