• West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.
Thursday, May 5 was a big day for Sierra Leone. So big, in fact, that the country’s president, vice president, and minister of trade and industry – as well as the US ambassador – turned up at a ceremony to mark the occasion.
So what was the grand cause for celebration? The big shots had gathered for the launch of a little juice factory here in Newton, about 30 miles outside the capital city of Freetown. The mango juice concentrate that is now churning out of the factory’s gleaming steel machinery marks Sierra Leone’s first significant value-added export since the country fell into civil war in 1991.
So, Thursday was a big day indeed.
This small West African country – whose GDP of $1.9 billion makes it one of the poorest in the region – is endowed with abundant minerals, fertile soil, and fish-heavy seas, but its economy was left in a shambles after its decade-long civil war.
Peace was declared nine years ago, but businesses are still reluctant to return to the country, where the infrastructure is thin and the red tape is thick.
For the past two decades, Sierra Leone has exported only raw materials like diamonds, rutile, and a handful of farm products, all of which are processed overseas. That means fewer jobs and less income in a country where more than two-thirds of city-dwelling youths are unemployed, according to the World Bank.
The new juice factory, which is owned by a company called Africa Felix Juice, got a critical helping hand from First Step, a commercial subsidiary of the US-based NGO World Hope International. First Step bought a 50-acre plot in Newton and – with the help of the law firm Wilmer Hale – turned it into a special economic zone (SEZ) where companies can operate free of any taxes and with the support of infrastructure like roads and sewage systems.
Africa Felix Juice is the first business to set up shop in the SEZ. First Step CEO Richard Schroeder hopes other companies from a variety of industries will fill the remaining slots within five years.
“I’ve always been frustrated with how poorly NGOs do economic development stuff,” says Mr. Schroeder, a veteran of the NGO world himself. “Businesses are really an engine of economic transformation, and [can do] all of the things that NGOs want to achieve – creating jobs and income for the poor.”
Africa Felix Juice collects its mangos from cooperatives set up among villages in Sierra Leone’s rural center, where the fruit litters the ground at this time of year, the height of the dry season. AFJ employees travel among the villages to collect the mangos, paying the fruit pickers as much as eight times what they would earn selling the same product on the local markets.
After several rounds of speeches and celebratory singing by a choir at the launch on Thursday, the visiting dignitaries and other guests were invited to tour the factory. Workers in bright yellow shirts busied themselves sorting fruit and turning dials as mango-scented steam rose from the chugging machinery.
“I think it is quite a great achievement,” Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Koroma, told The Monitor as he walked out of the factory after the tour. “It will have knock-on effects for the whole economy.”