Jul 30

ANNUAL DINNER SPEECH OF THE PRESIDENT OF SIERRA LEONE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE INDUSTRY AND AGRICULTURE Mrs. Gladys Strasser-King on 21st February 2014

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Your Excellency, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, Honourable Chief Justice, Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, Minister of Trade and Industry, Cabinet Ministers, Honourable Members of Parliament, Members of the Diplomatic and Consular Corps, Governor of the Central Bank, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen.

On behalf of the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, I extend greetings and welcome you to our annual dinner. We look forward to a delightful evening with you.

In my address at our two previous dinners, much emphasis was placed on the challenges confronting the private sector and the remedial strategies that could be adopted by government.

Tonight, I propose a more introspective assessment of the private sector, evaluating the current landscape and more importantly, identifying gaps which can be filled by the sector through internal mechanisms, as its contribution to the transformation goals of the Agenda for Prosperity.

Your Excellency we commend you, for the formulation of the Agenda but must use this opportunity, as representatives of three of the contributors to the nation’s development agenda, Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, to confirm our expected role as major partners towards the realisation of the Agenda’s objectives.

It would however be fitting in view of our earlier critical observations of the government and public sector roles in the business development sector, to reflect on developments which have taken place since our last annual review.
Among our foremost challenges was access to finance for the establishment, promotion and development of private business institutions, especially small and medium enterprises.

Your Excellency, we wish to commend the Bank of Sierra Leone for the passage of five Acts over the last five years, which have contributed towards improving the regulatory framework of the financial sector. We also note progress made on stabilising the exchange rate and lowering interest rates and inflation rate, all of which have helped to create a conducive business environment. We however note that the Bank of Sierra Leone in December 2013 issued a circular to all commercial banks enforcing the Public Notice No. 55 of 1992 issued under the Exchange Control Act (CAP265). The Public Notice stipulates that the Customer Foreign Account shall be used for the purpose of making payments abroad in accordance with the Exchange Control regulations governing the underlying payment of goods and services. This has permitted the withdrawal of foreign currency notes with some restrictions. Your Excellency, we applaud the overall intentions of the policy, as the Bank of Sierra Leone seeks to address the widespread and uncontrolled use of foreign currency in our economy.

In spite of the regulatory measures introduced by Bank of Sierra Leone for stabilising the banking sector, one is tempted to ask, whether total dependence on commercial banking institutions is ideal for the development of the private sector. It is therefore encouraging to note that government is in the process of resuscitating the National Development bank as well as the cooperative bank, to enhance access to small and medium scale businesses.

Another positive development is the drive towards the implementation of the Local Content Policy. In December 2013, the Minister of Trade and Industry, President Chamber of Mines, and the President of the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture signed a Local Content Compact to fully implement the Local Content Policy. A draft Local Content bill has been drafted, which hopefully will soon be tabled in Parliament for enactment.

This would involve not only the utilisation of local personnel, facilities and services, especially by foreign investors, but also by the processing of locally produced commodities for value addition.

Your Excellency we are aware, of the major development projects in the pipeline, notably the Mamamah Airport, the Targrin – Freetown Bridge, the Fibre Optic ICT and the ongoing Precon project towards EU export market certification of Sierra Leone’s fishery and marine products and other legacy projects. The realisation of these projects if properly planned and executed, will enlarge the opportunities for our business community to be involved in dynamic and rewarding engagements.

We are also aware of His Excellency’s advice for small enterprises to garner their resources together and form mergers that would make them stronger and more competitive to secure major contracts.

Freetown Port which used to handle about 20,000 containers about five years back now handles 51,000 containers as at 2013, resulting from the concessioning of the container terminal to Freetown Terminal Limited/Bolloré African Logistics.

Notwithstanding the above, there are a couple of serious challenges and bottle necks which have the propensity to rock your good efforts and strides. To start with, we would like to see more improvement in security at the Freetown Port. We would also like to see the port extended and the clearing process accelerated in order to match up with the increased flow of goods and commodities into the country.

We note with concern the congestion on roads such as Cline Street, Ross Road and Fourah Bay Road, caused by container carrying trucks. We believe that the development of an inland port would alleviate this problem.

I am pleased to announce that government and major exporters, such as the mining companies have reportedly reached a common position on the controversial National Carriers Act 2012 and the amended Act will soon come into force.

We acknowledge the introduction of the fibre optic facility for first internet connectivity. We would take this opportunity to appeal to mobile phone companies and related businesses to upgrade their services and maximise the benefits to the business community and the public in general, at affordable costs.

Another significant initiative worth mentioning is the current Constitutional Review. It is our hope that it will further strengthen the governance of the Country and meet the aspirations of all sectors of our society.

In the area of energy, there is certainly room for improvement. In spite of recently announced development of a new phase of the Bumbuna project by Joule Africa/Endeavour, a more robust country wide energy production and distribution is needed to disperse the benefits of national development to our entire population. The emergence of IPPs into power generation, such as ADDAX, should hopefully alleviate the current electricity drought in Freetown and other parts of the country. The prohibitive cost of power is affecting many businesses. It is therefore necessary for government not only to make power more widely available but affordable. It is hoped that government will consolidate the various plans for the power sector and chart a clear path forward for the sector.

Another innovation to boost our export earnings as well as the private sector has been the transformation of SLPMB into SLPMC, which we welcome into the fold of the private sector.This indeed will provide opportunities for a wider participation of Sierra Leoneans in the agricultural commodity market, when its shares are made available to the public. It is hoped that the new company, when fully operational will contribute immensely to the attainment of food security, guaranteeing foreign exchange earnings, creating youth employment and reducing poverty, thereby contributing to the achievement of our collective national vision, ‘The Agenda for Prosperity’.

Mr. President, distinguished guests, as a show of determination by the new company, few months ago, we have all witnessed how the SLPMC responded to calls by your government for the attainment of sustainable food security, by launching two of its products – Sierra Rice and Sierra Palm Oil, which are now easily available throughout the nation.

As a Chamber, we are happy to be part of this transformation and call on your government to continue to prioritise and provide the much needed support to the new company for it to attain its maximum capacity in the promotion of agricultural value chain, thereby serving as a market platform linking smallholder farmers to local and export market.

Let me take this opportunity also to underline and commend the pivotal role of the Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency (SLIEPA), in supporting the Chamber’s effort to sustain and expand the investment and export dimensions of our nation’s economic activities.

Sierra Leone’s reputation as an attractive business destination continues to be an inducement for foreign investors. However, it should be noted that Sierra Leone is competing with other countries with comparable or more favourable incentives. Therefore our attitudes towards investors should be cordial and stability of contracts guaranteed.

Mr. President, Honourable Ministers, distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, the usual emphasis on GDP and other macro-economic indices are statistically exciting, but the effect of micro-economic activity on the lives of the populace is the aspect of democratic governance visible to the citizenry. A major obstacle to the enjoyment of economic benefits by the average citizen is the frequent, uncontrolled and arbitrary rise in the price of everyday needs. It may perhaps be necessary to put in place some mechanism for price control for essential commodities.

Today we witness the glaring challenge to law and order and the tendency towards violence which have infected virtually every tissue in our body politic. Our economic lifeblood can only maintain a healthy flow in an environment where the law is respected, order maintained and peace is evident.

So far, I have tried to identify and connect several links that constitute the economic chain. Singular among these is the unemployment factor, with specific emphasis on the alarming number of unemployed youths. Not only is it a destabilising factor economically but also socially.

I believe that financial resources can have only limited impact in the absence of relevant human resource. Therefore, whilst we welcome the easing of access to capital and other resources, our efforts should be intensified to combat youth unemployment by encouraging entrepreneurship and creation of wealth through skills development relevant to our national business needs. The Ministries of Education, Science and Technology, Labour and Social
Security and Trade and Industry should be pivotal in identifying and establishing the number, type and location of technical educational institutions, in consultation with the business community which will be the primary beneficiary of these initiatives.

Whilst we encourage government in its efforts to reduce unemployment and overcome this major threat to our stability and progress, the Chamber is making a special appeal to the private business sector to devise and pursue bold initiatives as a contribution towards solving this problem.
Chamber therefore commends the major mining companies for the training opportunities being given to youths, selected not only from their areas of operation but nationwide. We stand to gain enormously from our success in this endeavour and to lose disastrously through instability if the present trend continues.

The pervasive presence and potentially catastrophic effect on national growth, through corruption needs public attention. Chamber hopes that the implementation of the new Anticorruption strategy and action plan by the ACC when adopted and implemented shall go a long way in curbing corrupt practices in our society. The President’s recent ‘Take no bribe’ initiative is a bold step in the right direction. In any case, the business community no doubt recognises and accepts its own share of the responsibility and must partner with the ACC in the fight against corruption.

Chamber laments the country’s setback in the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) award. We are however encouraged by MCC’s decision for the work leading to the award to continue with the strong hope of a positive outcome this year.

To sustain the strength and further growth of Chamber, we encourage eligible businesses which have not become members of the Chamber to remedy what we see as an oversight on their part. The Chamber needs your numbers but even more, we solicit your active support, as through your professional input, the Chamber will be increasingly empowered to influence the national economy.

Let me at this point remind all potential participants of the Chamber’s Annual Trade Fair, which takes place from March 26th to April 26th this year. Due to the increasing request for display booths both from local and international participants, you are advised to expedite action now to avoid disappointment. In this regard, our grateful thanks go to all those who have sustained the Fair and facilitated its growth over the years. We welcome and solicit your continuing interest and support.

An innovative initiative this year’s fair will be the upgrading of our medical booth to provide facilities for blood pressure, counselling, epilepsy, testing of height and weight for obesity and mammogram tests to be done free of charge. Thanks to the intervention of the West African College of Physicians, Epilepsy Association of Sierra Leone and Thinking Pink Breast Cancer Foundation.

It would be ungracious of the Chamber not to acknowledge the support of our sponsors who by their generosity have greatly eased the task of making tonight’s dinner a pleasant experience. We know we can count on your continued support and we wish you increasing success in your endeavours.

Equally significant has been the concerted contribution of our membership and partners such as Ministry of Trade and Industry, to the continued growth and influence of the Chamber. My personal appreciation to the members of the dinner committee whose untiring effort has resulted in tonight’s event.

Above all Mr. President, we thank you for graciously consenting to be the Guest Speaker at this annual dinner. Finally, we thank your government for the recognition of Chamber’s role through representation on the Boards of State Owned Enterprises. Our commitment to nation building is constant and unwavering.

On this note, Your Excellency, Honourable Guests, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you all for your patient attention and wish you every prosperity in the unfolding year.