My plan to deal with Sierra Leone’s colossal doing business problem

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Sierra Leone has a major problem when it comes to attracting businesses, but Marda Mustapha, executive director of the new National Investment Board, says plans are afoot to boost growth.

Nicky Oppenheimer, the former chairman of the diamond giant De Beers, used to warm up audiences at corporate events with an anecdote from the many years his company was invested in my country, Sierra Leone. He would tell how his father Harry and other members of the Oppenheimer dynasty sent young Nicky to Sierra Leone to learn the diamond business in the 1960s.

“They did not send me to Sierra Leone because it was easy,’ Nicky would say. `They sent me there because it was hard – if I could do business in Sierra Leone, I could do business anywhere in the world.”

Nicky went on to run De Beers for two decades so on the one level I should be proud that Sierra Leone was the finishing school for his success. But there is another level at which the story makes me anything but proud: the implication that doing business here might not be straightforward.

Yet the reality is an anecdote from six decades ago still resonates. The World Bank’s 2020 index on Ease of Doing Business placed Sierra Leone 163rd out of the 190 nations assessed across the world. Closer analysis shows Sierra Leone has been stuck around the 160th position no matter that our brutal civil war ended two decades ago in 2002.

And the same poor performance globally is repeated regionally. Between 2013 and 2018 Sierra Leone’s average annual foreign direct investment was less than 3% of the total invested in the West African region. Even in the sub-region, the Mano River Union, which links us to our neighbours, Guinea and Liberia, we came last.

If my three decades as a professional in the fields of international political economics and philosophy has taught me anything it is that you can only solve a problem if you properly identify a problem. Honesty, no matter how painful, is essential. So here is the key admission: in Sierra Leone we have a colossal problem when it comes to doing business.

The good news is that after four years of advocacy, policy analysis and legislative fine tuning I firmly believe we now have the solution.

That solution is the newly-minted National Investment Board (NIB), a single locus for stimulating, protecting and developing business in Sierra Leone, a supreme commercial oversight body forensically dissected in parliament and now fully empowered through its own bespoke legislation, The National Investment Board Act of 2022.

The NIB, which I have been appointed to run as Executive Director, does not seek to reinvent the wheel. On the contrary it seeks to redesign and reengineer the existing wheel, so it runs truer, faster and smoother than ever before.

At its heart we are motivated by the fight against two pernicious “C”s: Complexity and Corruption.

Anyone seeking to do business in Sierra Leone in recent years could be forgiven a sense of being lost in a maze as they tackled a multi-headed hydra of business-related bodies, all demanding attention, time, focus and resources. These included the Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency, the Public Private Partnership Unit, the Corporate Affairs Commission, as well as key government ministries, departments and agencies.

Each involved registration and fiscal tax responsibilities and that was only the national level. The local level involved another tier altogether of local councils, most notably the Freetown City Council, which covers our capital city, which were also enmeshed in a web of statutory and regulatory challenges.

Little wonder the World Bank survey found any business, from a global multinational to a local entrepreneur,r faced an average of 857 working days just to jump through the procedural hoops required before they could say “we are open for business”. Even the process of paying tax was a bureaucratic ordeal: the average time required to fill in all tax forms and make payment was an eye-watering 14 working days per year!

Our new investment body sweeps away all of this duplicative bureaucracy. The alphabet soup of SLIEPE, PPPU, CAC, MDAs, LCs and FCC becomes instead a single omnipotent three-letter abbreviation, the NIB, under the chairmanship of President Julius Maada Bio himself, so completely is he invested in making the new body work.

Instead of complexity the NIB offers clarity. Our office, which is to be housed in two newly-built city centre offices in Freetown with its own staff, specially trained and recruited, will be a “One Stop Shop” so that any successor of Mr Oppenheimer will have to go to one office, indeed one desk with one professional adviser, to go through the entire process of registering, licensing and launching their business.

No more driving around Freetown on wild-goose chases for bureaucrats who might be on leave. We even road tested the traffic conditions and found that journeys to agencies that should take 5 minutes actually took 55 minutes. The efficiency advantage from collocation is enormous.

But the NIB is more than an exercise in traffic jam avoidance. The act is compellingly clear on the powers the NIB will have. The NIB will not duplicate the Finance Ministry for example but it will provide a portal to that ministry so that the required processes are completed promptly and decisively. The act spells out how no ministry or agency can delay or obfuscate. In effect, the NIB will act like adrenalin shot to the country’s commercial oversight bureaucracy, streamlining registration procedures and stimulating activity.

As a professional who has experience with foreign investors in Sierra Leone I am all too aware of the other pernicious “C” that does so much damage to economic development: Corruption. The NIB is committed to drive out corruption through transparency, accountability and, if necessary, criminal sanction.

Corruption comes in many forms but a major block to investment in Sierra Leone is breach of confidentiality: a business seeking to position itself in the country is beaten to a tender because its offer details have been “sold” to a rival. The NIB’s founding act makes clear anyone in the organisation, from a secretary privy to information picked up in canteen chatter, to me at the top of the pyramid, faces a hefty fine and jail time for leaking sensitive secrets.

In this regard let Singapore be a model for Sierra Leone. In the 1950s Singapore was a malarial fishing community with average annual earnings of $427. Today its average earnings are among the world’s highest, at $38,000. A cast-iron commitment to fight corruption in Singapore was in large part responsible for this transformation. Civil servants were paid well, on a par with the private sector, but with a clear and enforced rule – give in to corruption and you lose everything, steal a pencil from the department stationery cupboard and you go to jail.

The NIB I am heading does pay its officers well but with the exact same warning: do your job and you will be well remunerated, allow corruption to grow under you and you lose everything. It is chastening to know the latest International Monetary Fund figures report Sierra Leone’s average annual earnings today are $472, serendipitously similar to Singapore’s before its transformation.

For too long private business has been stunted in Sierra Leone, its growth hampered by Complexity and Corruption. Modern economic history shows us that growth happens not when it is centrally planned and controlled, more when it is stimulated and supported.

That is the transformation that NIB brings to Sierra Leone. Under this new framework which I am committed to deliver, the driving factor for the successors of Nicky Oppenheimer to come to Sierra Leone will not be because doing business here is a challenge. They will come here precisely because of the enormous potential for opportunity, growth and profit.

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