Job crisis among S Leone youths

2010-09-23 10:47

New York - The president of Sierra Leone said on Wednesday that his country remains plagued by joblessness among young people, but expressed hope for a small, experimental business project as a possible way out of the country's dismal poverty.

President Ernest Bai Koroma was elected in 2007 in the first presidential vote after the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers two years earlier. His election was seen as a test of the West African country's emergence from the chaos of a decade-long war. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the fighting, and rebels hacked off the limbs of countless others.

Eight years later, more than 50% of Sierra Leone's citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 are unemployed, Koroma's aides said.

"I must say that we still have challenges there," the president said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We have to have a permanent solution and the permanent solution is for us to train our youth - a good number of them are not educated and those that are educated don't have the appropriate skills."

Koroma, who was in New York to attend the three-day Millennium Development Goals summit at the United Nations, ran on a platform for change three years ago and promised to fight corruption and create economic opportunity.

In an address to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Koroma told assembled leaders that Sierra Leone's economy grew by 5.5% in 2008 and 4% in 2009 - above the average growth of 2% for Africa but still below the expansion needed to reduce poverty.

In a hotel room across the street from the United Nations, the former insurance company executive told AP of initiatives ranging from plans for training illiterate women and children to assemble solar panels to road building.

Open for business

And in a bid to attract foreign investments, the government has agreed to lease a 50-acre parcel outside Freetown, the capital, to an American development agency for a special economic zone.

Akin to an industrial park and located about 20km from Freetown's main seaport, it will come with huge advantages for foreign businesses interested in the West African country: ready-made buildings, water systems and back up power generators.

"We built facilities, roads, infrastructures," said Richard Schroeder, president and CEO of First Step, the agency leasing the land and a subsidiary of World Hope International. The intent, he said, is "to give the impression that Sierra Leone is open for business - which it is."

The park is scheduled for groundbreaking next month and to open in April 2011. So far, there is one promised tenant: a fruit processing company called Africa-Felix.

"People go hungry in Sierra Leone," Schroeder said. "But there are so many mangoes just rotting on the ground."

He estimated that the Africa-Felix factory will employ about 80 workers and serve about 1 000 pineapple and mango farms.

"As a government, we look forward to having more of those," Koroma said, adding that the goal was eventually to open special economic zones in each of the country's 12 districts.

"We believe that they will lay the basis for economic activity, economic growth and address the issues that we believe will accelerate the economic development of the country," he said. "If it works, I am sure a lot of people will be interested."