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Sierra Leone Business: Legal Aid Board plead for Micro Finance Women behind bars

Executive Director Legal Aid Board, Fatmata Claire Carlton-Hanciles has pleaded with Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) to help her institution reduce the number of business people behind bars. In her presentation during the Sierra Leone Association of Microfinance Institutions (SLAMFI) Conference, she said that across Freetown there are so many women behind bars, “at one point in time some women from the Fourah Bay Road and Susans Bay end ran away from their matrimonial homes because they cannot pay back.” This is where she says the question of collateral comes in; she urged the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) to come up with safe collateral other than property. “Most times when these women are arrested the men who they most times take care of don’t turn up at the Police Station when they are arrested. So we need to find the way forward as a lot of SMEs are suffering” she said. “You go to court, some of my lawyers are handling fraudulent conversion which is for microfinance offence. There is a lot of money in the informal sector. As you are reviewing the legislation what safe guards are you going to put in place regarding borrowing and lending? If we do not tackle the informal sector we have failed” she said. The Legal Aid Boss asked whether microfinance is only about people who are engaged in business, she called on the MFIs to start partnering with skilled people who can go and buy tools and set up themselves professionally. Part of the problem she cited is the fact that the moment someone loses a job, that person wants to go and do business and the next minute they are clients of the Legal Aid Board. “They are selling small things, look at the items they are holding from dawn to dusk, look at the manpower behind it, the human resource and the needs of that individual, how could we not have a lot of highway men and thieves roaming around” she queried?  The private banks she said are also into borrowing because they are scared, “but they are losing a lot of revenue from local customers” even as they continue to give legal representation to these people she noted that it is also affecting the GDP when you take into consideration the amount of money that government spends in jails and cells as the number keeps soaring. “We keep on having international borrowing and we are also doing lending. But how much is it alleviating the suffering of the common man and how much long lasting impact, how many people are you giving and what is the ratio of success” she asked? She recommended that MFIs can support skilled people like opening a saloon and employing over 50 people and many women will go there, a garage with experienced qualified mechanics with tools coupled with good spare parts … people will take their cars there. She mentioned that while referencing the Nigerian traders along Goderich Street that are doing well and we Sierra Leoneans keep on admiring them. She went further to encourage the MFIs to support skilled professionals as part of a joint venture. “I want you to help me in the Legal Aid Board to reduce the numbers behind bars, also the largest offenders are the male youths over 70% in the jails, between the ages of 15-35 years, so what are we doing with that population?” “It is heart rendering to know that the largest employer is government, the private sector is virtually down and especially when it comes to microfinance we have international institutions who are doing borrowing and we have national institutions who are totally out of it, we have legislation which is not helping” she said. She questioned the MFIs how they go about selecting people who can pay, whether their clients are being provided with skills training and empowerment, which is currently lacking in the middle level. The middle level she said is where we have the largest under-utilisation of human resource and the largest number of offenders. “In all the jails, you only see welders, builders, market women, traders and drivers and if we do not try to create those training platforms, we are not going to have the answers we need no matter how much borrowing we get both nationally and internationally” she warned. The Executive Director added that, already from the microfinance sector there are a lot of issues for non-payment of debts, “so what are you doing about the type of borrowers that are coming in, are you getting them skilled, are you asking especially international financial institutions to create training establishment which can really help in reducing the loan payment incidence “she probes.

By Zainab Iyamide Joaque

Monday May 13, 2019.

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