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Wilfred Sam King refuses to leave his homeland of Sierra Leone, and today has created a $20-million empire of hotels, shops and other businesses in his native Sierra Leone. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Wilfred Sam King refuses to leave his homeland of Sierra Leone, and today has created a $20-million empire of hotels, shops and other businesses in his native Sierra Leone. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

The backbone of Africa: Entrepreneurs who refuse to quit Add to ...

In this third of a six-part series, Globe and Mail Africa correspondent Geoffrey York investigates how Africa's growth is changing its future.

By the age of 33, Wilfred Sam-King had earned and lost a fortune three times over. Each time he built a business from nothing, he saw it looted or torched in a coup or a rebel invasion.

AFRICA NEXT: A SIX-PART SERIES

When rebels laid siege to Freetown in 1999, they searched everywhere for Sierra Leone’s famed businessman, aiming to take his money. One day they captured him – but he had disguised himself in shabby clothes, pretending to be his own cook. He made soup for the rebels for three days before escaping.

Refusing to leave his homeland – even after his wife and children found shelter in Canada during the civil war – he patiently rebuilt his fortune again, and today has created a small empire of hotels, retail shops and other businesses worth $20-million.

His determination has made Mr. Sam-King one of Sierra Leone’s most successful entrepreneurs – and living proof of the persistence and imagination that is transforming Africa’s economy.

While foreign mining and oil investors are one reason for the African boom, the new class of indigenous entrepreneurs is equally important. Their stories are testament to the business acumen of Africans themselves, unleashed by the end of war and the fall of dictatorship.

Wilfred Sam-King was born in a tiny village in the south of Sierra Leone, where his parents were impoverished rice farmers. They couldn’t afford to send him to school. So from the age of nine, he went into business, buying and selling kerosene and palm oil, often lugging it five kilometres from the nearest town. He didn’t know how to count, so he marked notches on a box to count the coins.

When his parents finally scraped up the school tuition fees, he was embarrassed to be entering Grade 1 at the age of 11, so he paid older students to tutor him. He became fascinated with reading, devouring novels in the local library.

At university, unable to afford the cost of accommodation, Mr. Sam-King slept in classrooms at night, paying his tuition by mopping floors and washing dishes for Peace Corps volunteers and visiting professors. With his earnings, he bought a cheap camera and became the first photographer at his university to offer colour prints – which he accomplished by sending the negatives to Britain for printing.

This, in turn, provided the startup capital for bigger ventures. Soon Mr. Sam-King was selling vegetables and other supplies to local mining companies. He built it into a $1-million business – and then saw it all stolen by rampaging rebels in 1994 in the early years of Sierra Leone’s civil war.

“I lost everything,” he said. “Our stock was completely destroyed. I didn’t have a dollar left.”

He moved to Freetown and opened a stationery shop and office equipment business. Three years later, he lost everything again in the chaos of a coup. And when he rebuilt it for a second time, it was destroyed again in 1999 when the city was invaded by rebels who looted and killed indiscriminately.

The war ended in 2002, and the ensuing peace and stability finally allowed him to thrive. Mr. Sam-King became the local Canon dealer, sold office supplies, ran a construction company, managed a container port, built roads and hotels, and branched into tourism with beach resorts.

“There wasn’t much competition,” recalls Mr. Sam-King, wearing a sharp pin-striped suit as he chats at his office supplies outlet. “Not many people even wanted to think about Sierra Leone.”

Now he plans to go public with a share offering on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. “I want my company to live on,” he said. “Most African companies die with their owners. But this country is definitely going to grow. I’m a strong believer in Sierra Leone.”

While he had to fight hard for everything he earned, Mr. Sam-King remembers that others helped him along the way. Now he tries to do the same, paying the school or university fees of about 100 needy youths. “Just a small hand to someone in need can transform their life,” he said.

He still lives frugally, rising at 5:30 every morning to begin work. He never regrets his decision to stay in Sierra Leone instead of emigrating. “When material things cloud your vision, you can’t be successful,” he said. “My passion is to finish what we’ve started in Sierra Leone. Migrating to another country would jeopardize the whole effort.”

It’s an increasingly common belief among African entrepreneurs. There is no need to leave, they say, when there are so many opportunities at home.

In war-torn Liberia, Sierra Leone’s southern neighbour, hotel and restaurant owner Sam Mitchell has blazed the same trail as Mr. Sam-King: He is an entrepreneur who refused to quit, even after his business was repeatedly wrecked by civil war. And he, too, has prospered under peace.

Mr. Mitchell grew up in a business family, the son of parents who sold rice in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. By the 1980s, he was running a restaurant, selling used cars and distributing beer, among other enterprises.

Then the war broke out. His house was looted and heavily damaged, and his businesses were shut down. “We lost everything,” he recalls.

Liberia’s war ended in 2003, and a new democratic government soon took office. That’s when Mr. Mitchell’s prospects turned around. He went back into the car business, opened a restaurant, and launched a hotel project.

After opening a 75-seat restaurant last year, he saw his sales jump by 50 per cent in a year. And behind the restaurant, the hotel is slowly rising. By the end of this year, it will have grown to 50 rooms over four storeys. He aims to build it to 10 floors.

It hasn’t been easy. While the government is eager to lure multinational companies to Liberia, it has neglected the small-business sector. Banks are reluctant to provide capital to small businesses, and interest rates are high.

Mr. Mitchell managed to borrow $250,000 last year to finance his hotel expansion, but was required to repay it in 26 months, making it impossible for him to repay it with revenue from the new hotel rooms.

He argues that Liberia must reduce its dependence on the “enclave investments” of foreign mining projects. “When they leave Liberia, they’ll just leave a big hole,” he said. “They’re putting up prefab houses that will only last for 20 or 30 years. When they finish with the ore, it will be a ghost town again.”

Mr. Mitchell’s children, most of whom fled Liberia during the civil war in the 1990s, recently came back for a visit. One son, now living in Texas, brought dozens of packages of tea for his father – only to discover that Monrovia is full of well-stocked shops these days.

“He didn’t realize that we had supermarkets,” Mr. Mitchell chuckled. “They were surprised by the development here. Their whole perception has changed.”

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