New service sector debutant demonstrates that satisfied customers and job creation is the reward for investment in Freetown, Sierra Leone
For a long time, formalising the service sector has been overlooked in Sierra Leone, but it has high potential for the right investor. Working and middle income Sierra Leonean’s are crying out for places to go, socialise, dine, be serviced and entertained in their cities. Chicken Town has landed, and it makes the strongest case yet for investors and government to explore this sector.
In April 2019, Chicken Town opened its doors to the paying public. Its service offering is simple and appealing — thoughtful design and branding coupled with a tasty and simple food menu that’s pitched at a sensible and inclusive price. It’s the first restaurant in Freetown that has meticulously thought about offering a branded experience to its customers and it has set the standard high for the competition in town.
The first thing you think when you enter Chicken Town is, “Wow, why has no one thought of doing this sooner in Freetown?” It seems so obvious, but the thought is a huge discredit to the design thinking and good management that makes a venture like this succeed in a business environment that is ‘opaque’, to say the least, for external investors. In Sierra Leone, it takes more than just a good idea to start a business. But with investor capital and a blend of local and international experience you can create something beautiful and wildly appealing like Chicken Town.
Chicken Town is one of number of Sierra Leone ventures funded by UK-based impact investor Truestone. This latest venture is their most culturally significant yet. The timing is impeccable; presently youth unemployment is high and business sector growth is sluggish. Not enough good jobs are being created quick enough in Freetown. Chicken Town challenges this narrative and sends a bold message to Sierra Leonean’s that homegrown companies can thrive in Freetown and the country’s services sector can catch-up with West African countries, like Ghana, creating hundreds of new jobs in the process.
In July 2019, I got the opportunity to meet Benjamin Jackson (Business Development, Truestone) and Zemzem Ali (Commercial Director, Chicken Town) to learn more about the idea behind Chicken Town and the effect this small business is having in Freetown.
What was the idea behind bringing Chicken Town to market?
Benjamin tells me the main motivating factor for starting the business was that there were simply no ‘good quality, cool, and affordable’ fast food restaurants servicing customers in Freetown. There was a big opportunity for the right individual or organisation to invest in a business that would generate a good return and create job opportunities in the heart of Freetown.
Zemzem confirms the numbers. Thirty-two are now employed in a mixture of kitchen and front of house roles at the restaurant. Most of them are school leavers. Chicken Town have also teamed up with local suppliers to source a range of ingredients for their menu.
During the design and build, they used local contractors and kept the import of materials to the minimum. Stylish glass windows, lighting and the kitchen are the only real imports in this place. The rest is locally sourced and it’s great to see the local wood fashioned into inspiring furniture designs.
One import that Chicken Town could not do without was knowledge and experience. Benjamin explains they headhunted their chef from Kenya to bring experience to the junior team on how to run a modern kitchen. This recruitment seems like a coup that is paying off. This type of restaurant has never been done in Sierra Leone to this standard before. And for a country also focused on growing its tourism sector over the coming decade, attracting external experience and skills will be key to improving the overall quality of restaurants and the standard of customer experience in Sierra Leone.
But the biggest benefactor of this new service might arguably be the customers, who come from a wide range of backgrounds. Zemzem tells me tales of older ladies lunching on Friday afternoons in their favourite booth. Colleagues from the nearby government building taking a quick trip across the road at lunchtime. School kids enjoying the restaurant in the afternoon. And groups of friends taking advantage of a more lively atmosphere on a Friday night. Children’s birthday parties are a big draw and when I’m in Chicken Town to interview there’s a group of young kids enjoying themselves on the table behind with their parents capturing every moment on camera. Simple joys and pleasures that come from a fun and enjoyable environment.
What about other services here in Freetown? Are there more opportunities for investors?
Benjamin and Zemzem share their insights with me. They tell me that there is a demand here for consumer services, but not enough would-be business leaders have access to liquidity to set-up exceptional service businesses. In Freetown, many micro businesses currently service needs but in a very informal way, for example street vendors offer cooked chicken skewers or freshly cut coconut in the street. And whilst there is always a place for these types of businesses in Freetown, there is also a fantastic opportunity for small businesses to formalise and have a more transparent supply chain for their customers, whilst maintaining similar prices to what’s on offer at present. The biggest missed opportunities for investors is that they fail to understand and appreciate what is on offer currently and see how they can improve on it.
Benjamin admits that Freetown is a great place to start a business in the service sector. There’s a lack of competition and high standards here, which makes it a forgiving place for early mistakes as you improve your business.
The conclusion drawn is that there are plenty of opportunities for another “Chicken Town” overnight success in Freetown. The biggest barrier is upfront cash; but this is certainly not a crowded market for investors at the moment.
What more could government do to help small businesses in the services sector?
It’s a lengthy discussion, but it’s concluded that the government could help by focusing on reducing some of the challenges and costs that make it difficult to do business in Freetown. Securing land and the correct permits is an onerous and time consuming process on a new build; a minister in government has to (eventually) literally sign off the paperwork. Electricity and water costs are also high. And the duties paid on critical imported goods by businesses are high, even when a local alternatives are not available. Could the government manage its ports better and classify certain imports as duty free to encourage new service sector businesses to establish themselves in Freetown?
What’s next for Chicken Town?
Zemzem and Benjamin pitch some exciting opportunities ahead for the new business. There’s a plan to open some more branches in Freetown over the coming years. And in a country without KFC or Nando’s, the founders also believe that franchising a business like this might have real appeal to investors in Sierra Leone and then the rest of the Mano River Union (Liberia, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire). Might this be Sierra Leone’s first franchised restaurant chain across West Africa?
As for their supply chain, the company hopes that over the coming years business conditions in Sierra Leone will make it feasible to source chickens from their own poultry farms within Sierra Leone.
I’m currently working as an independent consultant in Sierra Leone. I’ve recently advised the Government of Sierra Leone’s Department for Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI) and the British Council on growing digital and creative services and businesses in Sierra Leone. I previously worked in innovation and digital technologies in the UK for PwC and a government-funded business support hub. You can reach me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.