Travel and Tourism, a Hot Topic in Sierra Leone

Until a few days ago, if you had asked me to tell you about Sierra Leone, I would have had to think long and hard to tell you much about this West African country. I could probably have explained roughly where the country is located. I may have mentioned something about the slave trade being connected to Sierra Leone. I could certainly have told you that they had experienced a brutal civil war. I might even have admitted that I wasn’t entirely sure whether the war was 100% over. And that’s about it.Slavery and war. A pretty negative view of what is in fact an exceptionally positive country. Today, I see Sierra Leone from an entirely different perspective.It is difficult to ignore Sierra Leone’s history and focus purely on the present. Once a fertile area inhabited by dozens of tribes, it was settled by the Portuguese in the 1400′s who built a fort as a trading post for gold, spices, ivory and slaves. A British protectorate in later years, Sierra Leone had the dubious honour of becoming home to more than 40,000 freed slaves who gave Freetown its name. As a protectorate, Sierra Leone was exploited for its mineral and diamond wealth in the 1900′s and Sierra Leonean’s fought against the Germans in Cameroon in the First World War, and alongside the British in the Second World War. In 1961, Sierra Leone achieved independence from Britain and governed itself peacefully for 30 years. The peace was not to last and was followed by a decade of brutal civil war that destroyed the economy, brutalised the people and left a country that is rich in resources as one of the poorest in the world.The conflict was officially declared over in January 2002, and President Kabbah reelected in May 2002. Since then, the people of Sierra Leone have been pulling together to repair, renew and regenerate.Whilst doing research for a new website looking at travel and tourism in Sierra Leone, I came into contact with Sierra Leoneans from all manner of backgrounds living in both Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Their passion for the country was infectious: they clearly wanted to get the message across that Sierra Leone has far more to offer than a sad recent history and that reconstruction is moving ahead at a rapid pace. And indeed, proof of reconstruction is everywhere – new roads are being built, mines are being re-opened, dam projects started before the war are once again underway, markets are once again thriving and humming with life. There is also a great deal of confidence in Sierra Leone’s potential as a tourist destination: a Chinese company has recently invested a reputed US$270 million in the hotel infrastructure; enterprising companies like Kevin McPhillips Travel (based in the UK, USA and the Netherlands) offer exclusive twice weekly flights to Sierra Leone; African Tour specialists are researching viable package holidays in the region. The exciting thing about investment in Sierra Leone is that more is set to follow!They have a right to be confident. The beaches along Sierra Leone’s golden peninsula are said to be one of the world’s best kept secrets. Secluded, clean and stretching for miles on end, beach tourism is one of the top items on the government’s tourism promotion agenda. Beaches with very British names like Kent, Lumley, Sussex and York mix with more African names like Bureh Town, Tokey and Mammah beach, andAlthough many of the forests and much of the wildlife has been disturbed and in some cases, destroyed, by the war, eco-tourism is an important focus of Sierra Leoneans and natural treasures like Outamba-Kilimi National Park, populated by game animals such as elephants, chimpanzees and pigmy hippos, and Mount Bintimani, the highest point in West Africa, are just two of the worthwhile wildlife attractions on offer. Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary rescues orphaned and captured chimps and has been described as one of the most successful Sierra Leonean wildlife endeavours, whilst Tiwai Island is home to over 3000 chimps as well as other game.Lakes, rivers and dams are perfect for picnics and relaxing. The marshlands hide a myriad of colourful birds – indeed, the bird life has been less affected by the war than the animals, and everywhere you go, the air is filled with birdsong. Sierra Leone is a bird-watchers dream! Tiwai Island for one boasts over 135 different bird species!For culture vultures and those with historical interests, the remnants of the slave trade make interesting and though-provoking expeditions. Bunce Island, a slave trading fortress, is a brief boat trip up the river; Freetown is itself a monument to freed slaves and its Cotton Tree, which stands in the heart of what is thought to be an old slave market, is now an impressive national symbol. Graves, monuments and forts are all that remain of British and Portuguese power in Sierra Leone: each has a tale to tell. There are over 16 different ethnic groups in the country, including the Krio, descendents of freed slaves who speak an English-based Creole called Krio, and visiting villages and chatting to people in markets and in the streets is rewarding for all parties!Freetown is probably the most developed of the cities, offering a level of safety that is difficult to match even in Western countries. Hotels, restaurants and nightspots are sprouting like mushrooms, and eating out in Sierra Leone promises a range of traditional and international treats, and seafood that is beyond belief!One has to wonder what attraction will tip the scales in making Sierra Leone the popular destination that it once was before the civil war. Based on my experiences with Sierra Leoneans in recent weeks, I feel that it will be the people who make the difference. Without exception, every Sierra Leonean that I have met or worked with has been proud of their country, proud of its progress and excited about the future. They are unfailingly welcoming, greeting aid-workers and travellers alike with smiles that you can only find in Africa, with an optimism – no, positivity – that other countries would do well to emulate.For travellers in search of a “diamond in the rough”, Sierra Leone offers a holiday like no other – my only advice to you is to visit sooner rather than later, to avoid what is sure to be a stampede once holiday-makes and tour operators latch on to this gem of a destination.

Bridging the Gap Between Search Engine Spiders and Humans

Search engine spiders are – in a way – the lifeblood of the internet. Without them, we wouldn’t have search engines. Without search engines, nobody could find your website, nor could you locate 99%+ of the internet either.

And yet, these little spiders – however necessary they are – don’t by any means paint the full picture of the business behind the website it’s spidering. All a spider can do is read the content of your site via the HTML you provide it. Therefore, we’re told to develop “search engine friendly” websites – ones with a good structure of headline tags, and using keywords that explicitly state what our website is about.

Of course, links play a part too. Authoritative links pointing to your site act as “votes” that search engines count in your favor. This helps them build a reasonable picture of the quality of your content. However, it’s often the case that there’s a massive gap between how search engines see your website, and the quality of service or product you provide. Let’s look at this gap a little closer, and see how it can be filled.

The Gap
Let’s imagine a business that established itself 25 years ago, and has provided a consistently high quality of drainage services in all of that time. They have repeat customers who don’t think twice about booking their services every year. To all intents and purposes, they are highly trusted, successful business. And yet, they are ranked very low in Google for all their main keywords. What’s gone wrong here? This “gap” in perception is because the website this business owns has very few (or even zero) authoritative links, poor on-page optimization, and poor content. Search engine spiders can’t see past these metrics. No business has a “right” to ranking well just because they provide an excellent “in real life” product or service.

How to Bridge This Gap?
There is a symbiotic relationship between website owners and search engines. Both need each other. This is why Google Search Console exists. It’s a means to allow the website owner to help Google better understand their website, and help bridge this gap.

That’s only the first step though. Having your site audited by an on-page optimization expert can help you fine-tune your website page structure, your URLs, your navigation, your titles, your content.

Where search engine spiders fail to see signals of trust like how well established your business is (even if the website is 6 months old), a human reviewer CAN. Third party services like human-review directories and customer review services can REALLY help close the gap.

Human-review directories
A high-quality human-review niche directory will look for signals of trust found on your website. These are often too subtle for a search engine spider to “join the dots” – but a discerning human can. For example, if a website claims to be a member of a particular association, it’s possible to search for the company name on the association’s website. The same can be done for company registration numbers too. If a company has been established for many years, and they show this on a company history page, a human reviewer can build up a picture of the company’s progress through the years. Moreover, it’s the aggregation of all of these things that help a human reviewer build a solid picture of the business. A search engine spider will not be able to see the nuances a human can.

Suggested article: Human-reviewed, Established Niche Directories

Review services
Your customer base is your ultimate cheerleaders (or perhaps, whistle-blowers!). They trusted your product or service, and they can write about their experiences via review services like Trustpilot. These help people get some idea of the quality of product or service you provide.

Suggested article: The Purpose of b2blistings.org

Online Reputation
Both human-review directories and review services can be used to give some proof as to the reputation you deserve online. When someone does a search for your brand name, and you’re listed in human-review directories and under review services, these signals of trust can be found in the search – helping prospective new customers gain some trust in your business. Search engines will also be visiting these directories and review services too, so it helps them get a better picture of your business as well.

Suggested article: Other Website Review Services We Run

Conclusion
It doesn’t matter how good your product or service is in “the real world”. Online, you start from zero and work your way up. It doesn’t mean that having a great product or service doesn’t help you. It does – very much. It’s just you have to jump through the same hoops as every other website owner to get yourself established. Once you are established and easily found, you’ll find your old friend (word-of-mouth marketing) was online this whole time. You’ll discover that your online presence will take on a life of its own as people start recommending you on social media and their own websites. It just takes time and effort to get to that point.

Alternative Financing Vs. Venture Capital: Which Option Is Best for Boosting Working Capital?

There are several potential financing options available to cash-strapped businesses that need a healthy dose of working capital. A bank loan or line of credit is often the first option that owners think of – and for businesses that qualify, this may be the best option.

In today’s uncertain business, economic and regulatory environment, qualifying for a bank loan can be difficult – especially for start-up companies and those that have experienced any type of financial difficulty. Sometimes, owners of businesses that don’t qualify for a bank loan decide that seeking venture capital or bringing on equity investors are other viable options.

But are they really? While there are some potential benefits to bringing venture capital and so-called “angel” investors into your business, there are drawbacks as well. Unfortunately, owners sometimes don’t think about these drawbacks until the ink has dried on a contract with a venture capitalist or angel investor – and it’s too late to back out of the deal.

Different Types of Financing

One problem with bringing in equity investors to help provide a working capital boost is that working capital and equity are really two different types of financing.

Working capital – or the money that is used to pay business expenses incurred during the time lag until cash from sales (or accounts receivable) is collected – is short-term in nature, so it should be financed via a short-term financing tool. Equity, however, should generally be used to finance rapid growth, business expansion, acquisitions or the purchase of long-term assets, which are defined as assets that are repaid over more than one 12-month business cycle.

But the biggest drawback to bringing equity investors into your business is a potential loss of control. When you sell equity (or shares) in your business to venture capitalists or angels, you are giving up a percentage of ownership in your business, and you may be doing so at an inopportune time. With this dilution of ownership most often comes a loss of control over some or all of the most important business decisions that must be made.

Sometimes, owners are enticed to sell equity by the fact that there is little (if any) out-of-pocket expense. Unlike debt financing, you don’t usually pay interest with equity financing. The equity investor gains its return via the ownership stake gained in your business. But the long-term “cost” of selling equity is always much higher than the short-term cost of debt, in terms of both actual cash cost as well as soft costs like the loss of control and stewardship of your company and the potential future value of the ownership shares that are sold.

Alternative Financing Solutions

But what if your business needs working capital and you don’t qualify for a bank loan or line of credit? Alternative financing solutions are often appropriate for injecting working capital into businesses in this situation. Three of the most common types of alternative financing used by such businesses are:

1. Full-Service Factoring – Businesses sell outstanding accounts receivable on an ongoing basis to a commercial finance (or factoring) company at a discount. The factoring company then manages the receivable until it is paid. Factoring is a well-established and accepted method of temporary alternative finance that is especially well-suited for rapidly growing companies and those with customer concentrations.

2. Accounts Receivable (A/R) Financing – A/R financing is an ideal solution for companies that are not yet bankable but have a stable financial condition and a more diverse customer base. Here, the business provides details on all accounts receivable and pledges those assets as collateral. The proceeds of those receivables are sent to a lockbox while the finance company calculates a borrowing base to determine the amount the company can borrow. When the borrower needs money, it makes an advance request and the finance company advances money using a percentage of the accounts receivable.

3. Asset-Based Lending (ABL) – This is a credit facility secured by all of a company’s assets, which may include A/R, equipment and inventory. Unlike with factoring, the business continues to manage and collect its own receivables and submits collateral reports on an ongoing basis to the finance company, which will review and periodically audit the reports.

In addition to providing working capital and enabling owners to maintain business control, alternative financing may provide other benefits as well:

It’s easy to determine the exact cost of financing and obtain an increase.
Professional collateral management can be included depending on the facility type and the lender.
Real-time, online interactive reporting is often available.
It may provide the business with access to more capital.
It’s flexible – financing ebbs and flows with the business’ needs.
It’s important to note that there are some circumstances in which equity is a viable and attractive financing solution. This is especially true in cases of business expansion and acquisition and new product launches – these are capital needs that are not generally well suited to debt financing. However, equity is not usually the appropriate financing solution to solve a working capital problem or help plug a cash-flow gap.

A Precious Commodity

Remember that business equity is a precious commodity that should only be considered under the right circumstances and at the right time. When equity financing is sought, ideally this should be done at a time when the company has good growth prospects and a significant cash need for this growth. Ideally, majority ownership (and thus, absolute control) should remain with the company founder(s).

Alternative financing solutions like factoring, A/R financing and ABL can provide the working capital boost many cash-strapped businesses that don’t qualify for bank financing need – without diluting ownership and possibly giving up business control at an inopportune time for the owner. If and when these companies become bankable later, it’s often an easy transition to a traditional bank line of credit. Your banker may be able to refer you to a commercial finance company that can offer the right type of alternative financing solution for your particular situation.

Taking the time to understand all the different financing options available to your business, and the pros and cons of each, is the best way to make sure you choose the best option for your business. The use of alternative financing can help your company grow without diluting your ownership. After all, it’s your business – shouldn’t you keep as much of it as possible?