Thoughts turn to recovery as Ebola slowly ebbs in West Africa

DAKAR/MONROVIA/CONAKRY (Reuters) - In the marble atrium of the Mammy Yoko hotel in Freetown, manager Nuno Neves has spotted something he has not seen since the Ebola virus struck Sierra Leone nine months ago: foreign businessmen.

The Radisson Blu chain opened the four-star hotel last April to cater for investors in one of Africa's fastest-growing economies. A month later, Ebola crossed the border from Guinea and those investors fled.

For months, Sierra Leone was cut off from the world amid panic at the worst recorded outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever, which has killed more than 9,500 people in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia and infected over 23,500.

Nine of the 11 airlines serving Freetown, including British Airways, suspended flights. Miners pulled out foreign staff, and banks declined credit for local companies.

To stave off closure, Neves cut working hours and salaries. What saved the 170-room hotel was an influx of foreign aid workers in October.

But with infection rates slowly declining, investors have begun to talk about post-Ebola reconstruction. Neves has noted the return of businessmen not seen since the hotel opened.

"They don't bring their teams. They just come to see what is going on and then they leave," he said, adding that 'business as usual' remains far off.

"This will be a year focused on Ebola. First the fight to end Ebola and then reconstruction."

For Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the timing is terrible. As they struggle with Ebola, they have been hit by a commodities slump: the price of iron ore, the largest export from Liberia and Sierra Leone, roughly halved last year.

Between Ebola and the commodities rout, the World Bank estimates the three countries will lose at least US$1.6 billion (S$2.17 billion) in output this year, or over a tenth of their combined GDPs.

Sierra Leone, the worst affected by Ebola, has also been hardest hit economically. From 11 percent growth in 2013, its US$5 billion economy is forecast to contract 2.5 percent this year.

Its two largest employers, Africa Minerals and London Minerals, have halted iron ore production following the price slump. With more than half Sierra Leone's 6 million people living in poverty, Ebola has destroyed a further 180,000 jobs as it ravaged agriculture and services, the World Bank said.

Clive Dawson, head of the British Chamber of Commerce in Sierra Leone, is working with companies to identify investment opportunities in agriculture, health and construction that could create urgently needed jobs.

"The world climate has changed completely," he said. "But for the ones who are brave, the opportunities are enormous because the government is bending over backwards to help investors."

'SITUATION DRAMATICALLY IMPROVING'

Not all mining investors have been deterred by the price fall. London-listed Sable Mining signed a deal last month to send iron ore from a planned mine in Guinea by rail to Liberia's port of Buchanan.

"Ebola hasn't made it easy. We haven't been able to travel to Liberia for some time," CEO Jim Cochrane said. "But the situation is dramatically improving and these countries will be much better prepared in the future."

Liberia weathered Ebola more quickly than its neighbours, thanks to massive US support. It now has only a handful of cases and its economy is forecast to grow 3 percent this year, despite ArcelorMittal scrapping plans to triple iron ore output due to low prices.

Chinese firms, which last year stopped major road projects, have restarted construction.

Nearly a fifth of Liberians laid off during Ebola have returned to work in the last month, the World Bank said this week. But it warned that food insecurity remained rife.

Martha Wessh, 35, a mother of three, said her family eats once a day since her husband was laid off by a logging firm. "We rely on friends and relatives to survive," she said.

Global charity Oxfam has called for a post-Ebola "Marshall Plan" to support basic services like health and sanitation, and provide jobs and cash for families hit by the crisis.

Between lost taxes and higher spending, Ebola countries face massive deficits. According to the United Nations, Liberia is headed for a deficit of more than 7 percent of GDP this year.

EBOLA AGGRAVATED EXISTING PROBLEMS

Attempts are being made to tackle a collapse in credit which has hit small businesses hard. In Sierra Leone, the British government and Standard Chartered have launched a US$50 million lending scheme, while in Guinea the World Bank's private lending arm, the IFC, will invest US$30 million this year.

The World Bank expects Guinea's economy to shrink 0.2 percent this year before returning to growth in 2016.

Major investments - from Rio Tinto's Simandou iron mine to a bauxite project led by Mubadala and Dubai Aluminium - have been slowed after miners repatriated foreign staff.

Emmanuel Sossouadouno, head of the economic studies at the finance ministry, said Guinea's main problems were structural: "We don't produce enough electricity and our infrastructure has deteriorated ... Ebola just aggravated an existing situation."

With President Alpha Conde seeking reelection this year, he wants to jump-start growth. He is pressing ahead with the sale of offshore oil blocks and an auction for the northern half of Simandou, despite litigation with former owner BSG Resources.

The government faces difficulties in securing investment in mining and oil, said Africa Risk Consulting's West Africa Manager, Trent Baldacchino.

"But in 2016, Guinea should get back on its economic trajectory."