This time last year, the World Health Organisations had just announced the official end of the Ebola outbreak, and there was a distinctly optimistic mood in the country. Travel bans were being lifted, flights into the country were restarting and there was a rush of events centred on Sierra Leone’s resilience and investment potential.
One year on, Sierra Leone’s business sector is feeling significantly more subdued.
The government has announced sweeping cost-cutting measures in the public sector. It has upped the tax on imported alcohol and raised the price of electricity and fuel, just in time to catch the Christmas rush. The mining boom is a distant memory. Two big agricultural projects – Magbass and Addax - have hit the skids, leaving several casualties in their wake. Oil, shmoil! SMEs are feeling the pinch and Sierra Leone’s economic recovery is targeted at the very basics – education, health, energy, water, social protection, private sector development with an agriculture focus and governance.
It’s a sombre picture.
The reality however is a little more mixed.
We are in the curious position of having some really good hotels. Chains like Radisson Blu and Swiss Spirt and independents like the Hub are doing visibly brisk business. In 6-12 months, the Hilton will be opening its doors. Flash motors – a car rental business has weathered the peaks and troughs of Sierra Leone’s economy for several years – someone should really ask them how they’ve done it. Sea Coach continues to expand. On the SME front – Visit Sierra Leone (www.visitsierraleone.org) deserves a special mention as one of the country’s leading providers of tourism services. It rode out the Ebola epidemic to emerge fitter, stronger and with a range of innovative tourism ideas that really bring Sierra Leone’s individuality to the fore.
It is also clear that the economic contribution of women is more than significant. Based on no more rigorous analysis than observation, it seems that they bring a blend of academic achievement, entrepreneurialism and dust-yourself-down determination to the business arena and quietly build businesses that are meant to last.
We’ve seen women whose CVs would guarantee them a penthouse office anywhere else in the world, lugging their rucksacks up several flights of stairs in Sierra Leone, to work in an environment where their skills and abilities do not get anything like the recognition they deserve.
These are women who can simultaneously negotiate with international political and business leaders, run charities, fulfil their family and social obligations and continue to build on their professional success. These are women who are blasting their way to the top in a culture where the journey towards equal opportunities and rights for women has only just began.