I am from Sierra Leone, although a friend insists that by making my home in the UK I am insufficiently committed to creating change in a country that has bore the brunt of war, disease and decades of poverty. He's from Ghana - the country we jokingly call Africa for beginners, or Africa Lite. Unfortunately, if the Sierra Leonean version of Africa is the real thing, then the joke's on us. Ghana has well-stocked supermarkets, clean streets, good schools and universities, and economic opportunities that the majority of Sierra Leone's citizens can only dream about.
But dig beneath the surface and Sierra Leone's potential to be the second Africa Lite becomes very clear. I recently launched a Sierra Leonean focused business and investment magazine. It's the country's first, and seeing as it was launched a few months ago, it remains the country's only. Freetown Insight came about, not just because there is a gap in the market, but because quite frankly I've been startled by the entrepreneurialism of Sierra Leone's business community - to say nothing of their dogged persistence and nerves of steel in the face of all manner of threats. They are simply jaw-dropping. Why many more of them aren't in demand on the lecture circuit, or the subject of MBA case histories, I really can't say.
In the magazine's four months of existence, I've spoken to business people who have weathered the most extraordinary of business conditions, only to keep on doing what they are doing. Take James Sanpha Koroma who returned to Sierra Leone after several years of political exile to set up Union Trust Bank. This was at a time when every other private bank in the country had gone into receivership, and the country was sinking deeper into civil strife. As well as exile, his CV includes trumped up corruption charges, forays into public service, public honours and 20 years of banking success in a country that has stubbornly refused to budge from the bottom 10 or so of the Human Development Index.
Or Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr of IDEA (UK) and team - who are dead set on bringing the Hilton to Sierra Leone. Hilton Cape Sierra is a project they started in 2011. Thus far, they have raised millions of dollars in investment, given up dependable well-paid jobs, sold their homes and watched the project almost slip through their fingers when in the face of Sierra Leone's highly unreliable water and electricity supply, Hilton insisted on desalination and power plants. If IDEA had opted for Holiday Inn instead of Hilton, they would have a going concern by now, but their vision for Sierra Leone wouldn't accept anything less. "Hilton is the most recognised name in the hotel industry globally. We chose Hilton because we want the best for Sierra Leone," Yvonne says.
Our private sector produces people of outstanding calibre, who will fill the pages of Freetown Insight for many years to come. This is good news for Sierra Leone's post-Ebola recovery, which makes private sector development an economic priority. It also begs the question - why with such impressive business people does our economy languish so persistently in the doldrums?
There are the obvious answers - corruption, a not particularly enabling environment, many years of war, a crippling skills shortage and of course Ebola - to name just a few. With political will these can be remedied. Indeed, Sierra Leone's Post-Ebola Recovery Plan makes a priority of health, education, social protection, private sector development, energy, water and governance.
Harder to dismantle will be the suspicion felt by many of Sierra Leone's business men and women towards innovation, especially when it comes from outside. The business community which has survived threats that would cripple most other businesses, has bonded through adversity. And as one well-intentioned initiative after another has foundered and failed, their solution to risk has become defence instead of change. They have been under siege for so long, they have circled the wagons.
But to be effective in Sierra Leone's post Ebola economic development, the private sector has to become an agent of change, opening itself up to innovation, adopting standards and practices that encourage international competitiveness. James Sanpha Koroma created a banking institution in the unlikeliest of times by seizing the opportunity of change. The team who are bringing the Hilton to Sierra Leone, also saw and seized an opportunity for change. The results speak for themselves.
Last year, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr took time away from the Hilton project to take up the role as Director of Planning on Sierra Leone's Ebola Response. She was awarded an OBE in the Queen's New Year Honours and is now instrumental in the country's Post Ebola Recovery Programme. She says: "Delivering transformative change in Sierra Leone, has got to be a national effort that is embraced by all Sierra Leoneans." There may not yet be a national mood of optimism in Sierra Leone, but there is a sense that we could be, might possibly be on the cusp of something that looks and feels a lot like change; but for that change to really happen, we need our business community to finally uncouple the wagons.