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.
Take Fatuma for example, a small business owner who needs capital to build his business. He works with wood and carpentry and has many clients but needs to build a proper workshop space with a proper cover and some more equipment if he wants to grow his business. He doesn't qualify for a loan today because he is illiterate and has not been keeping records of his accounts. He knows his trade and how to run the rest of his business inside out, he is just lacking the business training and book keeping and therefore is deemed too risky to receive a loan.
The training will not only provide beneficiaries with the necessary skills to access and make best use of loans, but also provide training for the loan officers so they can also deliver the training and provide the necessary mentoring support. Loan officers at SMT are typically straight from university with no previous work experience but really wish to move on from being just a relationship partner to being more of a business advisor. However, they lack the business acumen and confidence to act as business partner advisors to their clients. Their time is predominantly spent in the field, checking-in with their existing clients and locating new ones. Currently, they are at a dead end and cannot offer a solution to new clients who need more support. They do not have the skills to support them to develop their skills and SMT has not got the resources or expertise to do so either.
The programme will allow SMT to not only provide loans, but also be involved in ideas generation, business planning, and ongoing support for their recipients, and have a closer relationship which will reduce the likelihood of the loan being defaulted on. In doing so we will significantly widen the number of recipients SMT can support (with a target of 70). If this pilot in the Bombali district is successful, the model could then be replicated in other regions and the number of beneficiaries reached greatly increased.
Whoever the people choose come 17 November will be responsible for guiding the country through a critical stage in its development. With foreign investors waiting to take advantage of the countries rich mineral resources, it is vital that the money is properly managed and capacity built so that everyone can benefit.
If you are a skilled professional interested in joining the team for this exciting pilot, visit www.thecollectivesl.co.uk
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