November 11, 2010 / 8:47 AM / in 7 years

"Returnees" nourish high hopes for Sierra Leone

* Stability prompting thousands to return

* Poor local education means local skills lacking

By Simon Akam

FREETOWN, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Dr. Eamonn Pineapple Rum Refresher is yellow in colour and six percent alcohol by volume. It also has the makings of a rare economic success story in a country still recovering eight years after its civil war.

Its creator Eamonn Hanson is one of a growing number of Sierra Leonean exiles who are returning home with an entrepreneurial drive.

“The future is commercial,” said Hanson, who has a Dutch mother and left the West African country for the Netherlands as a 13-year-old.

Sierra Leone haemorrhaged population during the decade-long conflict, with the United Nations estimating that half a million Sierra Leoneans -- almost a tenth of today’s population -- ended up in the United States and ex-colonial power Britain alone.

Funded by the country’s lucrative diamond fields, the civil war dragged on for 11 years after an invasion by Liberian-based rebels, with over 50,000 killed and many more mutilated.

Although official numbers do not exist, the government says thousands have now come back, attracted by a growing mood of stability and the first shoots of economic recovery that next year will see national output growing by five percent.

With few job opportunities in a country where 800,000 young people are without work or under-employed, many “returnees” are banking their future on setting up their own businesses.

Reforms by President Ernest Bai Koroma’s government have cut the number of days it takes to start a business to 12, less even than the 13.8-day average for the rich countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

An array of complex levies have been replaced by a single value added tax, and the country is gradually adding more capacity to its overstretched power network.

But Sierra Leone remains 143rd out of 174 in the World Bank’s ranking of business venues and as Hanson and others have discovered, being an entrepreneur in a country where the average annual income per head is just $340 is far from easy.

His initial plan to produce organic pineapple juice from a plantation north of Freetown fell through when it turned out the price he needed to charge to break even was twice what locals could pay.

Finally, he dreamed up the Rum Refresher that uses gin and commercial pineapple flavourings, severing the link to his own crop but reducing the price needed to make a profit to a more feasible 3,000 leones (73 US cents).

“We’ve now actually got it in all of the beach bars,” said Hanson, who estimates the drink is now on sale in more than 60 venues in Freetown and upcountry.

“FULL CHEEKS”

Hanson’s business is growing. But relations between returnees and other Sierra Leoneans are not always cordial, as TV presenter Vickie Remoe -- who hosts what she bills as “Sierra Leone’s premier lifestyle magazine show” -- found.

The 25-year-old left Sierra Leone in 1997, when the civil war really started taking its toll on Freetown.

After a spell in Ethiopia, Remoe moved to the United States, where she went to school in Maryland and attended Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

A culture of social engagement at the Quaker institution made her want go back to Africa, and in 2007 she returned.

Now large promotional hoardings carrying her face stand above the capital’s rutted streets and her flashy website describes her as a “twenty-something socialist, fashionista, concerned global citizen, Know-It-All, Africanist.”

But Remoe has found friction with those who stayed behind.

“People are intimidated by you, but at the same time they look down on you,” she explained.

“The fact that your cheeks are full, you look like you’re somebody who has had enough to eat. They can read you before you thought you’ve given yourself away.”

Remoe said some expatriate Sierra Leoneans -- particularly those who only come back on holiday -- deliberately flaunt money and possessions in a way that aggrieves the locals.

“When they come here, they don’t have time for you,” said newspaper intern Lucy Sallu, 21. “They go helter-skelter about their business.”

Yet Sierra Leone’s lamentable education record means it may need the skills the returnees can offer for years to come.

Data used by the United Nations for its Human Development Index show that Sierra Leonians over the age of 25 have had on average 2.9 years’ worth of education, with a child today likely to receive 7.2 years. In 2008 the World Bank estimated there were three Internet users per 1,000 head of the population.

“The best trained, best educated guys are outside the country,” conceded Oluniyi Robbin-Coker, a former Citibank banker who is now private sector adviser to the president.

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