The event was organised by the London based foreign investment promotions company – Developing Markets Associates Ltd. (DMA), in partnership with SLIEPA and supported by the UN, ECOWAS, Mano River Union, FCO, and UKTI.
President Koroma was to have led his delegation to London for the event, but pulled out for some unknown reason, leaving his foreign minister to carry the baton.
The UK-Sierra Leone Trade & Investment Forum was billed as the country’s most significant investment outreach in recent years. In 2010 president Koroma led a similar delegation to London to sell the country’s investment potential, hosted by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
But that event was not much of a success, despite an overwhelming turnout by British companies and potential investors, looking for viable and safe investment opportunities in Africa.
Last week’s event was attended by 300 participants, representing 100 British companies, DMA told the Sierra Leone Telegraph.
Foreign minister Kamara and Sierra Rutile CEO – John Sisay, spoke about the opportunities that exist for foreign investors in key sectors of Sierra Leone’s economy – energy, extractives, agriculture industry and infrastructure.
The UK-Sierra Leone Trade & Investment Forum is said to be an important part of Sierra Leone’s post-Ebola economic recovery plan, where president Koroma was expected to have presented his government’s agenda to restore and strengthen private sector growth, and to encourage new inward investments.
Since the launch of his government’s Private Sector Development Strategy in 2011, the number of businesses employing less than 50 people have suffered rapid decline, as the non-mining economy continued to contract.
With rising interest rates and the overall climate for doing business darkened by corruption and red tape, few businesses achieve their growth potential, whilst new start-ups find it almost impossible to get off the ground.
Poor access to affordable start-up finance, lack of dedicated business premises, poor access to electricity and water; heavily congested roads, unavailability of skilled and highly trained workforce, unreliable and expensive internet connectivity and telephone charges, are seriously hampering the survival of new enterprises.
Foreign investors looking for opportunities for high and safe returns in the African continent are more than likely to look at countries where, the cost and climate of doing business are not driven by poor governance, corruption and poor regulatory standards.
Senior ministers along with an entourage of high-level private sector representatives from Sierra Leone, highlighted some of the reforms, and spoke about the enabling environment that they say the government is creating to allow for sustainable business growth, facilitate economic diversification and demonstrate to the investor community that the country is truly ‘open for business’.
Sierra Leone being classed by the latest Transparency International Corruption Index report as one of the most corrupt in Africa, does not help the country’s image, especially with neighbouring Liberia perceived as less corrupt.
But British Minister for Africa – James Duddridge was optimistic. In a speech aimed at encouraging British companies and investors to look favourably at Sierra Leone in making their investment decisions, he said this:
I have just had a meeting with Dr Kamara, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations. Our governments have worked closely for many years, but particularly so over the last two years to defeat the terrible scourge of Ebola. I was delighted when your country was declared free of the disease in November.
It is right that we acknowledge the tragic impact of that devastating outbreak on Sierra Leone and its people. It is also right that we start to put this terrible episode behind us.
I remember visiting Sierra Leone in 2013 and it was one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. That was only three years ago. I hope Sierra Leone will return to hyper-growth rates and a thriving business environment.
This morning I am going to set out why the UK Government sees potential in Sierra Leone, what we believe is needed to realise that potential, and what opportunities we believe this holds for you as investors.
I lived and worked in Africa for many years. My experience was one of energetic entrepreneurs, burgeoning businesses, a rising middle class, potential and drive in equal measure. Doing business is in Sierra Leoneans’ DNA.
The UK Government is committed to supporting Sierra Leone’s recovery. We have pledged over £240 million over the next two years to support the President’s plans for recovery.
This assistance is a part of a wider picture, because we are committed to promoting trade, investment and prosperity right across Africa. I am delighted that Guy Warrington will be going out as our new High Commissioner to Sierra Leone.
We have created a new Prosperity Fund – worth £1.3 billion – to promote conditions for sustainable and inclusive growth. A significant proportion is earmarked for Africa.
This Government is also delivering on our commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on international development, of which Sierra Leone is a beneficiary. I have been working closely with Justine Greening at the Department for International Development, who has visited Sierra Leone a number of times, and my DFID counterpart Nick Hurd.
However, aid alone will not ensure Sierra Leone’s long term recovery. It needs investment too, and that means an improved business environment.
The government of Sierra Leone has drafted its plan for post-Ebola recovery. It has identified priorities for recovery over the next two years: health, education, social protection, infrastructure, energy, water, and the development of the private sector. These will all be critical in getting Sierra Leone back onto the path of sustainable development.
It is encouraging to see that the President and his Ministers recently proposed to include a new Governance pillar in the recovery plan. We support this step towards addressing some of the big challenges around procurement, payroll, and corruption.
We are working in partnership with the government of Sierra Leone to encourage them to create the business environment that will reassure and attract investors.
Some UK companies, such as Standard Chartered Bank are already there. They, alongside Herbert Smith Freehills and Prudential, helped Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak by producing the Investor Guide for Sierra Leone – a great example of the private sector coming together to help the country on its path to long-term recovery.
My parliamentary colleague James Cleverly, MP for Braintree and a fellow Essex MP, whose mother was Sierra Leonean, was recently in Sierra Leone. I hope to do more to work with the Sierra Leonean diaspora across the country.
It’s worth taking a moment here to recognise the country’s enviable natural advantages: Its rich mineral deposits.
Its huge potential in renewable energy, in particular solar and hydro-electric – I should say here that Sierra Leone was one of the first countries on the continent to sign up to the Department for International Development’s Africa Energy Campaign which promotes access to solar powered electricity – which is now much cheaper, more accessible and reliable.
Its strategic shipping location on the Atlantic seaboard of West Africa, with one of the largest natural harbours in the world. Its millions of hectares of forests and fertile agricultural land, and abundant fish stocks.
Sierra Leone is also well placed to benefit from the huge economic growth we expect to see across the continent. Consumer demand from its emerging middle class is growing and that trend is set to continue as Africa’s population is forecast to double by 2050 [UN Population Data].
So in conclusion I urge you to listen closely to what you hear today. Sierra Leone has put Ebola behind it. The UK Government is supporting trade and investment, reconstruction and prosperity. Doing more business provides taxation for the government. We should be proud of what we’re doing to help Sierra Leone back to double digit growth rates.
Sierra Leone has huge potential. Its government has a plan for recovery and has identified its priority sectors. From mining and renewable energy to project management and environmental services.
Finally, this country’s strong historic ties with Sierra Leone, our long-term friendship, together with the familiarity with English, present UK companies with a unique advantage. I urge you to seize it with both hands. (End of speech).
But did minister Samura and his high-powered delegation return to Sierra Leone full of optimism?
With the British Standard Chartered Bank caught in the middle of what has been described as ‘an increasingly bitter feud’ between the government of Sierra Leone and the heavily-indebted Octéa Limited – owner of the country’s biggest diamond mine at Koidu, British investors will be watching very closely.
Other recent foreign investment fiasco included the iron ore mining giant African Minerals Ltd., London Mining, and the sugar cane ethanol company – Addax. These companies have faced serious financial difficulties, leaving some of their foreign investors well out of pocket.
Critics have accused the Koroma government of putting the interests of ministers and officials ahead of corporate good governance and due diligence, as well as failing to provide a healthy business climate – free of political interference, for all private investors in the country.
The Koroma led government of Sierra Leone must clean up its image fast, if it is to convince European foreign investors to come to Sierra Leone, rather than head to southern Africa, or even neighbouring Liberia.
But the Chinese are more than grateful for the knockdown prices they are paying the government, to take over European companies that are struggling to survive in Sierra Leone’s increasingly turbulent political and investment climate.