The Oswald Hanciles Column : In June of 2007, I was in a hotel room in the posh Allen Avenue axis in Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria, when the hotel supplied-newspaper was pushed under my door. The newspaper had a full page interview with the then Leader of Sierra Leone’s opposition, the APC, and presidential candidate in the 2007 elections, Hon. Ernest Bai Koroma. (As far as I could tell, Hon. Ernest Bai Koroma was the only political leader from Sierra Leone who had gone to Nigeria for the inauguration of newly elected Nigerian President, Yar’Ardua). In that paper, Hon. Koroma was quoted as saying once he would be elected President, he would “run the country like a business”.
That pronouncement of parliamentarian, Hon. Koroma, has been echoed several times by H.E. Ernest Bai Koroma - as President of the Republic of Sierra Leone. As I made a tour of Northern Province and Eastern Province districts in Sierra Leone this past two weeks, and saw the “community banks” and “financial services” buildings dotting every chiefdom in those areas, as I spoke with the bank managers and marvelled at their innovative approach to alleviating poverty, I started putting the words of President Koroma – to “run the country like a business” – into context. In a collaborative move between the Government of Sierra Leone and International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD), rural banks are in operation all over the country. At the Pendembu Community Bank in Kailahun District, I met the mild-mannered Foday Nallo, the Acting Marketing and Loans Manager of the Bank. It smacked of an ‘African Socialism’ that understands the mindset of our rural people.
The months of November, December, January, February and March are for the harvest of palm kernels which are crushed to make palm oil. During this period there is a glut of palm oil. Palm oil would be sold at, for example, Le 44,000 a ‘batta’ (a five gallon yellow plastic container). Middle men from urban centers would buy the palm oil at that price in huge quantities, and store them in huge drums, sell some, and store most of it. During the Rainy Season, between April and September, there would be scarcity of palm oil. The market mechanism inexorably would push up the price of palm oil – to, sometimes, more three times the purchasing price. The rural farmer who would have sold his/her palm oil at Le44,000 per ‘batta’ would not get anything from this relative bonanza. So, what has the Pendembu Community Bank done about this?
‘African Socialism’ at Work in Pendembu Community Bank
According to Foday Nallo, during the peak palm producing season – the Dry Season in tropical rainforest Sierra Leone – the bank would purchase huge quantities of palm from the farmer at the going price of Le44,000. They would store the palm oil at an agreed place – with the community elders having the keys to the store, along with the bank. During the Rainy Season, the bank would sell the palm oil back to the rural farmers – making only Le9,000 profit per ‘batta’. During the Rainy Season palm oil per ‘batta’ could sell for as much as Le100,000, plus. Neat!! That is capitalism tinged with ‘African Socialism’. A bank not out to make massive profit – but, to ensure that their poor clients are the ones who ‘make the kill’.
‘Hunger Season’ used to be time to exploit farmers with Shylock-type loans
Kailahun is the major cocoa producing region in Sierra Leone. Because most farmers have not learned to save money, any time there is need for anything that would involve anything that goes beyond subsistence life, they wouldn’t have money for it. So, when it would be time for them to hire labour to brush their farms, or, buy seedlings, or, purchase fertilizers and weed killers for their farms, they would be starved of cash. Over the past thirty or so years, the farmers would turn to middle men in the district – mainly of Lebanese heritage – who are buying agents for their cocoa. These middle men would loan out money to the farmers at Shylock rates, or, in barter form. For example, during the ‘Hunger Season’ (the Rainy Season) the farmers would be desperate for food. (What is the ‘Hunger Season’? Most subsistence rural farmers appear to be incapable of thinking beyond five months. During the Dry Season when they harvest their rice, a six year old boy, for example, would eat at a single seating a bowl of rice that would normally feed SIX people. Same for most others. Overeating when there would be plenty of rice, not storing food for the ‘rainy day’, there would be hardly any food left during the Rainy Season when they cannot harvest, when the heavy downpour of rain prevents them from even going outdoors to forage for food. There would be widespread hunger in the rural areas – hence, the ‘Hunger Season’). It would be during this Hunger Season that the Lebanese middle men would reach a deal with the farmers. They would offer the farmers a bag of rice which would cost Le160,000 – and the farmer would agree to give the Lebanese merchant a bag of cocoa costing Le840,000 after they harvest their cocoa. What have the community banks done about this? Cut off the Lebanese middle man.
Loans for rural farmers with no collateral, and almost no interest
The community banks would give out loans to the farmers during the Hunger Season. The interest rate is too small to even be mentioned. Importantly, the bank would NOT demand any collateral before they give out loans to these farmers – they would only make double sure that the farmers actually own the land they claim they want to make their cocoa farm on, and their ‘integrity’ levels are endorsed by credible community elders. The banks would NOT demand monthly interest payments on loans it would give out. They would arrange for farmers to payback only after harvesting their cocoa. Most of the loans the banks give out are focussed on agriculture. But, they also give out loans for another ‘boom industry’ in the country today – commercial motorbikes. (Or, using the Nigerian name now used in Sierra Leone, ‘okada’).
After the war, there has been a surge in okada use as the main mode of transportation all over the country. Most of these okadas would be owned by elderly and moneyed people, who would contract almost entirely youth to run it for them – with the youth bringing in ‘Master Money’ every day. The youth do most of the gruelling and risky work. So, now, the banks are working with these youth to form themselves into groups of credible people, and loaning them money to invest in okadas. “They know themselves better than we know them. They know those who are honest, so, when they form groups, it is invariably of honest people. And, we have had little problems when it comes to pay back time”, Foday Nallo told me, dressed in blue and white floral shirt, wearing blue jeans, speaking in that reverential tone typical of Mende youth when speaking with an elder old enough to be his/her parent.
In Ndokorgboduma village, in Juawa Chiefdom, an entrepreneur has been upgraded to get a substantial loan to buy machinery to process palm kernels into palm oil. Another business called J.M.K. Foods in the chiefdom has also been loaned money for food processing.
Generation of Hope
Foday Nallow was born in the Tiama Section of Segbwema Chiefdom in the Kailahun District on 31st May, 1978. He has earned a B Sc Education (Economics) from Njala University College (NUC), University of Sierra Leone (2004). He attended the Ahmadiyya Muslim Secondary School in Bo Town between 1992 and 1996. His is married to Jamie; and has a seven year old son, Yusuf, who is attending ‘The Door’ International Primary School in Bo Town. While doing the interview, there were gentle intrusions from the dark-complexioned, intelligent-looking university-educated Sahr Gbonda, an intern at the Pendembu Community Bank. I was impressed. I was glad. Again, that tear lurked in my eyes, as I listened to the ‘next generation’ ready to move our country dramatically forward. This is a generation clearly proud to use their education to help the rural poor from among whom they hailed. It is because of such youthful people, who were embroiled in the nauseous excesses of our civil war between 1991 and 2002 that we must all unite to sustain the ‘running Sierra Leone like a business’ trajectory of President Ernest Bai Koroma. It is because of such youth, and the millions of rural farmers who benefit from their education and dedication, that we need to do ‘battle’ with cyber warriors like Toegondoe Sagba, based in the United States.
‘War’ on ‘Cyber Warriors’ spewing out toxic substances into Sierra Leone
There are those ‘cyber warriors’ who are ‘Sierra Leoneans’ like Toegondoe Sagba who have lived in the U.S. for between thirty to forty years. Some of them are part of the SLPP/North America branch. They are American citizens now. They are university educated – and their children have either graduated from university, or, are in one. During the ‘rebel war’ years, they would send a hundred dollar or so every three months to relatives back home. They live in homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Like with the rest of Americans, they yearly change their cars, T.V.s, micro wave ovens, etc. They left Sierra Leone during an era when politics was like a tribal war – a do or die battle between the ‘Temne-APC’ and the ‘Mende-SLPP’. From their comfortable homes in the U.S. they spew out poison in Sierra Leone. They are quite ready to turn a floodlight on every trifle, every glitch in governance – as long as the party they are opposed to is the one in governance. They fail to see that within the United States, a Hilary Clinton can be born and bred in Arkansas and win a senatorial seat in New York. In Sierra Leone, they preach that once a man is from Bombali District he should be treated like an ‘enemy’ in Kailahun District. They write as if Sierra Leoneans are an inferior species. Those of us who are here in Sierra Leone, fighting in ‘the trenches of poverty’, are on our guard to educate our people on the process of development like is being wrought by President Ernest Bai Koroma: running Sierra Leone ‘like a business’.