Monday, August 20, 2012

Passport Series: Sierra Leone, shaped by its history and economy

This month's Passport Series focuses on Sierra Leone. We will take a close look at the country this week, with a profile and deep dive into the microfinance sector. Stay tuned this month for more updates and a special lender story.

Freetown Photos

Located in West Africa, between Guinea and Liberia, Sierra Leone has over 5 million citizens. The country covers a total area of 27,699 square miles and is divided into four geographical regions: the Northern Province, Eastern Province, Southern Province and the Western Area.

Sierra Leone has a diverse and rich population, history, and economy.

The People:

Freetown is the capital, as well as the largest city, and the country's economic, commercial, and political hub with 850,000 residents. 38% of the population lives in the urban area, and urbanization is slowly growing at a rate of 3.3%. 35% of the population is literate. English is the official language, but over 90% speak the indigenous language of Krio.

The major religion is Islam with 60% of the population practicing. 10% is Christian and 30% practice indigenous beliefs. The average age is 19 years old and the life expectancy at birth is 56 years old.

The History:

Archaeological finds prove that Sierra Leone has been inhabited for at least 2,500 years. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the land and gave Sierra Leone its' name, which means "lion mountains." In the 18th century, Sierra Leone became a home for blacks discharged from the British armed forces and also for runaway slaves who had found asylum in London.

In 1961, Sierra Leone became an independent nation, and for 30 years, suffered many military coups leading to establishment as a republic in 1971, a one-party state in 1978, and in 1996 a multi-party state with its' first democratic president elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

At the time of Kabbah's election, the 10-year civil war had already started five years prior in 1991. In the decade long war, over 50,000 people were killed and 2 million were displaced. After disarming 70,000 soldiers, the United Nations started war crime trials of senior leaders on both sides of the war in 2004. The new president, Ernest Bai Koroma, was elected in 2007, and Sierra Leone is slowly rebuilding its economy and social structure.

The Economy:

Diamond mining in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone is an extremely poor nation and suffers from social and economic inequality. The lack of infrastructure and the post civil war reconstruction has kept Sierra Leone at the bottom of the UN's list ranking development.

The GDP of Sierra Leone is $5.2 billion with a breakdown of 51.5% from agriculture, 22% industry and 26.5% services. 70% of the population lives below the poverty line.

On the global map, Sierra Leone is known for its gem-quality diamonds and is among the top 10 diamond producing nations in the world. The production of diamond estimates range between US$250 and $300 million. But this has led to much conflict. More on this next week.

Stay tuned to the Kiva Blog's Passport Series this month to learn more about Sierra Leone. Up next: A look into Sierra Leone's microfinance sector.

Photos courtesy of CIA World Factbook, World Bank, and BBC News.