FINANCE & BANKING
Sierra Leone’s banking system is overseen by its central bank, the Bank of Sierra Leone and twelve commercial banks operate in the country.
All commercial banks are headquartered in Freetown. Accounts can be held in foreign and domestic currencies. While automatic teller machines are available in Freetown, credit cards are not widely accepted. Transfers of over US$10,000 in value must be sent through the banking system with the objective of ensuring transparency.
Banks cannot lend in foreign currencies, which is a limitation on local business expansion. This can in turn impact the supply chains of large foreign-run businesses.
Currency can be freely converted in Sierra Leone, subject to its availability. The Leone is not pegged to a foreign currency and has a floating exchange rate. The Leone has been subject to depreciation pressures since mid-2014 due to declining inflows from the mining sector and, from mid-2015 onwards, a winding-down of Ebola-related donor inflows. Accordingly, the official US$/SLL exchange rate has moved from approximately Le4,400 in May 2014 to approximately Le7,400 in February 2017. Typically the US dollar trades in the unofficial, parallel currency market at a premium of 5-10% to the official exchange rate.
The Bank of Sierra Leone conducts weekly foreign exchange auctions limited to transactions in non-cash US$. The minimum and maximum amount a single bidder can purchase are determined by the Bank and published in the relevant auction announcement. Only commercial banks operating in the country are entitled to take part and foreign currency purchased through the auction must be used for imports of goods.
ACCESS TO CREDIT
The World Bank’s Doing Business 2017 Report ranked Sierra Leone at 157 out of 190 economies for “getting credit”. The category was assessed by reference to (a) movable collateral laws (that is the strength of legal rights of borrowers and lenders in secured transactions) and (b) credit information systems (the sharing of credit information).
In terms of specific scores on the strength of legal rights, Sierra Leone ranked above regional comparators such as the Gambia and Ethiopia, but sat below Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda among others. Higher scores on strength of legal rights indicate that collateral and bankruptcy laws are better designed to facilitate access to credit. Along with 26 other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Sierra Leone’s score on the depth of credit information index is zero. Although the CRA does provide the legislative framework for the Bank of Sierra Leone to operate an interim Credit Reference Bureau Unit, where such units are not operational or cover less than 5% of the adult population on the depth of credit information, the World Bank Report scores the country at zero for this category. The World Bank report does not cover access to credit more generally.
Interest rates for commercial loans are relatively high. In November 2014, the GoSL enacted the Borrowers and Lenders Act, which applies to security interests in movable property, establishing the framework for lenders to register charges on the borrowers’ moveable assets. The legislation provides for priority by date of registration and contains provisions in relation to the enforcement of such collateral. It should be noted that the Act’s scope appears to be limited to “lenders”, which are defined as commercial banks or other financial institutions licensed by the Bank of Sierra Leone. The framework established by the Act brings structure to an area which to date has been unclear. It is hoped the Act will improve access to finance and provide lenders with the confidence that their collateral over movables has a solid legal framework supporting it.
To support SMEs in Sierra Leone, the Ministry of Trade and Industry has introduced a SME Policy, which facilitates access to credit for SMEs and provides subsidies and incentives (such as a special interest rate).
Security by way of fixed or floating charge can be taken over any class of assets, including land, receivables, cash and shares. The charge and instrument must be registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission within 21 days of the date of its creation. There are few restrictions on the timing and value of enforcement of security. However, there is no guarantee that secured creditors will be paid first, and a creditor cannot enforce against an insolvent debtor without the court’s permission. Insolvency proceedings can be resolved expeditiously through the FTCC.
Following amendments to the Companies Act in 2014, there are also generally few restrictions on foreign companies (i.e. those not registered to do business in Sierra Leone) to prevent them from enforcing contractual obligations in the courts of Sierra Leone, for example in terms of foreclosure.
The GoSL continues to enact reforms to strengthen the market for security, expanding permissible security to include both future assets and replacements for already secured assets, and establishing a public credit registry to facilitate lenders’ credit checks.
Sierra Leone is not on the Financial Action Taskforce list of countries suffering from strategic deficiencies in AML provision, but was identified as a jurisdiction of concern in the US Department of State 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report due to a combination of its position as a strategic sea port and a lack of restrictive border controls.
The GoSL enacted the Anti-Money Laundering and Combating of Financing of Terrorism Act in 2012, criminalising terrorist financing (and the failure to report such financing), introducing AML compliance requirements such as “Know Your Customer” and other verification checks, and imposing record-keeping requirements.
The Act also establishes the FIU, which has wide investigatory powers in respect of money laundering and suspicious transactions. The Terrorism Prevention Regulation 2013, which deals with the freezing of funds in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 1267 and 1373, was passed in October 2014. Revised guidelines on preventing money laundering and terrorist financing for both financial and non-financial institutions have been issued by the FIU and the Bank of Sierra Leone.
The Intergovernmental Action Group Against Money Laundering in West Africa, which was established by ECOWAS in 2000 and works towards the development of AML strategies in the region, last reported on Sierra Leone in May 2015 (the 12th follow-up to the 2006 Mutual Evaluation). Its report highlighted the progress made by the enactment of the Anti-Money Laundering and Combating of Financing of Terrorism Act 2012, and the Terrorism Prevention Regulation 2013. It also identified positive developments in the supervision of and training in AML compliance, led by the FIU, and in inter-agency cooperation to combat money laundering and terrorist financing activities. The latter is a result of the FIU setting up the AML/CFT Inter-Agency Intelligence Coordinating Committee, which comprises the FIU and the leading intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
While headway has been made, Sierra Leone’s efforts to attack money laundering and terrorism financing still fall short of international standards in certain respects. For instance, the US Department of State 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report noted that the GoSL lacks the ability to freeze terrorist assets without delay.