Author: Manson, Katrina
Date published: February 1, 2010
On the so-called dark continent, two countries are showing signs of light
SIERRA LEONE KATRINA MANSON profiles a country that has survived bloody civil war and moved on under a progressive president, attracting new investment from the likes of George Soros
Sierra Leone has just got its very own 'business bomba'. In case you're not familiar with Krio - the national dialect evolved in the slave-trading years of the 17th century, when English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Yoruba mingled into one along west Africa's turbulent coast - 'bomba' translates as one heck of an accolade, a catch-all word to denote the big cat who has befriended fortune and success. And Eva Roberts is it.
Roberts, from the steamy seaside capital Freetown, has just beaten off 300 competing aspirant entrepreneurs for her winning chunk of $200,000 in prize money, stumped up by an even bigger bomba - billionaire investor George Soros, no less - alongside the British taxpayer, who gives more money to each Sierra Leonean than anyone else in the world, and the government of Sierra Leone, to reward her idea to process the fresh leaves of the Moringa plant into a nutritional food supplement.
The nation that for so long ranked at the bottom of the UN's human development index - it has at least climbed up a notch in the past year - is developing this embrace of business under the watch of President Ernest Bai Koroma, elected in 2007 in a rare example of an African opposition party coming to power through the ballot box.
"The country has the genuine potential to become a leading African economy,' said Soros to a recent investor conference in London. 'Sierra Leone is a stable state where good governance has taken hold.'
A former insurance executive who said he wanted to run the country like a business, Koroma has introduced performance contracts for his ministers, declared his assets, sacked corrupt officials and won additional praise from, among others, Prince Charles and Tony Blair. These are not small achievements, given the circumstances Koroma inherited.
This former British colony was devastated by the civil war that lasted from 199 1 to 2002. More than 50,000 were killed, a million displaced, infrastructure and jobs destroyed, farms abandoned and gruesome atrocities meted out from all sides on a terrified population, village to village, town to town, year after year. Yet today Sierra Leone is one of the most hopeful countries on the continent, even if its successes to date are tentative steps rather than confident strides.
'Manufacturing today is almost zilch. We wanted to change attitudes and mindsets about entrepreneurship: people thought running businesses is only for foreigners, or it meant you were a failure because you didn't have a job,' says Manja Kargbo at the African Foundation for Development, which ran the competition won by Eva Roberts to bring often illiterate applicants who knew nothing of bookkeeping, customer care or how to access credit into the world of business. 'But now people are really starting to think about it as a first option; seeing it as a way of life rather thanjusttogetby.'
I first came here in 2006, to write a travel guide to a country most people connected solely with the horrific atrocities that were the rebels' calling-cards - amputating limbs with machetes, child soldiers gunning down their parents, even the odd chimp armed with a Kalashnikov at a checkpoint. Back then, one of the most frequent self-slurs of which Sierra Leoneans seemed fond was that they were all lazy and going nowhere fast.
But I can't square that with the women who pile eight baskets of charcoal on top of their heads as they glide through the slums making far less than their proverbial buck, the men who work out on the beach by 6 a.m. every morning, drenched in the sweat of their effort, or the hawkers who sell face flannels to drivers parked in traffic in the dripping heat.
Nor can I square it with Sahid Koroma, who works so hard he often sleeps in his dishevelled office in the murky east end of Freetown, paint peeling off the walls, damp creeping through the ceiling, aircon unit hanging down, and who might just be Sierra Leone's best entrepreneur. He is the biggest rice farmer in the country, running an $8 million business, and the proud new producer of a domestic soap product, made from palm kernels collected by 500,000 farmers throughout the land.
'The business is very profitable - 20 to 30 per cent margin in some areas, and it's creating jobs for the people, that's the main thing,' says Koroma, whose greatest lament is the absence of capital to invest and expand his business with more factories.
'Why would you import soap from Asia when Sierra Leone is one of the countries that Malaysia got its palm oil from?' he says of soap's key ingrethent. It is one reason investors are backing the country, keen to farm palm oil on a large scale in its lush lands, as well as sugar cane for bio-ethanol.
'If you have a business that was destroyed in the war, then rebuilt it, saw it destroyed again, and rebuilt again, I don't care whether you've been to Harvard Business School or not, it means you're a good manager,' says Tom Cairnes of Manocap, an investment fund focused on Sierra Leone that has raised more than $20 million in three years. The country might have fewer than 40 significant enterprises of any size, but Cairnes is putting his money where his mouth is - along with that of George Soros, plus private investors, development finance institutions including the UK's CDC and a board chaired by Lord Stevenson of Coddenham and featuring Peter Davies of Lansdowne Partners and Graham Wrigley, chairman of ┴ureos.
Manocap has trawled through business plans, investing so far in a fisheries company, an ice factory and the country's first mobile money transfer service, Splash!, which launched late last year. It hopes to capture 500,000 customers of the country's 1.6 million registered phones and manage returns of more than 30 per cent.
'There's a big black hole of information - those outside the country can't see what's going on. But it's an amazing investment opportunity,' Cairnes tells me over a Chinese meal in Freetown: a Welshman ordering his favourite dishes in fluent Krio from the manager, Chin Chin, one of several Chinese residents running businesses here. 'You have reasonably good political stability, amazing natural resources, some really capable people in government. . . and people don't see it: they think Sierra Leone is this ridiculous post-conflict country. The true test is whether we can persuade [Soros's] hedge fund to do it, rather than his not-for-profit fund.'
There's plenty to suggest things might fall into place. Sierra Leone now has a functioning hydroelectric dam that took 30 years of corruption, war and theft to make, which supplies 50 MW to the national grid. It has a president who must surely be a strong candidate for the $5 million Mo Ibrahim prize for good governance when he steps down: South African telephone tycoon Ibrahim's index rates this the most improved country for governance in the past two years. Anti-corruption bodies have named and shamed corrupt diamond dealers, indicted a serving minister, and clawed back $1 million for government coffers. Even the army, ten years ago made up of coup-plotters, rebel remnants and even alleged cannibals, is becoming a guardian of global peace, taking up international peacekeeping duties with the UN this year in Sudan.
Expected to record economic growth of around 4 per cent in 2009, double the average rate of the African continent Sierra Leone's tiny $1.4 billion economy discovered oil last September and is desperate to avoid the 'resource curse' that has led to corruption and bloodshed in the past. The country is still horrendously poor, so low on infrastructure one British gold company sitting on the proverbial goldmine can't start production: not for lack of money or gold, but for lack of roads and power.
When the country celebrates 50 years of next year, so poor and few are its facilities that the tourist board wants to put up prestigious guests on a ship hotel moored out at sea. But the best indication that the country has turned a corner is the willingness of those who have left to return, intending to stake their cash earned in the West on an experiment at home.
The Office of Diaspora Affairs estimates that 50,000 Sierra Leoneans have returned since the end of the war. Among them is Melvin Lisk, a 29-year-old part-time model who had been living in America, but who returned to take over his family's bottled water business, Grafton Water, sourced from a spring in the forested hills of the peninsula. 'Sierra Leone has a lot of water problems so it's a profitable business,' says Lisk, who has introduced a cheaper water range, Gee Fresh, sold in sachets, and is now planning a juice line. He says his business employs 50 people, churns out 9.5 million bottles a year and is worth $5 million. ? love being responsible, doing something that can make some difference. I feel like I have achieved something here - 1 have my own company, I employ people, that's a huge responsibility,' says Lisk, who says his biggest ambition is to make the factory run 24 hours and employ more people. Sierra Leone's bombas are on their way.
Katrina Manson is Reuters correspondent for DR Congo and co-author of the Bradt Guide to Sierra Leone
SIERRA LEONE'S ECONOMY AT A GLANCE
GDP: $4.4 billion
Growth rate: 55 per cent
GDP per capita: $900
Population: 6.4 million
Population below age 14: 45 per cent
Population below poverty line: 70 per cent
Foreign direct investment $50 million
Inflation: 11.7 per cent
Exports: $216 million
Imports: $560 million
Source: CIA World Fact Book
In the civil war years, children were soldiers
RWANDA Elliot Wilson visits a small and once strife-torn nation that has big ambitions to become a regional business hub
There is something exotically African yet reassuringly Western about the Republic of Rwanda, a tiny, hilly nation of 10 million people in the heart of a troubled continent.
Rwanda has - it hardly needs to be said - suffered its fair share of strife: colonial occupation, assassinated presidents and, worst of all, the 1994 Hutu-led genocide that left as many as one million dead, most of them minority Tutsis. Wars with its neighbour Congo left Rwanda penniless. By the turn of the millennium it was a hollow shell of a nation, in danger of becoming a failed state.
Yet that hasn't happened. Rather, thanks to a driven and even revered leader, Paul Kagame, and an influx of British and American-led aid and investment, Rwanda has become a rare African success story.
Statistics reveal the country's almost miraculous turnaround. In the decade to 1998, Rwanda's economy shrank by around a third. Yet in the five years up to the end of 2009, GDP grew by an average 8.8 per cent, and by 1 1.2 per cent in 2008 alone, the highest growth rate in Africa. Global investors have taken note: foreign direct investment into the country hit $103 million in 2008, according to the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), a ten-fold increase in three years.
Oddly, unlike most of its neighbours, Rwanda's rise has not been fuelled by carbon or minerals. Africa boasts nine-tenths of the world's cobalt and platinum, half of all its gold, and one-third of all uranium, along with substantial oil reserves in Angola, Sudan, and Nigeria. Congo alone holds 70 per cent of the world's reserves of coltan, a metallic ore found in virtually every mobile phone.
Rwanda is largely bereft of all of these commodities. Yet a lack of mineral riches may, ironically, have been the nation's salvation. The government in Kigali is free to fret over corruption, health and education, rather than how to spend its petrodollars, or arm-wrestling with demanding global oil firms.
The next step for President Kagame is to diversify Rwanda's economy away from the basic industries of agriculture and tourism, and to build a new identity for a nation known in the 1990s as a country of '3Gs' - gorillas, guerrillas and genocide. Tourism, largely associated with the country's dazzling array of wildlife - from birdwatching to the mountain gorillas of Virunga Park, made famous by American zoologist Dian Fossey - is the country's biggest foreign exchange earner, drawing in $209 million in revenues in 2007. Agriculture will remain a major earner, notably through the export of coffee, grown at high altitude and sold globally in premium packs to the likes of Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's.
But Kagame's government has set its sights well beyond gorillas and green tea. By 20 12, Rwanda aims to give a laptop to every child aged between nine and 12- 1.3 million computers in all. The $313 million project, supported by One Laptop Per Child, an American charity linked to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hopes to extend the programme to kids aged between six and eight by 2015.
Meanwhile a broadband network is being built that will link every household in the land, with the aim of helping Rwanda become a 'mini-India' - a 'business process outsourcing' specialist providing software and call-centre support to both anglophone and francophone customers. Rwanda was named 'best reformer' in the World Bank's Doing Business report 2010 - the first such award for a sub-Saharan African nation - after seeing its ranking rise from 143rd to 67th in a year.
Clare Akamanzi is the deputy chief executive in charge of business operations at the RDB, a body in charge of fast-tracking private and public sector investment - and she epitomises the changes driving Rwanda. A career diplomat who has worked in London and Geneva, she returned to Kigali when the RDB was formed in 2008.
Akamanzi says Rwanda feels like a country on the move, yet it still needs to convince the world that the wheels are rolling. 'Until recently, if you asked people about Rwanda, the first thing they thought about was the 1994 genocide, and so thinking about Rwanda as a place for doing business was far-fetched,' she says. 'But in the past five years so much has changed. We're getting into information technology, financial services, logistics and distribution, energy exports'.
Foreign investment is starting to stream into the country, across multiple sectors. State-run Chinese firm New Century Tourism Group is building two new hotels in Kigali. Luxembourg-based emerging-markets tÚlÚcoms specialist Millicom is investing $145 million to extend the country's wireless infrastructure. And York-based energy firm ContourGlobal is investing $325 million in methane-extraction platforms built on Lake Kivu, a beautiful stretch of water straddling the Rwanda-Congo border.
The Kivu project, run by the newly-formed Rwanda Investment Group, sums up Rwanda's ambition, and its determination to extract maximum return from a truly scanty pool of resources. The first methane platform is already up and running on the lake's northern tip, and set to generate 100 megawatts of electricity by the end of this year. That's step one in a multi-stage plan to extract 50-55 billion cubic metres of renewable methane gas from the lakebed. Further down the line, Rwanda plans to export electricity to Congo and Burundi by 2015. Beyond methane, a Sussex-based emissions-reduction firm, Eco Positive, has invested $250 million in biodiesel-processing jatropha plants, a renewable source with the potential to make up onefifth of domestic diesel demand.
Look beyond the rising Western investment, however, and this is still a resoundingly African nation. Soaring scenery provides the backdrop to a nation of people determined to avoid a return to the horrors of the 1990s. They are also people of notably relaxed demeanour - so business appointments are honoured more in the breach than in the observance. During my own recent visit, every interview had to be either cancelled or rescheduled. One in particular, a long-planned meeting with the managing director of the Bank of Kigali, the country's largest lender and a recent takeover target of Barclays, had to be scrapped altogether when it was found that the MD was on holiday and unlikely to be back 'for several weeks'.
No matter: in Kigali, one accepts the local norms. And there is always something to do. At the Capital Market Advisory Council, Rwanda's version of the Financial Services Authority, executive director Robert Mathu is working flat out on the listing of Bralirwa, the country's largest brewery, owned 70 per cent by the Dutch brewing giant Heineken. When Bralirwa sells shares to retail and institutional customers in April or May 2010 on the Rwanda Stock Exchange it will be the first domestic flotation by an indigenous firm.
Mathu - who is only 45 minutes late for our interview - hopes it will be first of many. Kigali is planning to sell down stakes in several state firms in the coming years, including cement maker Cimerwa, BCR Bank, leading life insurer Sonarwa, and MTN Rwanda, the local division of the South African tÚlÚcoms giant. Beyond stock listings, the broader aim is to turn Kigali into a banking and broking hub for East Africa - a region of 120 million people encompassing Tanzania and Kenya -just as Nigeria is to West Africa. 'We have a very attractive incentive to invest here,' says Mathu. He points to zero capital gains taxes for local and foreign investors and a withholding tax on dividends of just 5 per cent.
Our eyes are on the prize,' says the ambitious Mathu with a smile. 'We want to emerge as the most innovative and flexible financial market in the region.' Capable and creative if chronologically challenged, Mathu encapsulates the new spirit of a country that has emerged from madness and now stands on the cusp of a truly remarkable transformation.
Elliot Wilson is an associate editor of Spectator Business; he also writes for Euromoney, Barrons, the Observer and The Spectator
RWANDA'S ECONOMY AT A GLANCE
GDP: $9.8 billion
Growth rate: 11.2 per cent
GDP per capita: $900
Population: 10.5 million
Population below age 14: 42 per cent
Population below poverty line: 60 per cent
Foreign direct investment $103 million
Inflation: 15.4 per cent
Exports: $210 million
Imports: $834 million
Source: CIA World Fact Book
Kigali is attracting investors, even if meetings never start on time