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Sierra Leone

How Diaspora Dollars Are Crowdfunding African Development

London-based lawyer Grace Camara came up with a clever, continent-bridging approach to financing ethical projects in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Making the pitch
Making the pitch
Maryline Baumard

MARRAKESH — It was because of her life experiences that Grace Camara decided to make the universal proverb "Unity is strength, division is weakness' a personal motto — and her entrepreneurial inspiration.

Even as a child Camara was able to appreciate the strength of community support. Her parents came to London from Sierra Leone to study. They then decided to stay, using their resources to help compatriots — some of them political figures, others not — to flee the country's 1990s civil war and obtain asylum in Britain.

Years later, she still taps into the power of pan-Africanism, relying on the will of Africans who live on other continents to help those who have remained in their homeland to improve things back there.

Her idea is simple. The World Bank estimates that annual remittances to sub-Saharan Africa from the worldwide African Diaspora amount to nearly 40 billion euros. This aid is essential for the survival of local families. But if a small percentage went towards development projects, Camara figured, the money could also help stimulate the continent's economy.

With that in mind, Camara set up RemitFund, a Diaspora investment fund through which individual remittance senders can contribute a portion of their money to support initiatives that otherwise fail to receive funding. Camara chooses projects according to their social and environmental impact, and can thus assure that they all contribute to the preservation of the planet while at the same time boosting Africa.

I reassured my parents by studying law.

The Londoner didn't, at first, seem destined for the world of responsible finance. "By the end of high school, I was already attracted to international aid, but as a refugee girl, I reassured my parents by studying law," the young woman recalls.

One thing led to another, and Camara eventually became a lawyer, practicing for five years and putting her legal skills at the service of NGOs.

"I liked this work, but I quickly realized that, however benevolent it may be, the NGO approach remained quite neo-colonial," she now says. "I was carrying with me this dissatisfaction of not helping Africa as I intended, without really knowing how to invent another form of support."

Then, in 2015, Camara gave birth to twins. But rather than be drawn further away from her work goals, the opposite happened. "Strangely enough, these births were a catalyst," she says. "My time became so precious that I could no longer conceive of doing anything professionally other than a high-impact activity."

From there she developed her project quickly, knowing that by pooling the Diaspora's resources she would be able to support hundreds of initiatives and beautiful ideas in which traditional bankers did not believe.

"We were finally going to give Africa back to Africans by making their Diaspora aware of the important role it can play in terms of development," the 39-year-old entrepreneur explains.

Bankers refuse them because it will take 10 years for a return on investment.

Sydney Davies, a well-known clothing designer who couldn't find financing to open a factory in Sierra Leone, is one of the many people Camara is trying to help. "That's right," she explains. "This designer who was trained by Alexander McQueen, whose name is well known in London, cannot open a production unit in her country of origin, which is also mine."

Camara knows that manufacturing costs in Sierra Leone will be twice as high as in Bangladesh. But it doesn't matter, because by backing Davies's project, she'll help create 50 jobs in a village and change the life of the place completely. "This is called an ethical investment," she says. "These small projects do not require millions of dollars, but bankers refuse them because it will take 10 years for a return on investment. But we all know that the effect on the ground will be much greater than the money earned in the long run."

By creating employment, these initiatives can help keep young people in Africa, slow the so-called brain-drain from depriving the continent of its best and brightest. A simple fraction of the remittances from the Diaspora could thus change the course of history.

Camara is certain of this. But she's not the only one: The prestigious Women in Africa (WIA) initiative likes her ideas too, so much so that at this year's WIA forum, in Marrakesh, a jury named the Londoner one of the organization's seven women entrepreneur "Revelations."

Camara's team has already grown to include eight people, and the number of projects they're funding keeps ticking up. History in the making indeed.

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