The 15th Century politician Machiavelli said: “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it's impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”
Communications is my profession, and one of my frustrations over the last few years has been the use or misuse of the word ‘resilient’ to describe Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans.
Sierra Leone has a tenacious instinct to survive. After each of our country’s disasters, communities absorb their setbacks. They rebuild.
And life goes on. And life goes on ….. almost exactly as before. In the process we have missed golden opportunities to innovate and improve.
Time and time again, we experience the same misfortunes, in the same way, with the same results. When instead, we need to build back better. Develop policies, adapt our systems and our infrastructure, so that we can withstand shocks.
Sierra Leone has perfected the strength to suffer. When we develop the strength to do bold things, we will be amazed at the speed of our progress.
If we want to effect the transformation of our country, we have to become alchemists. We have to master the alchemy of risk, and use it to transform our risks into opportunities and our country into the amazing, vibrant economy it should be.
What is the alchemy of risk?
Most people, most of us naturally look for ways to limit our exposure to risk. This is understandable. By it’s definition risk involves danger.
However, if we study the decisions and actions taken by countries, enterprises, even families as they seek to better themselves, history shows that risk and opportunity invariably go hand in hand.
Think about the explorers, scientists, engineers, architects, business people and artists who have well and truly excelled in their fields.
Can you think of one, even one who achieved greatness without taking risks? In Insight Magazine, we write about high achievers. Whether the challenge is exploring the depths of our oceans, the limits of space, the top of our highest mountains, the boundaries of scientific knowledge, running a successful business, being a start-up in a new sector, or any vision that others can’t see - great accomplishments invariably entail taking a giant step into the unknown.
This process – transforming the base metal of risk into the gold of opportunity - is absolutely essential to discovery, innovation, invention and ultimately human development. This process is the alchemy of risk.
As a nation Sierra Leone has undeniable potential. We have great natural beauty. We have agricultural, mineral, geographical, human, and marine, resources. If our country is to realise its potential, or if we are to realise our own potential as individuals, we have to master the four steps of risk alchemy.
Step 1: Identify and Recognise Risk
In the last 15 years we have successfully consolidated peace and democracy in Sierra Leone, economic growth is positive overall, and development indicators have improved.
Nevertheless, our country remains a high risk environment.
Some of our most obvious vulnerabilities include relatively short life expectancy, low levels of education, poor health care and high unemployment. Food insecurity is widespread and access to clean water and adequate sanitation is generally low.
At Insight Media and Communications, we focus on doing business in Sierra Leone and through our research, we’ve identified a list of the business community’s primary concerns.
Vulnerability to weather events comes in at the top. Unsurprising given that flooding occurs every single rainy season.
Secondly – investors are concerned about our over-dependence on commodity prices. The revolving door of investors in our iron ore mines indicates just how fickle this sector is.
The list of risks goes on to include corruption, inadequate protection for property rights, the risk of another Ebola outbreak, poor infrastructure; a weak healthcare system; lack of credit for small and medium-sized enterprises; extreme poverty and high unemployment.
So that begs the question – if the development of our country is compromised by these risks, what on earth are we doing to reduce their negative impact?
Step 2: Embrace Risk
For our national security, development and progress, it is essential that we learn step 2 in the alchemy of risk – that is manage our risks adequately.
A really good example of risk management is taking place in Freetown right now with the urgent flood mitigation work undertaken by Freetown City Council under the new Mayor – Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr.
Based on previous experience we know that flooding takes place regularly. In the last 15 years, four major floods have affected over 220,000 people across Sierra Leone. In Freetown average flood damage is estimated to be as high as US$2.5m a year.
And of course last year, one of our worst disasters – the Regent mudslide – came about as the consequence of years of environmental damage, unregulated urban planning and climate change.
The final death toll listed over 1,000 people dead or missing presumed dead. More than 3,000 people were left homeless and hundreds of buildings were damaged or destroyed.
To tackle the scale of flooding in Freetown, the FCC’s work will need to be sustained, substantially expanded and strengthened.
Nevertheless, it is a really laudable proactive attempt to risk manage flooding in Freetown and mitigate its attendant dangers and the results have been commendable.
By mitigating the usual flooding, the FCC is protecting the communities involved. The owrk will very likely save more money than it costs. It will also begin to unlock opportunities for development and progress.
It will create confidence. People will feel more confident about going about their day to day lives. This speaks to a happier, healthier and more productive community.
Local businesses may feel confident enough to invest a little more in their enterprises or even set up new ones in the neighbourhood, knowing there is less likelihood years of hard work will be washed away overnight.
In the future, international investors may look across the ocean and feel more confident about considering business ventures here because flooding appears to pose less of a problem then before.
These are the outcomes of managing risk!
But to truly maximise the opportunities that risk can bring, we have to progress to step 3. We have to go from being risk managers to risk embracers.
If I am to believe my parents, I am a natural risk embracer. Many children are. At two I started walking out of school to go exploring. In my head – there was a whole world of stuff to learn. What happened at school was only a tiny part of it.
For a two-year old this was a risky strategy. There was the risk of being punished for breaking the rules. We lived in Koidu in Kono – and there was risk from the river, roads as well as more general risks like strangers, snakes etc.
I remember those excursions vividly, because they were an immense source of enjoyment. They were also pretty nerve-wracking.
My first walkabout was obviously the most difficult. As time went on they became easier and more productive. I learned how to get from school to my home on my own. I learned that it was interesting to talk to people. I learned that I could enjoy my own company for extended periods. I was able to walk much more closely along the river than if I was with a responsible adult and saw up close, the miners washing for diamonds. I learned that most people could be trusted.
It only now occurs to me that my parents very likely sent me to boarding school to put an end to those trips of mine. By then I’d learned the most important lesson. That embracing risks can be very rewarding.
There are no obviously typical risk taking personalities. Risk is subjective – one person’s risk is another’s comfort zone. For example, if we take the fable of the tortoise and the hare. It’s a story that we should all be familiar with. The slow and steady tortoise challenges the speedy, boastful hare to a race.
The hare is confident of winning, so he shows off, stops during the race and falls asleep. The tortoise continues to move very slowly but without stopping and finally wins the race. The moral of the story is that you can be more successful by doing things slowly and steadily than by acting quickly and carelessly.
I’d like to propose a different interpretation. I think this is a story about embracing risk.
The hare is usually seen as the risk taker- fast, thoughtless, careless. This ultimately causes him to lose. However, the slow and steady tortoise is as much a risk taker as the hare. Think about it - the race was contrary to tortoise’s natural talents, exposed him to ridicule and took him substantially out of his comfort zone. But he embraced the risk and it paid off for him.
The hare, on the other hand, miscalculated the risks. He failed to manage them. So he lost.
Step 4: Exploit Risk
Once we have learned to embrace risk, we can progress to step 4 –exploiting risk
A friend of mine - Philip spent just one week in Sierra Leone some time ago. In those 7 days, he identified one entrepreneurial prospect after another. He saw opportunities in the power sector, tourism, agriculture, the service sector, skills and training, transport, technology, you name it.
As he was leaving he said: “There is so much opportunity here.”
I agree. The entire premise behind Insight Media and Communications is that business and investment opportunities in Sierra Leone are rife and there are so many compelling stories to tell.
Nevertheless, while Philip spoke about all the business prospects he had identified, we, the listening Sierra Leoneans, highlighted one risk after another. We complained that business in Sierra Leone was too difficult, the environment wasn’t enabling, the market too small, people didn’t like change etc. etc.
Some had tried and failed. Their bad experiences had made them wary of trying again.
Philip said we have two choices. The child who falls in the river can become a champion swimmer instead of being terrified of water. The person who gets bitten by a snake, can become a snake charmer, instead of running away at the sight of any snake.
We went on to explain to Philip that fire fighting - constant risk management in the more mundane areas of life, left us and many other people in Sierra Leone without the energy or will to exploit risk in more dynamic areas.
Philip’s response: “If exploiting opportunity seems too risky, too hard; then imagine continuing with the status quo.”
We all experience the consequences of mismanaged or unmanaged risk in Sierra Leone. For some of us these consequences are bearable. Some people become casualties.
A year or so ago I attended an event in a village in Kambia. A new solar system for the local Community Health Centre was being commissioned. In her speech, the midwife explained what solar power really meant to the women who used the Community Health Centre.
She described how at night, when local women gave birth, they did so by the light of a mobile phone. I bet when Apple made the iPhone – they didn’t imagine this particular use for it. The new solar system would make this largely a thing of the past.
There is a lot to be said for consistency. But Sierra Leone in this phase of its development needs change.
Well over half of Sierra Leone’s population is under 30. This country, our country, is theirs to mould. They have to become the critical mass of people who dare to venture. In 20 years – Sierra Leone will be a reflection of their vision, courage, dedication, perseverance, and most of all their mastery of risk alchemy.
To quote Seneca: "It's not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It's because we dare not venture that they are difficult."