Sierra Leone's Ebola outbreak was declared over in early November
The country's economy was already struggling due to a collapse in the price of iron ore, one of its principal exports
Rebuilding the health sector, investing in infrastructure and attracting private enterprise are priorities, experts say
Sierra Leone has now been free from Ebola for nearly two months, after the World Health Organization declared the outbreak on Saturday November 7.
The epidemic killed more than 11,000 people across West Africa – 4,800 in Sierra Leone – and devastated the social sectors in countries that were already among the poorest in the world. Schools and other public services closed, markets shut down as people avoided congregating. With insurance premiums for international businesses skyrocketing, ships did not dock, investors cancelled trips and the nascent tourism industry all but shut down.
The outbreak came at a point when the region was already struggling with a downturn in commodity prices, which had put the brakes on economic growth. The price of iron ore – the principal export of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia – has collapsed, falling from $136 per tonne in January 2014 to around $56 per tonne today, leaving all three countries without one of their major sources of hard currency.
African Minerals, one of Sierra Leone’s largest investors in iron ore, went into administration in March, having shuttered its Tonkolili mine the previous November. It followed London Mining, which closed its operations in the country in October 2014.
How to turn the economy around
This only adds to the difficulties that the country faces in its recovery, but Sisay is adamant that there are ways to turn the economy around.
“The opportunity is great because the challenges are so stark. We need to focus on things that we can do something about in the immediate future,” he says.
Agriculture, which is the country’s biggest employer, is one area of focus, he says – although quarantines and restrictions to the movement of goods hit production, and the sector will also need time to recover.
Bringing investors back in, by improving the business climate and reassuring companies that the country is safe and stable, will also be crucial.
“I think the government really as a matter of policy needs to take a hard look at how we attract investors,” Sisay says. “I think the government needs to go out and do some massive PR … the stigma will last as long as you allow it to last, in my view… We need to go out and tell people that Ebola has finished, but also to reaffirm to people that there are good, strong protocols in place that won’t allow us to get back to the epidemic stage again.”
A recovery strategy
Before the outbreak, Sierra Leone was already heavily dependent on aid money. Around 50% of public expenditure programmes were financed by donors, according to UN figures. However, the economy was expanding rapidly – growth peaked at more than 20% in 2013, before the crisis hit. This year, Sierra Leone’s economy is forecast to contract by nearly 24%.
Without growth and investment, the country will struggle to create jobs for its young population – many of whom lack stable employment – and rebuild public services.
The government’s recovery strategy, which is supported by the international community, is about “building back better,” says Sudipto Mukerjee, the United Nations Development Program’s country director for Sierra Leone. This is particularly relevant to the health sector, which was seriously under-developed before the crisis began, and its weakness undoubtedly contributed to the speed with which the outbreak got out of control.
“When you’re talking about the health sector, you’re not talking about bringing it back to where you were at the beginning of the outbreak,” he says. “That’s not good enough. It’s also about making sure that you not only build on the investments made so far, but you invest to make it much more resilient in the future.”
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged in aid money from international donors, and infrastructure projects have restarted, bringing short-term growth and improving the long-term business environment in the country, Mukerjee says.
A new hope
There are already tentative signs that the recovery is beginning. Schools have reopened and some business is returning.
John Lyon, president and CEO of World Hope International, a US-based relief and development charity, has just returned from Sierra Leone, where his organization has been working throughout the Ebola response. He says he is hopeful that the resilience that Sierra Leoneans have demonstrated through this and previous crises will allow the country to return to its previous growth trajectory.
“I think Sierra Leone has really got to get back to the basics where they were really trying to focus on anti-corruption, focus on developing energy and water,” he says.
In partnership with the government, World Hope International runs a special economic zone for small manufacturers, connecting agricultural businesses with export markets. The zone mostly closed down during the outbreak, and is looking for financing to help bring it back to its feet. Even so, a new tenant just signed up – a small company packaging single-serve coffees for export.
“That’s happening right now, post-Ebola,” Lyon says. “They’re moving into their factory space right now. That’s a sign that Sierra Leone can recover.”
Watch the video above to learn more about the country’s plans to recover.