In Sierra Leone, politics means a good excuse for a party. There is no space for the stuffiness usually associated with the subject. With one candidate using the slogan ‘When the music’s nice, play it twice’, you know there will be some fun. Over the past fortnight, each party has had its chance to parade through the town, dressed head to toe in their colours chanting slogans of support for their candidate. In one rally, the candidate threw party coloured footballs into the adoring crowd. Everywhere you go, people are talking (and dancing) politics and with just 10 days until the country goes to the polls, the race is too close to call.
Alongside the fun, there are serious matters to be debated. Sierra Leone is at a critical point in its development. Despite some progress, Sierra Leone’s recovery remains fragile and the country ranks 180 of 187 on the UNDP development index with 77% of Sierra Leone’s living in poverty and 62.79% living on less than $1.25 a day (UNDP Multidimensional Poverty Index 2011). Youth unemployment is staggering high with 70% underemployed or unemployed and 50% illiterate and unskilled (Joint Response to Youth Employment in Sierra Leone 2010). In recent global competitivity report, Sierra Leone ranked 143 out of 144. Infrastructure, corruption and an uneducated workforce were amongst the biggest barriers to development, but topping all of these was the lack of access to financial support.
Microfinance organisations are trying to address this issue, but many do not have the capacity to support those who most need it. Currently, many small business owners are seen as too risky to receive loans despite vast experience in trade. This is because they are unable to show adequate book keeping skills to prove their business viable and do not have an organisation to act as a guarantor. Loan officers, many fresh from University, who could provide training and mentoring to this group, do not themselves currently feel confident enough to provide the support needed.
Capacity building organisation The Collective – Sierra Leone have just agreed a partnership with Salone Microfinance Trust (SMT) to try and address this issue and help SMT towards its mission to ‘reduce poverty among the economically active poor by providing sustainable access to financial services’. In January, with the support of talented professionals from around the world who believe in using business to fight poverty, we will launch a pilot project to establish a framework that will allow the economically active poor, who were previously seen as too risky for a loan, to have access to microfinance.