By Parminder Vir OBE*
Parminder Vir OBE with TEF Entrepreneurs at the Sierra Leone meetup in the Statehouse
One can never write a full story about disasters in Africa without talking about Sierra Leone. Hence, there will be many questions left unanswered on why the country moves from one form of disaster to the other.
Last month, Mr. Tony Elumelu, Founder of The Tony Elumelu Foundation, invited me to accompany him to Sierra Leone. He was going to lend his support to President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma and the people of Sierra Leone who were once again gripped by grief as a result of the devastating mudslides and floods that claimed hundreds of innocent lives and left many more still missing. He was amongst the first African business sector leaders to do the same when Ebola struck Sierra Leone in 2013; based on his fundamental belief that ‘Africans must help Africans.’
In the company of the Sierra Leonean President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, and the former President of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo, Mr. Elumelu, together with his team and I, visited some of the survivors at the Connaught Hospital in Freetown upon arrival in the country. Later, at the Sierra Leonean Statehouse, he donated USD$250,000 on behalf of the Tony Elumelu Foundation and another USD$250,000 on behalf of staffs, management, and Directors of United Bank for Africa (UBA) as emergency aid grants for victims of the mudslides.
Located on the west coast of Africa, Sierra Leone is a small country in terms of land mass. It totals 71,470 square kilometres with a population of just 7 million people. But it manages to squeeze beaches, rainforests, mountains, savannah grasslands, marshes, mangrove swamps and rivers into its relatively small size. Sierra Leone is belted on the west and southwest by the Atlantic Ocean, on the northwest, north, and northeast by Guinea, and on the east and southeast by Liberia. The capital and largest city is Freetown. Sierra Leone gained her independence from Britain in 1961 and became a republic on April 19, 1971. Comparatively, very few countries have faced as many natural disasters as Sierra Leone. Obviously, the more things change, the more they stay the same for Sierra Leone. At least 400 people were killed, hundreds more are still missing, and thousands have been rendered homeless in the mudslide that took place on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Freetown, in the early hours of August 14, 2017. The mudslide ranks as the country’s worst natural disaster in recent years and builds on years of the devastating impact of Ebola and before that civil war. And yet, for a natural disaster, it was not entirely unexpected bearing in mind that Freetown records the highest annual rainfall in Africa and previous flood incidents, while less devastating, have occurred. This incident can be linked to years of poor urban development planning. To avert similar situations from recurring in the future, Sierra Leone’s government will have to enforce urban planning regulations to prevent poorly planned construction of homes.
In its disastrous eleven year civil war, beginning in 1991, thousands of people lost their lives, countless more suffered mutilation, or rape and population was displaced. An official end to the civil war was declared in January 2002. By that time, it was estimated that at least 50,000 people had died, with hundreds of thousands more affected by the violence and some two million people displaced by the conflict. Sierra Leone with a very strong history of resilience, cannot continue to move from one problem to another.
On flying into the airport in Lungi, I could feel the impact of the latest disaster and see it in the faces of the people, gleaming with life, brilliance, and pain. The airport in Lungi, I discovered, is located on the opposite side of the mouth of a giant river flowing towards the capital. We took a water taxi – Sea Coach Express – from Tagrin as the only alternative to a four-hour drive to the capital. On my first trip to Sierra Leone, despite the choppy sea, I was able to reflect on all that I had learnt about the history, cultures, and people of this extraordinary country through my past research as a filmmaker; reading fiction and non-fiction from some of its most brilliant writers like Aminatta Forna and watching documentaries by the award winning Salone documentary filmmaker Sorious Samaura. And of course, who can forget the Hollywood film Blood Diamond; story of the illicit diamond trade and its funding of the civil war in Sierra Leone, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. I recalled a line from the movie by Danny Archer played by Leonardo DiCaprio “Sometimes I wonder …. Will god ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other? Then I look around and I realise….God left this place a long time ago.” But still, the spirit of the people of Sierra Leone endures.
We had arranged to meet the ten Tony Elumelu Foundation entrepreneurs from Sierra Leone who have been selected for the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme. We know they hold the key to the sustainable development of Sierra Leone and were keen to hear the impact of this latest tragedy on their emerging businesses. Indeed, their President had travelled to Lagos in October 2016 to speak to the 2016 TEF Entrepreneurs, applauding Tony Elumelu’s promise to not only empower entrepreneurs, but also to tackle the fundamental economic challenges confronting the African continent. Focusing on the uniqueness of TEF’s approach to entrepreneurship development, President Koroma hailed the programme as “a genuinely innovative approach to philanthropy in Africa – “an African offering African solutions.” He told their audience, “What is unique about this programme is that it not only provides a platform for entrepreneurs to build connections, but they are also being taught how to build their businesses in a sustainable way”.
We met the entrepreneurs in the Sierra Leonean Statehouse, built in 1895, it was the residence of the Governor of Sierra Leone and today the office of the President of Sierra Leone and his official residence. European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first in West Africa. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the land and gave Sierra Leone its present name, which means “lion mountain.” The country was named by Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra, who mapped the region in 1462, built a fort and began trading in gold, ivory, and humans. This journey across the Atlantic was embarked upon from the Freetown Peninsula estuary; the place in which today’s Sea Coach Express now docks.
The dehumanising slave trade had a significant impact on Sierra Leone, as this trade flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries, and later as a centre of anti-slavery efforts when the trade was abolished in 1807. In 1808, Sierra Leone became a British Crown colony. It was while researching for Redemption Song, a BBC series on the history, politics and cultures of the Caribbean) that I first learnt about the colony organised by the British for the black settlers known as Black Loyalists of Freetown. The black settlers, referred to as the Creoles or Krios were returning to Africa in the late 18th century: freed slaves from Nova Scotia, the Maroons from Jamaica and poor blacks from Britain. The slave narratives of this time are fascinating. Today, the Krios are part of the rich ethnic diversity of Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone is well endowed in natural resources which is both an asset and “resource curse”. Freetown commands one of the world’s largest natural harbours. Sierra Leone is a mining centre. Its land yields diamonds, rutile, bauxite, gold, iron and limonite. Diamond is the key natural resources that is found in the Kono, Kenema and Bodistricts in Sierra Leone. The mining industry of Sierra Leone accounted for 4.5 percent of the country’s GDP in 2007 and minerals made up 79 percent of total export revenue with diamonds accounting for 46 percent of export revenue in 2008. According to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (2014 Report), Sierra Leone received USD 58 million in revenue from its extractive industry operations. Eighty five percent of these revenues came from the mining sector, with the rest mainly stemming from exploration activities in the petroleum sector. Unfortunately, the country’s rich natural resources have not metamorphosed into economic growth. Sierra-Leone is among the poorest countries in Africa. This is sad, if we consider the fact that Sierra Leone was the attractive hub destination for international visitors in the 1990s.
Sierra Leone must capitalise on its human resources, which is the most important resource that any country can have. The entrepreneurs we met are a testament to that. These entrepreneurs are building businesses that focus on local solutions for local challenges in agriculture, waste management, construction and renewable energy, to name but a few. They are eager to share their business stories, impact of the disaster on their families and friends, as well as their hopes and aspirations. We were interrupted by the President and Mr Elumelu to meet the entrepreneurs who gave their best business elevator pitch in the short time. The TEF Meet-Ups are a critical pillar of the programme, with Mr Elumelu leveraging his convening power to introduce the TEF entrepreneurs to their respective presidents and policy makers and evangelising entrepreneurship across Africa.
Edward Nonie, one of the TEF Entrepreneurs, shares his story of how he had volunteered his company’s services and man power to the UN Operations to provide immediate risk assessment, topographical mapping using drones and geological surveys of the mudslide sites on Sugar Loaf Mountain, where the disaster occurred. Listening, I am impressed by just how far this startup has come in just one year with training, mentoring and seed grant of $5000 he has received from the Foundation’s entrepreneurship programme! Imagine the impact, if the government and the private sector leaders in Sierra Leone came together to empower talented entrepreneurs like him to develop local solutions to local challenges?”
Entrepreneurs, like Edward Nonie, hold the key to the development of Sierra Leone and the government must invest in them and the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem: Business Support, Finance, Human Capital, Culture, Policy, Research & Development, Infrastructure, and Access to Markets. Investing in these eight pillars will promote entrepreneurship and market system performance which are vital for job and wealth creation. Sierra Leone will be doomed to continue with the begging bowl for decades to come if it fails to invest in these eight pillars. In all people, even in Sierra Leone, you find different kinds of talents, and entrepreneurship is about harnessing those talents, and making sure that it takes people to another level in their personal development.
The Tony Elumelu Foundation is dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship in the continent with the aim of discovering and raising African entrepreneurs through training, mentoring, networking, and funding of start-ups on the African continent. The annual TEF Entrepreneurship Programme which commits $100 million to training, mentoring, and funding of 10,000 African entrepreneurs, over 10 years, is the largest business plan competition on the continent. In 2015, the foundation received 20,000 applications. In 2016, this doubled to 45,000. This year over 93,000 African Entrepreneurs applied from 54 African countries. So, it is important for the government to develop the private sector and to create an environment that enables entrepreneurs to flourish.
In Sierra Leone, entrepreneurship is still at it ‘teething stage’. There is a disconnect between Business Support Services and Entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone. The business environment in Sierra-Leone must be developed. The Doing Business 2017 report, conducted by the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank, ranks Sierra Leone 148 out of 190 economies for overall ease of doing business, down 3 places from its 2016 rank. Africa sits at the bottom in the global rank of infrastructure by continent and Sierra Leone is in the bottom tier therein. The scale of Sierra Leone’s infrastructure deficit has been compounded by a staggering rate of urbanization, whereby 38% of residents are now urban dwellers. Sierra Leone’s network of trunk and feeder roads is severely deteriorated and unable to provide all-weather access to key producing centres (AFDB, 2016). Obviously, entrepreneurship cannot thrive without strengthening these eight key areas. Although there are a lot of barriers, entrepreneurship in Sierra Leone is necessary for the country to become a developed nation.
The Tony Elumelu Foundation has designed a unique “made in Africa, by an African and for Africans entrepreneurship programme” which we know works. We would like to offer this structured approach to growing the next generation of African Entrepreneurs to Sierra Leone and other African nation to adopt and adapt for their respective countries. While Mr Tony Elumelu’s donation of $500,000 will go towards addressing the immediate challenge, it is the long-term investment in the human capital that will yield sustainable transformation of the beautiful Sierra Leone. Entrepreneurship is the surest way forward for economic growth and development
As we leave Sierra Leone, I feel compelled to return, to spend more time meeting people, hearing their stories, their hopes, and ambitions. I am reminded of the words of Ishmael Beah, author and human rights activist. A child soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war, he rose to fame with his critically acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider. He said: “I guess what I’d like to say is that people in Sierra Leone are human beings, just like Americans. They want to send their kids to school; they want to live in peace; they want to have their basic rights of life just like everyone else. I think we all owe an obligation to support people who want to do that.”
Africans can help Africans. Tony Elumelu has taken a bold step. This is a clarion call to all. As Pope John Paul II once said: “Nobody is so poor that he has nothing to give, and nobody is so rich that he has nothing to receive.” Sierra Leone may be lagging, but no matter how long the night, the day is sure to come.
*CEO at The Tony Elumelu Foundation.Article culled from Linkedin page