Salone News

Indigenization of The Economy: The Sanpha Koroma Example

By  | 22 May 2014 at 17:12 | 1213 views

Trade in the West African state of Sierra Leone was in the colonial period
mostly carried out by Creoles or Krios ( descendants of the freed slaves from
the Americas in the 18th century) and rivaled by Fullahs and Mandingoes in the
Hinterland that was later amalgamated ( in 1896) to what was then called the
Colony of Sierra Leone. But in later generations more of the Creoles opted to
send their children to Britain where they studied courses for white collar jobs
and never replaced their parents thus causing Krio fame in trade and commerce
to wane considerably.

With the coming of the Syrians and Lebanese, trade shifted from Krios to them and they later dominated the country’s economy. By early post- independence period, the economy was in the hands of Lebanese entrepreneurs that include the Shabans, Basmas, Bahsoons, Jamil Harouni of Kissy and a host of foreign companies, while most Sierra Leoneans preferred their children to be like the Krios opting to send their children to study courses for white collar jobs.

Many of the average Sierra Leoneans that were not fortunate to darken the walls of any educational institution ended up becoming labourers, working for Lebanese business magnates. Despite criticisms against them by locals, the Lebanese were, however, a source of employment. And these Syrians and Lebanese fared tremendously well in trade. They not only imported general merchandise that average Sierra Leoneans consume but they also established factories and cottage industries. By the 1970s, Sierra Leone was manufacturing
nails, shot gun cartridges, suitcases, zinc, cigarettes, Vaseline, soft
drinks (manufactured by two companies and there was tense competition between them) and many more .

It was a period when neighbouring Liberia and Guinea depended on Sierra Leone for the importation of many products. The prospects for jobs were higher than today when most of the factories closed down (mainly caused by the civil war and bad economic policies) and the big Lebanese entrepreneurs have migrated to neighbouring Liberia where trade policies seem to be more favourable.

While Lebanese and other foreign nationals dominated trade, commerce and
industry, a few Sierra Leoneans took up the challenge to rival them. These include Bailor Barrie, Lamin Skandia, Agibu Jalloh , Jamil Sahid
Mohamed and Mohamed K. Suma who was the first elite in the 1970s to take the
risk of establishing several corporate institutions. However, many of the
Sierra Leoneans concentrated more on diamonds and gold which were avenues for becoming millionaires overnight while other viable areas like banking and
insurance were neglected.

One of the Sierra Leoneans who made a breakthrough in the banking industry apart from the Afro- Lebanese Jamil Sahid Mohamed was James Sanpha Koroma (photo). After spending many years in the civil service and working abroad, he came home to set up the first truly indigenous bank known as Union Trust Bank. Those were the days when hawkish newspapers determine who should survive and it was characteristic of the society for competitors to hire newspapers to bring down any enterprising person.

When Sanpha Koroma opened his bank one newspaper sarcastically stated “it is not just another bank…”. But ironically this description if put in positive terms fits the bank because it was not just another bank but a truly indigenous bank. It was the first bank set up by a true indigene of Sierra Leone, though there were others who bought shares in it. But the fact of the matter is that engaging in such ventures was a great risk and many rich Sierra Leoneans would not have
ventured into such a dark alley. Sanpha however proved that if the foreigners can come and open up big corporate institutions, ‘yes, we too can do it’.

Today, the Bank has spread its tentacles far and wide competing with other
foreign and local banks. People in remote areas as far as Yoni in the Tonkolili
district now know what is Union Trust Bank (UTB) and the services it offers.
Sanpha’s administrative acumen acquired in the public service in Sierra Leone
coupled with his service at the African Development Bank (ADB) where he rose to an executive position helped him develop not only the know-how in
administration but in entrepreneurship. It was when he was given the task of
developing the National Development Bank (NDB) that he left the civil service.

One of the main aims of the NDB was to boost agriculture and trade in the
country. He successfully raised it from grass to grace but it fell down when he
left it and died a natural death. That was when people came to realize the
worth of a man called Sanpha Koroma. Today, he has set up chains of other
businesses while many elites are still looking up to politics and diplomatic appointments.

Those who know him describe Sanpha (who hails from Macrogba village, Yoni chiefdom, in the Tonkolili district, northern Sierra Leone) as a mild-mannered man but some say he is aggressive when addressing people. I have been close to him for many years as a friend of his; I have found out that he talks as an administrator. It is not that sometimes he is angry or wants to terrorize you, but being used to giving orders and making himself heard or understood, he talks the way he has been used to talking; that does not mean he wants to humiliate people, but merely emphasizing what he wants to communicate. He is a straight-shooter and fears nobody.

If you understand him you would have no problem with him and would not be offended by the way he talks. Generally people find him very friendly with a great sense of humour but when it comes to business he does not joke and does not suffer fools. In post-war Sierra Leone, when you realistically talk of Sierra Leoneans who deserve accolades for coming out with investment initiatives that have propelled the economy, you can only safely point out Sanpha Koroma and a few others.