Jobless growth has been the development story in Sierra Leone, as in too many parts of Africa. Although our growth has been respectable – even astronomical in the pre-Ebola iron ore boom years – it hasn’t opened up opportunities for many Sierra Leoneans at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
So while it’s true that the private sector is key to inclusive growth in Sierra Leone, we need to ask how we can achieve private sector development so that we extend its benefits beyond the well-connected, who typically capture the largest share.
“Managing and growing the national economy to lift more Sierra Leoneans out of poverty,” – the theme of the Development Partners Committee’s (DEPAC) final meeting on on 9 December 2022, reflected the importance of finding an answer to this question. As Invest Salone Team Lead, I was asked to discuss and synthesise the speakers’ contributions, the Ministry of Trade’s Chief Director, Emmanuel Konjo, speaking on behalf of the Minister and Rashid Conteh, Secretary-General of the Importers Association and a member of the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture.
I organised my thoughts around 7Cs – and aimed to integrate numerous threads from MTI and the private sector to offer immediately actionable ideas for the private sector, government, and international development partners. My premise is we each have roles to play, and most importantly, those roles become most effective when we combine our efforts in creative ways.
My 7Cs are context, coordination, collective action, coalitions, capital, constraints, and conversation. If I had to summarise them, I’d offer another C: change for the better.
West Africa is becoming more turbulent. In the last two years, we’ve seen coups or attempted coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Mali. There are security concerns across vast swathes of the Sahel, spreading southwards. Africa’s demographic boom sits uncomfortably alongside a growing sense that democracy has failed to deliver meaningful citizenship for young people. Instead, we see jobless growth, rising inequality and hardship. Closer to home, memories of the youth unrest on 10 August remain fresh.
Replacing a sense of mounting political polarisation with a collective search for solutions that offer hope has to begin with better coordination between the Government of Sierra Leone, its ministries, departments and agencies, international development partners and the private sector.
A major innovation in new institutional architecture around private sector development saw the government establish the National Investment Board (NIB). The focus now is on operationalizing the NIB. This includes setting up a one-stop-shop to reduce red tape and rent-seeking. It also means putting in place a culture of consultation through public-private dialogue. The NIB represents a massive shake-up that will take years of effective change management to settle in. But it could have a positive impact on private sector development in Sierra Leone.
Could international development partners improve their coordination around private sector development with a youth action working group? How about concerted support for business models offering opportunities for youth? For instance, how might we support Freetown Waste Transformers (FWT) and commercial bike riders to combine last-mile collection and delivery of waste through FWT’s new “DortiBox” app? How can we help newly emerging plastics recycling enterprises to work with youth to collect and deliver plastic for recycling?
This brings us to coordination within the private sector, in the form of business membership organisations (BMOs). We know that vibrant, more effective BMOs will aid coordination, and that robust collective action among private sector actors can boost accountability while influencing the government and international development partners to improve the business environment. But BMOs have often struggled to accomplish this. So how do we support them to raise their game?
The President of the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce Council has called for a restructured Council that accommodates BMOs as members (as opposed to just individuals, as is the case now). A coordinated and united private sector would have a stronger voice. This suggestion merits urgent support.
Coalition of responsible businesses
To really drive change, however, the business sector needs to embrace the fourth C – a coalition of responsible businesses. Many responsible companies find themselves competing with businesses that don’t play by fair or transparent rules. A membership-based coalition of responsible businesses in Sierra Leone (CoRBiSL) would unite and give collective voice to businesses committed to good corporate citizenship, indicating compliance with the National Social Security and Insurance Trust, the National Revenue Authority, minimum wage requirements, local content obligations and environmental standards. There would be mutual accountability with credible third-party verification using verifiable metrics. The adoption of shared value business models could support inclusive growth and contribute to skills development.
In return, incentives for good corporate citizenship could include access to the fast-track blue channel at the port, an anti-corruption hotline, NIB fast-track resolution of problems and approvals, and fast-track court hearings. International development partners could support CoRBiSL with preferential procurement. Playing by the rules would become the rational choice for businesses.
Everyone wants better access to affordable capital, but climate change requires that we look for ways to accelerate access to sustainable finance. The private sector proposes to partner with the government (including the Bank of Sierra Leone) and international development partners to negotiate access to local currency sources of finance (dollar-denominated for export businesses), suitably adapted to local conditions and requirements as part of an overall roadmap to sustainable finance.
The sixth C is constraints. We know there are many, but they can’t all be solved at once. A smarter approach is to focus attention on some doable game-changers and work with the grain of the political economy to pave the way for future reforms. Countless investment projects that could create jobs now are caught up in red tape. Why can’t we unleash these projects now? Most businesses that import or export goods complain about the inefficiency of the port. Here, then, is an opportunity for us all to crowd in to support the Chief Minister’s port reform efforts.
This brings us to our final C, conversation – a dialogue about how we place inclusion at the heart of our private sector development efforts. How do we change the narrative about doing business in Sierra Leone? How do we bring the public and private sector together to create conditions for sustained, inclusive, job-creating growth?
How do we facilitate a national dialogue that will feed into the upcoming election, helping Sierra Leoneans to understand they need to move away from ethno-regional patronage politics and move towards a modern meritocracy that grows the national cake and offers all citizens a compelling social contract based on economic and national transformation?
We can and must create new norms, new expectations and a new imagination about what’s possible for Sierra Leoneans. We’re all in this together, and it’s up to us to drive the change we want to see.
© 2023 Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie
Chukwu-Emeka is Team Leader of Invest Salone – the UK-government funded private sector development initiative, and Director of Up!-Africa Ltd, a consultancy with the purpose of using jobs to drive Africa’s development through private sector development, talent mobility, diaspora entrepreneurship, corporate strategy and public policy.