It is a recognition that diversified, broad-based growth is essential to building a resilient national economy, one less reliant on commodities.
It is a recognition that in many sectors the private sector can now deliver “leapfrog” advances in finance, telecommunications, energy, health and even education, advances that hold the possibility of improving lives within years rather than over generations.
Each of these conclusions is well-grounded, and each has been validated by the experience of public and private sector leaders across Sub-Saharan African countries in recent decades.
This week, as the head of the U.S. Government’s development finance institution—the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC)—I will be in Sierra Leone with an investor delegation to meet with government officials and business leaders so that, together, we can identify commercially viable opportunities to bring more capital, technology and development impact into the economy.
OPIC’s role is to provide long-term loans and risk mitigation to support these investments. Our portfolio in Sub-Saharan Africa has grown by more than $6 billion under the Obama Administration. However, that is still too small, and we aim to change that.
We have come to show our solidarity with the people of Sierra Leone as they recover from the devastating effects of Ebola and the collapse of commodity prices.
We have come to listen to government, business and community leaders, who are invariably in the best position to know the needs and potential of the domestic economy, and to know what needs to be done to attract and keep the private investment that is so essential to job creation.
We have come to offer Sierra Leoneans face-to-face access to seasoned investors in Africa who can provide insights into what types of investments have proven successful in other nations, and which factors have been critical for success.
Perhaps most important, we are here to help send a message to the rest of the world that Sierra Leone’s economy is open for business.
Around the world, investors know of Sierra Leone’s impressive abundance of resources, resources above and beyond the minerals sector.
They know of the major rivers that hold the promise of hydropower. They know of the climate, which garners enough steady sunlight to power solar energy.
They read about the teeming fishery stocks, which feed the families of so many Sierra Leoneans and are valued as high as $100 million. They hear about the diverse agricultural crops—rice, sweet potato, cassava, among others—and the talents and drive of the workforce.
These are all tangible assets that can and should be given a greater chance to propel the nation toward greater prosperity.
What foreign investors want to see, and what we will be discussing with local leaders this week, is how Sierra Leone will use this pivotal period of the next few years.
They want to know, for example, whether new initiatives to attract investment will be put into place. Will infrastructure development proceed with an eye toward regional projects so that costs can be shared with neighboring countries? History has shown that small markets can overcome the disadvantages of their size by creating links to larger transportation, communication and supply networks.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether Sierra Leone can draw on the experience of other African nations when it comes to attracting private investment and improving institutions, large and small, that are responsible for the day-to-day workings of government.
As someone who has long worked in Africa, I have seen investors simply ignore small countries. I have later had the joy of watching those same countries reform their laws, regulations and ministries faster than experts predicted and, as a result, secure important investments in roads, cellular networks, water systems, and off-grid solar stations, among others.
Reforms are hard work, but the pay-off is huge. Indeed, investment climate reform is one reason we at OPIC have been able to increase our portfolio in Sub-Saharan Africa so rapidly. The road was paved for us.
We can see such a road ahead for Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone has inspired the world with its courage and resilience these past few years. Ahead is the time to inspire through reform, growth and prosperity that reaches all levels of society in Sierra Leone.
The author is President and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the development finance institution of the United States government.