Ebola's Economic Impact Threatens To Cripple Once-Rapidly Growing Sierra Leone

Under the very obvious and serious health issues facing the country is an equally troubling and broad set of concerns that are deeply impacting the local Sierra Leonean economy and the rest of the region.
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I first touched down at Lungi Airport on a typically stormy and muggy night in August 2008. After a harrowing 15 minute journey across the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in a Soviet era cargo helicopter, my wife and I stepped into Freetown, the capital city of the country that has consumed our effort and attention for the last six years. In 2008, Sierra Leone had yet to glimpse the upward trajectory of its recent surge in growth. Ernest Bai Koroma, the country's current leader, was less than one year in to his first term, although already receiving accolades from international observers. Foreigners were still a novelty, the capital city was largely dark for lack of access to electricity, and GDP per capita was a paltry $1,286.

To say that the last six years have produced a deluge of prosperity in this small West African country would be heartless in the face of the millions of Sierra Leoneans who still live in abject poverty. Countless issues and struggles remain to be tackled. However, the economy has expanded at a rapid clip with recent GDP growth rates of 15.2 percent and 20.1 percent in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Sierra Leone was the 2 fastest growing country in the world in 2013. Government services, most notably power and roads, have improved markedly. A traveler can now drive from Freetown to Bo, the country's second largest city, on beautiful smooth tarmac in slightly over three hours. That same drive in 2008 was adventurous in every sense of the word and required up to eight hours of torture on deeply pot-marked dirt roads. These improvements and the resulting upward momentum are now at risk of being stolen back by a new and terrifying enemy.

Ebola is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of real people with families and friends now in mourning have died in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. In Sierra Leone alone, according to official statistics from the Ministry of Health and Sanitation (which most international observers agree is a vast understatement of reality), nearly 1,000 individuals have died since the first cases were diagnosed in May. A total of 3,225 cases have been confirmed. Of that amount, nearly 12 percent were registered in the seven days prior to October 20. The crisis is continuing to escalate.

Under the very obvious and serious health issues facing the country is an equally troubling and broad set of concerns that are deeply impacting the local Sierra Leonean economy and the rest of the region. In my current role as Managing Director of Africa Felix Juice, Sierra Leone's only value added exporter, I have had a front row view of Ebola's commercial impact. Our juice factory has been shuttered since August for a variety of reasons -- nearly all Ebola related. My COO and Chief Technician -- both expatriates -- have evacuated the country and have no immediate plans to return. Checkpoints and new public transit restrictions have greatly increased the time and cost for my employees to reach the factory. Banks and other critical businesses are no longer open for a full day making even the simplest tasks extremely difficult to complete. As a result of all these issues, our 125 highly capable local employees are unable to make fruit juice products for our customers in Europe and throughout West Africa.

Even in our relatively small business, the impact of inactivity stretches far beyond the four walls of our now-darkened factory. With the help of Virginia-based nonprofit World Hope International, Africa Felix organized more than 5,000 of the smallest and poorest farmers in the country into co-ops as a mechanism to source fruit for the factory, specifically mango. During the mango season in May and June, the majority of farmers are left with mounds and mounds of rotting fruit thanks to a local supply that far outstrips local demand. Since starting operations in 2011, Africa Felix's purchases have infused more than $300,000 into rural communities for a once nearly worthless commodity. Those payments are now in doubt for the 2015 season as the fate of the Africa Felix factory will be tightly connected to the success, or lack thereof, of the fight to control Ebola's spread.

This story is playing out across the country and region. Companies in all industries, from tourism to mining and from agriculture to manufacturing, have sent their expatriate staff to the safety of their foreign homes. Even the local Heineken brewery, which maintained operations through much of the civil war, has evacuated its foreign staff and is greatly restricting output. International investors have turned off the steady flow of investment dollars that the country has attracted in the last few years. Once immune to Ebola fears, even experienced African investors can see that this situation is now different. Planned and future investments will be delayed for the foreseeable future.

During the course of my six years in Sierra Leone I have been involved in a variety of business projects, both large and small. I have traveled to nearly every corner of the country and come to love the natural beauty and people. Through chance and good fortune, I have had the pleasure of being part of Sierra Leone's transition from a period of post-war recovery to economic growth. That growth has largely been halted. According to the Sierra Leone Minister of Finance, Kaifala Marah, the 2014 GDP growth forecast has been halved to 7.5 percent from the original 14 percent. The prospects for 2015 are widely variable and nearly solely dependent on the speed with which the crisis can be contained. For the sake of my friends and colleagues, it is my hope that the world will respond with sufficient ferocity to the Ebola health crisis so that the country can focus its attention on restoring its once rapidly growing economy. Sierra Leone's six million people are counting on it.

For more information on how you can help in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone, please visit www.worldhope.org

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