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How an inclusive establishment census helps Sierra Leone better understand its business sector

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Micro establishments in Sierra Leone.
Micro establishments in Sierra Leone. ©Arthur Giesberts /World Bank.

Statistics Sierra Leone has recently released a preliminary report on the Census of Business Establishments conducted late last year and early this year. As per the report, 165,514 business establishments are currently operating in Sierra Leone, out of which 48,299 were regular business establishments, and 117,215 were informal micro establishments.

Why are these numbers relevant and what do they tell us?

Like many countries around the world, Sierra Leone benefited over the past decade from strong urban growth. It achieved an impressive 6 percentage point decrease in its overall poverty rate between 2011 and 2018, driven entirely by the urban areas where nearly half of its population resides. At the same time, Sierra Leone has struggled to recover following the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and facing soaring inflation which currently affects the cost of living and well-being in the country.

To lay a new foundation for the country’s economic statistics, including improved GDP estimates, Statistics Sierra Leone with support from the World Bank conducted the Census of Business Establishments to capture information on each and every functioning business establishment in the country. The census results are used to build the statistical business register (SBR), which contains all main businesses characteristics and is the sampling frame and base for weighting and grossing up of economic statistics. In addition to supporting the government in the policy evaluation and development of Sierra Leone’s business sector, these statistics are relevant for the research community, the private sector, and the public.

Given Sierra Leone’s active informal sector, the scope of the census necessarily included informal micro-establishments, such as stalls (including roadside) selling vegetables and fruits, textiles, and shoes, as well as micro repair establishments and cell phone top-up kiosks. Such a comprehensive inclusion of informal sector establishments allows for a better understanding of the size and nature of informal activity, including gender characteristics, employment, and geographic location.

Indeed, the 2023 census covered almost ten times more establishments than the previous census captured in 2016. While the largest portion of the census captured micro establishments, formal establishments were also much more extensively covered: three times higher than what the 2016 census found, potentially implying increased economic activity in addition to improved coverage achieved via digital technology and a lean process design.

How was the establishment census conducted?

Approximately 900 enumerators across 180 teams collected data using tablets in all regions of Sierra Leone. Despite some challenges related to power availability, internet access, road conditions, and transportation, the survey operations were successful.

The fieldwork was organized in teams of five enumerators. Assigned team leads per team coordinated coverage of enumeration areas and served as the key point of contact with headquarters, leveraging WhatsApp groups to facilitate communication efforts in real time within and among teams.

Enumerators used the World Bank’s Survey Solutions questionnaire design and data collection management software, developed by the Development Data Group. This software suite supports high-quality, effective, and low-cost data collection requiring little expertise in terms of IT skills and few manual activities. It includes excellent functionality for monitoring progress and performance, including thorough map reporting which helps to verify coverage.

Screenshots from map reporting in Survey Solutions
Screenshots from map reporting in Survey Solutions

The questionnaire and interview process were designed to be short and focused. Only essential data for the statistical business register was collected. This reduced the need for revisits, as well as associated cost and time required.

Furthermore, based on the digital data collection, all responses were verified on a daily basis using automated rule-based data checks. The checks resulted in automated feedback messages and actions on the tablets of the enumerators. This helped to speed up the process and increase the quality of data collection.

Finally, the availability of high-quality training materials (including photos) helped illustrate what to cover and how to best describe the main activity of businesses according to the UN International Standard Industry Classification (ISIC rev 4) System. For the actual coding industry coding, an automated rule-based coding tool was used.

Supported by funding from the Harmonizing and Improving Statistics in West Africa (HISWA) project, the economic census leveraged well-functioning tools and instruments to collect meaningful comprehensive information on establishments in Sierra Leone.  Thanks to the outstanding efforts of the Stats Sierra Leone team, local statistical partners, the business community, and the World Bank’s Economic Statistics and Survey Solutions teams, Sierra Leone’s economic statistics will stand on a solid foundation for the next decade, potentially paving the way for other countries to follow suit.


Arthur Giesberts

Economist, Development Data Group, Development Economics

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