Fighting Ebola

Fighting Ebola

How Sierra Rutile, a mid-cap mining company, is coping with a national health crisis in Sierra Leone
© Sierra Rutile

Sierra Rutile Limited

A decade on from a protracted civil war, Sierra Leone’s economy had been growing impressively, recording double digit GDP growth in 2012 and 2013. But the rapid spread of Ebola in West Africa since early 2014 has added a completely new and dynamic business risk—and it could cost the region more than $30 billion by 2015.

As one of Sierra Leone’s largest employers, responsible for the direct and indirect employment of nearly 2,000 people, Sierra Rutile (a leading producer of mineral sands) quickly recognized Ebola’s potential for business disruption.

What was immediately apparent was the need to keep our workforce safe. Our initial strategy was very simple and had three main elements:

  • Awareness building: Regularly providing staff with information about Ebola so they can recognize the disease and protect themselves;
  • Screening: Checking the temperature of all employees and visitors to the mine site to keep potentially infected people out; and
  • Improved hygiene: Providing increased facilities for hand washing.

We also had to think beyond the mine. Mining operations of companies such as Sierra Rutile are based in remote rural areas and are closely linked with local communities.  Around 60% of our workforce is from and/or lives in surrounding villages and we use many local suppliers and contractors.  This tight interdependence between the company and the community meant our approach to managing Ebola had to extend beyond the mine itself and into the communities.

Working with traditional local rulers and community representatives such as Paramount Chiefs, women’s groups, youth groups, district councils, and local parliamentarians, we initiated a daily house-to-house temperature-screening program targeting an estimated 11,000 people. We also collaborated with the local security forces to set up screening check points, supplying them with thermometers and chlorine.  Equally important has been to circulate accurate and accessible information from Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, and the US Centers for Disease Control.

Perhaps the most visible sign of our response is the newly constructed quarantine and isolation unit in the grounds of our health clinic. Ebola’s disproportionate impact on health workers has been well documented and dedicated training for them, as well as protective equipment and clothing, has been a crucially important investment.

A successful response to Ebola is critical for national economic growth. The GDP of Sierra Leone, which had been projected to grow by over 11% in 2014, has since been revised down to 4%. While the facts do not support the fear, the stigmatization of Ebola-affected countries has manifested itself in suspended flights, visa bans, an “Ebola tax” (freight surcharge) being added to transportation costs, and misinformation, making travel in and out of the country difficult. This has hurt the Ebola response, as well as the Sierra Leonean business community, and has generated anxiety among international investors.

Notwithstanding these challenges, we have managed to keep our operations going with minimal disruption. Nearly one year on, our workforce remains Ebola free. Sierra Rutile’s Ebola response has been pivotal in maintaining a robust operational performance. We have sustained improvements in cost efficiency and completed on budget the upgrade of our mineral separation plant. We have also continued with our expansion projects and have maintained a strong balance sheet.

In terms of rebuilding investor confidence in Sierra Leone, our participation in the Ebola Private Sector Mobilization Group, an 80-strong business group set up by ArcelorMittal to facilitate a coordinated response to Ebola in West Africa, has been critical. This group lobbies governments, contributes to the humanitarian response, and liaises internationally on issues such as insurance, flights, and shipping restrictions.

Ebola will inevitably test our resolve, as a company, and also that of the country. What our experience clearly shows us, though, is that to come through to the other side of this, we must face such tests head on, including engaging widely with the local community and the rest of the private sector.

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