Blog

The Pros and Cons of Moving to Freetown: A Volunteer’s Experience

Posted by on Mar 13, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

The Pros

 

1. The People

I’ve never felt unsafe for a moment of my time in Freetown. I think this is largely because the people here are so hospitable and helpful. Whether it’s a woman you’ve never met going 20 minutes out of her way to help you find an obscure street that you’ve been told sells the best Africana fabric, or a man pushing you across a lagoon on his surfboard because you want to reach the other side of the beach without getting your leg wet (which was burnt on a motorbike taxi’s exhaust pipe). The remarkable thing is, no one seems to be looking for anything in return for their kindness – Sierra Leoneans say they love strangers, and this is totally manifested in the welcoming atmosphere.

 

 

 

2. The Food

Despite initial trepidation, the food in Sierra Leone is fantastic. We’ve been lucky enough to have our neighbour, Fatmata, cooking traditional dishes for us every night – groundnut soup and spicy beans are particular favourites. Also on the menu is the Freetown street food. I don’t know how I’ll cope sitting in a traffic jam back in London without vendors bringing offerings of plantain chips and crunchy coconut cakes to my window. Lack of fresh milk didn’t seem like a pro at first, but that was before I came to realise that powdered milk is glorious in porridge and in coffee. I have also come to love the way drinking water comes in a 500ml plastic packet with the slogan, “Fresher Than You Want!”

 

3. The Work

Every expat you meet in Freetown is either a miner or an NGO worker, which speaks to the enormous amount of aid flooding the country. In spite of this, it can still feel as though Sierra Leone has so many difficulties that your little bit isn’t having an impact. This all changes if you get to meet the beneficiaries of the project you’re working on. I was lucky enough to meet the women taking part in the adult literacy project that has been my main focus here, and their gratitude and insights were humbling.

The Cons

 

1. The Noise

Freetown is a raucous, frenetic place with a kind of manic charm about it. There are no pavements, and the streets are heaving with taxis, poda-podas, traders with all kinds of wares balanced astonishingly on their heads, and with motorbikes buzzing past and everyone hooting their horns constantly. This racket can be exhilarating during the day, but in the dead of night I can hardly believe that the level of noise is kept up. The hundreds of stray dogs that lie languidly in the sunshine transform at night into caterwauling packs. And I’ve never quite worked out why the local church holds services between 2am and 4am, amplified by microphones and drums. So most mornings I’m woken by the cockerel crowing at 7am, and turn to my roommate to confer stoically about the night’s disturbances.

 

 

2. The Corruption

Ask any Sierra Leonean about political corruption, and they could talk for days. The topic is such a can of worms that it leads to signs saying “No Political Arguments in This Office Thank You For Obeying” being stuck on the walls of local NGO’s headquarters. The only times I’ve seen the notorious corruption with my own eyes has been in the form of police officers taking bribes from drivers in return for letting them off for (real or invented) speeding infractions. They are tiny incidents individually, but they add up to damage the pride of the nation, and in a way are just as harmful as high-level misconduct.

 

 

3. The Hassle

It’s impossible to walk down the street without cries of ‘white girl’ following you. Whilst This is not always unfriendly, it can be unnerving, I suppose because the immediate place of experience it tugs at is unpleasant street harassment in London. Locals use hissing and kissing noises to attract attention, which also takes some adjusting to. The experience is redeemed by the excitement of the children who shout ‘oporto’ and wave frantically at you as you pass, so you feel like an awkward minor celeb and self-consciously smile and wave back at them.

Party season in Sierra Leone – The Collective Celebrates 2013

Posted by on Dec 10, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

The arrival of Chinese imported fire-crackers, face masks and inflatables can only mean one thing; Christmas is coming to Freetown. Sierra Leoneans love to party, and Christmas is no exception.  Street parties, carnivals and beach outings, equipped with ridiculously loud (and crackly!) sound systems are a common sight throughout December.

Here at The Collective, we think there’s plenty to celebrate.

Participants learning how to carbonise solid waste

The DFID funded ‘Waste to Wealth’ project that we are project managing in Makeni is showing some very visible and exciting results. We’ve helped set up 3 community cooperatives who we’ve provided with equipment and marketing grants totaling 18 million Leones. We’re also supporting some existing enterprises and helping them upgrade their safety equipment.

 

With unemployment at such a high level in Sierra Leone, especially amongst young people and women, the ‘Waste to Wealth’ project is showing how, with a bit of support and initial financing, jobs can be created to provide a sustainable income for poor communities. In a country where credit is notoriously hard to obtain, projects like this are often vital in helping people start their own businesses. We’re working with a local partner; Accelerated Community Empowerment and Development Organisation (ACEDO) in Makeni, who are doing really great work on the ground, providing mentoring support to the new enterprises.

On November 19th, we were honoured to receive The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for DFID, Lynne Featherstone MP, who visited the briquette makers and plastic weaving cooperatives, and met with the Makeni City Council to discuss how the project is supporting their waste management activities. DFID were very impressed with the outcomes of the project to date, and have since agreed to grant an additional £15,000 to enable the project to train a further 2 cooperatives in eco-stove production, and recycled plastic bricks/tiles!

 

Lynne Featherstone MP meets a briquette makers cooperative

The project is based on similar, but much larger projects, designed and implemented by our partner Living Earth Foundation, a British NGO with over 25 years experience of working on sustainable development. LEF has substantial experience of working on urban development issues, with particular focus on sanitation, environmental service delivery, micro enterprise and business development and the promotion of public-private partnerships in the urban context in general and in the waste management context in particular. We’re really proud to be working alongside LEF, you can check out some of the work they’ve been doing with waste here.

In Freetown, our NGO Support Network team have also been busy in the lead up to Christmas. With new staff members Adam and Pete joining the team, the network has continued to go from strength to strength. Since September we have delivered training in HR, Strategic Planning and Project Management and provided consultancy follow up. 86% of participants rated our training either good or excellent with the Director of Future for Children quoting ‘We have found it invaluable working with The Collective, who have empowered our staff and motivated us to grow as an organisation’

Mohammed of One Family People gets to grips with a problem tree

We have also started to offer organisations bespoke training for their implementing partners. In November we set off on the long journey to Koidu in Kono district to deliver fundraising training on behalf of Handicap International. The two day training programme helped participants from eight organisations to understand different funding streams and identify ways their organisation could access them.

After the Christmas break the team will hit the ground running with our Leadership Development Programme, Network Monitoring & Evaluation training and new Waste to Wealth activities set to start.

So, as the firecrackers ring out through Freetown we at The Collective wish you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

Charlie & Alex

 

 

Volunteer Stephen Pollard shares his experience on the Leadership Development training

Posted by on Sep 30, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

Stephen Pollard

Having taken part in similar workshops on communication and public speaking in the past, I admit I was sceptical about the leader development sessions. I was worried we would be taught a lot of theory that would mean very little in reality. I should not have worried as the sessions were fantastic. The sessions were incredibly practical and we had ample opportunity to take the lead in the activities. My ability to stand up and speak in front of others greatly improved, as did my confidence over the week. We were encouraged at all times to share our ideas and really communicate our thoughts. It was, however, when we were forced to take the time to reflect that I learnt the most. One particular highlight was when Alex told us to imagine we were at our own funeral: what would we want our friends and family to say about us? This activity really forced me to think about what truly mattered to me and reaffirmed in me the importance of self-reflection.

What is more, I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the training alongside members of our partner organisations. I was able to get to know and spend time with members of the organisation I was assigned to. This meant that we really hit the ground running on day one of the internship.

The most important lesson I learnt during training was that true leadership is listening. I really felt we all developed the ability to actively listen to each other and as a result would have more interesting, fruitful discussions. Was I a fully formed leader by the end of the week? No. I was, however, a greater communicator. I had learnt the important of resilience and the art of decision making and more importantly I learnt how to reflect on my own leadership style. The standard of training exceeded my expectations. The experience was thoroughly enjoyable and that was due to the great bunch of people I spent the week with.

Stephen Pollard Summer Intern

Volunteer Caitlin Self talks about her ‘Leaders in Development’ internship

Posted by on Sep 23, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

Caitlin Self
After completing the Leadership Development training, I was placed with Future for Children, a local NGO formed in response to the growing number of street and vulnerable children. Many of the children are victims of abuse and neglect, and often they have never attended school. The team of social workers help to alleviate some of the widespread suffering in light of the street child phenomenon by counselling these children, finding them suitable homes and helping them to enroll at school. Our base was at the FFC office in central Freetown, the country’s chaotic and enlivened capital. Not a day went by where I didn’t feel, in turn, fascinated, surprised, amused and humbled as we ventured out into the beautiful mayhem of the town on our way to work. FFC staff are experienced social workers who work tirelessly to support their beneficiaries. However, they have had minimal exposure to other aspects crucial for the development and growth of the organisation. My partner and I worked with the director of the organisation to identify some areas where he felt that we could help to improve.  The tasks we selected were IT training and marketing strategy. During the internship we equipped FFC with the tools that they needed to better market themselves and provided support with a variety of computer programmes such as PowerPoint.  At the same time, I was able to develop my own confidence and skills such as planning, coaching and team work. Misconceptions about Sierra Leone mean that for the time being, its potential has not been realised. I am sure that this will change in the future. I feel privileged to have had the chance to work with such bright and promising people in this fascinating and emerging country on such a worthwhile and inspiring project.
Caitlin Self Summer Intern - FFC

Sink or Swim – Freetown’s notorious rainy season

Posted by on Sep 2, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

Freetown could never be described as predictable.  Every day you will see things that force you to double take.  A man riding at 50mph on the bonnet of a car, a fisherman tossing a block of dynamite off the side of his wooden canoe or someone walking casually along the pavement with a hammer balanced on his head.  It is has an unpredictability that can both frustrate and delight.

But one thing you thing that you can predict is that between the months of June and September it is going to be wet.  August sees the peak of the rains and hosts what is etched in the city’s folklore as the ‘7 day rain’, an event that does not need much explanation.   So how does one of the world’s most underdeveloped cities handle these conditions?

The dark rain clouds that roll in from the Atlantic are capable of causing havoc in the city. The weather will quickly turn, forcing market traders to dash for cover as the roads rapidly become rivers. Traffic builds as drainage pipes blocked with the city’s waste burst making roads impassable.  This month, Jimmy Bridge, a relic from the colonial era, finally succumbed to years of attrition, collapsing with tragic consequences. 

Freetown’s dramatic topography is stunning, but it also adds to the problem. The city is set back into mountains leaving limited space for the cities bulging population. This has led to the growth of makeshift housing in slum areas by the water’s edge. It is in these areas that the rushing rainwater, carrying with it the city’s waste, ends up.  In 2012 this led to a cholera epidemic claiming the lives of 392 people and triggering an emergency response from the humanitarian community.

It would be easy to blame the rains for the city’s many problems, to pack up for the month and declare conditions unworkable. But that is not in Sierra Leone’s nature. Instead, residents point to the rainy season’s many benefits. The return of a consistent power supply from the country’s hydroelectric dam is definitely at the top of most people’s list. It not only means well lit evenings but also a break from the constant hum of generators.  The temperature is also pleasant mid-twenties making sleeping a little easier and water supply is not an issue.  Each year the city is becoming better at dealing with the rain. This month, young workers have been tirelessly clearing waste from the drains to avoid further flooding. New toilet facilities are popping up around the city to allow for better sanitation. It is no coincidence that this season has seen a massive drop in the number of cholera cases with only a handful reported in the provinces.

This positive outlook is what has carried the city over the past eleven years.  In this time it has had to rebuild practically from scratch. Poor infrastructure, corruption and huge unemployment mean that whatever the weather, for the majority of the population, Freetown is a difficult place to live. But despite all the challenges, the city collectively decides not to sink but to swim.

Time for Politics to Take a Back Seat

Posted by on Feb 12, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

January was a quiet month in Sierra Leone. The excitement of elections moved seamlessly into Christmas and New Year celebrations and left the country with a communal hangover. The result was an uncharacteristically quiet start to the year.  The culmination of the ‘national hangover’ was one of the worst fuel crisis’ in years lasting over a week and resulting in some very large and boisterous queues across the city.

With the population and their cars refuelled and re-energised the country is now looking to the government to implement the ‘Agenda for Prosperity’ on which they campaigned. President Ernest Bai Koroma is in his second and final term, presenting him with an opportunity to put politics to one side and make difficult decisions that will ensure a ‘prosperous’ future for Sierra Leone.

So far, the government have displayed a willingness to make difficult decisions on some issues while displaying worrying short-sightedness on others. Last month, they moved petty traders off the roads in the centre of town as well as tightening up regulations on the popular Okada (Motorbike) taxis. The move on street traders was particularly controversial, putting many livelihoods at risk and one could argue the centre of town has lost much of its charm. But it was an important decision to clean up the streets and present Freetown as a capital open for business.

In stark contrast, last month also saw a law passed allowing sand mining to continue on the peninsular beaches six days a week. As documented in this excellent article, while sand mining is creating jobs for the young, it is endangering one of the country’s greatest assets, its beaches. Anyone who has travelled to Sierra Leone will testify to its stunning coastline. Mining it is not only an environmental tragedy it is an economic one robbing the country of its huge tourism potential.

2012, with its peaceful elections, was seen as a landmark year for Sierra Leone but it is now that the hard work really begins. The President and his government are faced with the challenge of controlling rapid development. They will need to find a balance between creating jobs for the unemployed and protecting the countries assets for future generations. At this critical stage it is time for politics to take a back seat.

Sierra Leone’s vote of confidence

Posted by on Dec 5, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

Democracy in action

‘There will be no violence’, Ibrahim our local carpenter told us weeks ago. ‘And a run off?’ (where neither party achieves 55% majority). ‘No, no run off’ he told us confidently.  Yet the international community braced itself for the worst. Offices were closed, staff pulled back from the field and some even flown out of the country.

When I looked around and observed peaceful processions, people quickly reminded me that one small spark could set everything off. I have even held back writing this article until the SLPP accepted defeat, something that they did on Monday. I think that organisations were right to ere on the side of safety as we did, but when you look back on events you cannot help but wonder what all the fuss was about?

Saturday 17th November was the day the nation went to the polls. With a driving ban in place, we spent the morning walking around the local community. The streets, usually filled with the noise of cars, were uncharacteristically quiet, filled just with the hums of muted excitement. The crowds were orderly and well organised as people gathered outside the local polling station. Exited voters proudly displayed their inked fingers, a symbol of their right to democracy. The day can only be described as uplifting and the people of Sierra Leone were clearly proud of the way it was being run.

The week that followed was one of rumour and intrigue. Everyone seemed to have a new source that could definitely confirm the result, but nothing official came until the following Friday. With news of an impending announcement, we gathered around the television to watch. When Ernest Bai Koroma’s victory was confirmed by an impressive 58.7% margin a huge roar went up around the city. Even more impressive was the 87.3% voter participation a figure over double that of the UK election in 2011. People took to the streets, music blaring and pots and pans clattering. It was an amazing display of excitement, relief and joy. SLPP supporters were nowhere to be seen, but they were not going to ruin the party.

The day after the night before saw quite a few sore heads but also a feeling of excitement of what lies ahead. When speaking to SLPP supporters they were disappointed by the result. But they all spoke of a respect for Koroma and delight that the election had passed without problems acknowledging that this was a great day for the country.

Sierra Leone still faces very serious challenges and the next five years will not be easy for Koroma. Corruption is still rife in government, youth unemployment figures are high and education and health care provision are inadequate. But the election signifies that Sierra Leone is heading in the right direction and the world is finally starting to see the country in the same peaceful, welcoming way its people do.

After the results BBC International Development correspondent Mark Doyle tweeted ‘After these well run elections I promise never again to use the phrase ‘war-torn Sierra Leone’. A big step for the international community, but one that Sierra Leoneans like Ibrahim took a long time ago.

Party Politics: Election Fever sweeps Sierra Leone but there are serious matter to be debated

Posted by on Nov 8, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

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 November 17th 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
or e-mail Charlie at
charlie@thecollectivesl.co.uk

Strengthening our partnership with SMT

Posted by on Oct 29, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

This week, we signed a very exciting new partnership with our partners Salone Microfinance Trust (SMT) which will take our commitment to the organisation and its beneficiaries one step further.

Since her arrival, volunteer Giulia has been working very hard supporting the work of SMT.  Early on she saw an opportunity for The Collective to help SMT towards its mission to ‘reduce poverty among the economically active poor by providing sustainable access to financial services’.

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.

This is why we have partnered with SMT to launch a pilot project in January 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.

By recruiting and supporting talented professionals from around the world who believe in using business to fight poverty we will support SMT to create a robust training and mentoring programme for groups of individuals who were previously deemed too risky.

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.

The pilot comes at an extremely important time in Sierra Leone’s development. The country has seen large improvements in the past ten years, but major challenges remain. Among them is the alarmingly high level of poverty, unemployment and underemployment, especially among the youth, women and other vulnerable groups.

Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) cite research presented at the ‘Impact and Policy Conference’ 2012 in Bangkok which found that two of the biggest barriers to small and medium enterprises (SME’s) in small and middle income countries were access to finance to individuals, and a lack of managerial and business skills in loan officers. The partnership will tackle this issue and in turn help provide jobs for the many young looking for work.

We have already begun to build our team to help deliver this programme in January but still need a couple more skilled professionals to help ensure this exciting pilot is a success. So if you are interested in joining the team read more about the role here or e-mail Charlie at charlie@thecollectivesl.co.uk