While the governments of all of the African countries hit by Ebola have had their hands full containing the deadly disease, Sierra Leone and Liberia have been hit particularly hard. While the immediate health crisis is evident, officials from these two countries have warned of the dire economic impact if foreign investors shun them.

“We are going to bounce back,” says Bockari Kortu Stevens, the ambassador of Sierra Leone to the US told a forum in Atlanta organised by the World Affairs Council. “We are not appealing to millionaires. We are appealing to small and medium-sized businesses that can provide employment, make some money and sleep well. We are not asking for charity but for small-scale industries such as canning factories and cashew-nut producers; we need energy sector transmission and distribution.”

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Mr Stevens’ plea was echoed by his Liberian counterpart, Jeremiah C Sulunteh. “Isolate Ebola, but do not isolate us,” he urged. 

In poor health

Each ambassador described how his country had been ravaged by years of civil war, which left any healthcare systems decimated. Liberia, for example, was left with 17 ambulances to serve a population of 14.1 million, according to Mr Sulunteh. When the wars ended, each country began the difficult process of reconstruction and was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel when the Ebola epidemic struck.

“Every bit of revenue we had, whether for capital investment or infrastructure, was used to fight Ebola,” said Mr Stevens, who added that before the epidemic Sierra Leone was one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, and offered free healthcare for children up to the age of five and for pregnant women. Apart from the toll on human life, Ebola has caused huge social and economic dislocation, and a total breakdown in health services, he said. Nevertheless, Mr Stevens added that his country can rebound as it did after a 10-year civil war.

Sierra Leone has another obstacle to overcome, however: royalties from the mining of iron ore – its biggest export – have been declining due to competition from countries such as Australia and Brazil, and one of the largest mining companies in Sierra Leone collapsed in 2014.

Mr Sulunteh identified agriculture and food security as high priorities. Ebola killed some farmers while others were forced to abandon their fields, and Mr Sulunteh said that the country needs value added in the agricultural sector and manufacturing. Liberia also needs to re-establish its health system, which broke down under the strain of the Ebola outbreak, with many doctors and nurses dying. It also needs infrastructure to enable it to convert foreign aid into realistic projects. Mr Sulunteh said there are opportunities for tourism and the hospitality sector along Liberia’s picturesque 580 kilometres of coastline, and there is oil offshore, as well as minerals, timber, diamonds, gold and iron.

Taking control

More than 60% of Liberia’s export revenues are derived from rubber, which meant that the country took a big hit when rubber prices plummeted last year. Liberia is home to Firestone Liberia, the world’s largest natural rubber operation which covers about 500 square kilometres. Despite this, the country suffered from a shortage rubber gloves for healthcare workers when Ebola struck, according to Mr Sulunteh.

At the Atlanta forum, Firestone Liberia earned praise from US secretary of commerce Penny Pritzker for its proactive response to the Ebola outbreak. The company's president and managing director, Ed Garcia, says it never contemplated closing down, though expatriate management of some other foreign companies did leave or slow down their operations. More than 80,000 Liberians live on the Firestone plantation, including 8000 employees.

“Instead of leaving, we did everything we could to protect the population and we got control of the situation,” says Mr Garcia. “We have our own hospitals and we put together a very comprehensive response, making sure that we educated the population, rapidly investigating cases, tracing contacts and stratifying them according to their risk levels, establishing voluntary quarantine facilities, and ensuring all our healthcare workers were well trained with infection controls in place.” The company also put in place an elaborate strategy to reintegrate cured patients into their communities as advocates for treatment. With the company’s schools closed – as were all schools in Liberia and Sierra Leone until February – the 450 teachers Firestone employs were assigned to educate communities about Ebola.

Compared with August and September 2014, when he says the situation was particularly dire, Mr Garcia believes conditions in Liberia have improved considerably due to the influx of international help. He expects the expatriate managers of other companies to return eventually. Still, concerns will have to be addressed before significant FDI returns to Liberia. For example, Mr Garcia says he has had to reassure some customers that the company’s products are not contaminated by the virus. He advises potential investors to consult their embassies for guidance.

“It is OK to return and do business here. Ebola is not easily transmitted, and if you do everything based on our experience and respond comprehensively, it is something you are able to control,” says Mr Garcia.

Economic impact

A World Bank study published in January confirms the devastating economic effects of Ebola on Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as Guinea. The report estimates that Ebola will cost the three countries about $1.6bn in 2015 alone, more than 12% of their combined GDP, on top of $500m it cost them in 2014. The toll in unemployment and lost income will also be severe, while food insecurity looks set to worsen because of a shortage of agricultural workers to harvest crops.

Mark Thomas, the lead author of the report, says that the disappearance of economic growth in the three countries – which even by African standards are small and poor – is partly traceable to a reluctance among foreign investors to do business in them.

Mr Thomas does not expect FDI to resume until the goal of zero cases of Ebola is reached. Preparation for future epidemics is also essential. “The economic costs are driven by aversion behaviour, which is driven by fear, and fear is driven by the presence of the disease rather than the number of cases,” he says. “When we get to zero, there will be a need to educate the world that these countries are still places to invest.”

Meanwhile, foreign aid is only providing a limited cushion. The World Bank has committed $1bn to the three countries, half in direct aid to governments and the rest to the private sector, according to Mr Thomas. The IMF, which has already distributed $130m to the three countries, said in January that it hopes to provide an additional $160m in the form of debt service relief.