2013-04-11

Co.Exist

Actor Jeffrey Wright Is Trying To Create A Sustainable African Goldmine

Wright and development organization BRAC USA’s CEO Susan Davis discuss their plans to use an industry that traditionally has done nothing good for the country Sierra Leone and use it to improve life there instead.

Creating a social enterprise and making a film are more similar than you might imagine. In our respective careers, we’ve both had the privilege of working with visionaries able to forge partnerships between people from often wildly different backgrounds—playing a variety of roles, great and small, on camera and off—and aligning their goals. When it’s done right, the result is something to behold: It’s creating a new reality.

Now imagine what “a new reality” means in a place like Sierra Leone, where within living memory people have lived through horrors that most of us only see on the screen. The problem here, economists tell us, is the so-called “resource curse,” wherein countries with an abundance of natural resources are, paradoxically, trapped in poverty.

We’re two people from different backgrounds. Susan is a long-time international development practitioner, currently running the U.S. affiliate of the world’s largest nongovernmental organization, BRAC, founded in Bangladesh in 1972. Jeffrey is an award-winning actor who caught the development bug after traveling to Sierra Leone during the last stages of its civil war. He now runs a foundation and a business there that disrupts the old way of doing business in Africa.

Here’s one thing we do have in common though. We don’t believe in the resource curse. Based on our experience, we know we can break free from the past’s small-minded ways of thinking, in which business was business and charity was charity. Even an industry like mining, blamed for so many of Africa’s ills, can be a place for socially responsible and sustainable enterprise. Because of our shared interest, we’re discussing a collaborative venture in Sierra Leone—starting small, but thinking big—that uses market-based solutions to catalyze large-scale change, as BRAC has done in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

The first step is establishing trust with neglected communities. Established in 2011, Jeffrey’s Taia Lion Resources currently owns the concessionary rights to four tracts of land targeted for gold exploration and mining in rural Sierra Leone, with plans to expand to other properties and minerals. Taia Lion Resources devotes a percentage of its operating budget to locally driven, socio-economic development initiatives augmenting the contributions of its sister entity, Taia Peace Foundation, and its philanthropic partners. Taia Peace Foundation also controls a significant shareholding in Taia Lion Resources and will pass a majority of this ownership to local communities.

Among other work undertaken, the foundation has reconnected isolated rural villages to larger Sierra Leone by rebuilding an 18-mile road in the eastern Kailahun district, near the Guinea border, and helped local women farmers increase their output and add value to what they produce. Both of these projects were born of community desires. When barriers to capital and services are overcome, communities will do the hard work of driving their own development. They’ll use tools like microcredit, improved farming practices taught by model farmers, and micro-franchised distribution of seeds, fertilizer, medicine, and more.

The story of Taia strikes a resonant chord with BRAC. Starting out as a small relief operation in rural Bangladesh, BRAC pioneered the concept of social enterprise, using the financial surplus from pro-poor business ventures, including feed mills and the largest private dairy in Bangladesh, to finance development. It now operates 18 social enterprises in Bangladesh, spanning almost every sector, from food processing to banking.

But a gold mine as a social enterprise? As Jeffrey has said, let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment. Someone’s going to take advantage of those resources in the ground. Why shouldn’t it be a company that works with rural communities above the ground as essential partners in progress, rather than treating them as yet another resource to be exploited? If the “resource curse” is to be avoided, such companies must exist.

Today, Sierra Leone is in a situation similar to that of Bangladesh 41 years ago. When BRAC was founded, Bangladesh was the second-poorest country on earth, famously written off by skeptics as a “basket case,” in the words of a State Department official at the time. Since then, its rate of progress on basic standards of living has been unprecedented—and completely unexpected. In 2010, the average Bangladeshi woman was 75% less likely to die in childbirth compared to 20 years earlier, to cite just one measure. Observers (including The Economist) have given much of the credit to BRAC.

We can do the same in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, but not on our own. In December 2012, Sierra Leone’s economy was forecast to expand by over 15%, largely as a result of the development of its mining sector. It’s crucial that this growth be enjoyed in the communities close to those mines. Within its areas of operation, the BRAC/Taia collaboration will prove that possible.

On stage and on-screen, harnessing the full potential of your creative partners takes time, trust, and the gumption to try again and again. A director has to trust the actors and vice versa. When that happens, they can work together to craft a new reality—in this case, putting an end to the legacy of colonialism, conflict, and exploitation.

Anyone want to help us make that movie? Just one condition: that the people of Sierra Leone direct it.

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