The Mayor with a Master Plan
Written by Victoria Verdesoto and Gunn Benjaminsen, interview by Charine John
March 7, 2022
She never planned to go into politics. Ebola changed that.
“When you see you have the opportunity to make a difference, you do”, says Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, OBE.
In 2017, she beat her opponents at the ballot box and became the Mayor of Freetown, despite having no background or experience in politics. Up until 2014, Aki-Sawyerr was climbing the corporate ladder in the City of London. Then came the turning point: the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Aki-Sawyerr hurried back to her childhood city to help fight the outbreak and support recovery initiatives.
“My heart was breaking at what the city was becoming”, she told The Economist when asked why she decided to run for Mayor of Freetown.
Aki-Sawyerr took office in May 2018 with a plan to change Freetown’s downward trajectory. The Mayor kickstarted an urban transformation that has brought Freetown to the global headlines, this time for all the right reasons.
Interview with LIDC
In January this year, LIDC had the privilege of interviewing Aki-Sawyerr. The Mayor talked about her career, including her involvement in charity work during the late 1990s and early 2000s, her work in the private sector, and her role in addressing the urban environmental challenges facing Freetown today. This International Women’s Day, we revisit her reflections on what it is like to be in public office and what she has accomplished for Freetown.
“Be like a bulldog”
Ambition has seemingly been the guiding compass for Aki-Sawyerr.
“Be clear about what you want to do, and then, be like a bulldog in going for it”, is her advice.
What she wanted was to tackle Freetown’s deforestation, poor sanitation and vulnerability to natural disasters. Little by little, Freetown-dwellers can see changes stemming from her bulldog-like approach: trees are sprouting up on the hills surrounding the city; most of the city’s solid waste is being collected, up from one fifth when she took office; and a re-vamped and digitised property tax system brings the city much-needed income to help pay for urban development programmes.
Championing sustainable development in Freetown
Aki-Sawyerr’s politics have had a transformative impact on Freetown’s urban development. She attributes the success to the way her TransformFreetown agenda which lays out 11 priority sectors, such as environmental management, education, sanitation and revenue mobilisation, and 19 measurable outcomes, resonated with citizens.
Just over 300,000 people lived in Freetown in 1980. Today, around 1.3 million do, putting immense pressure on public services. Much of the rapid population growth is a direct consequence of people migrating from the provinces to the capital due to the Sierra Leonean civil conflict throughout the 1990s. Aki-Sawyerr points out that there has been a lack of adequate planning for the city’s population growth. Before TransformFreetown, “there was no cross-sectoral, strategic plan in place to improve residents’ lives and address the consequences of the city’s problems”.
$1 million for 1 million trees
Notable projects under the TransformFreetown agenda include Freetown the Treetown. On 18 January 2022, the project won the Bloomberg Mayors’ Challenge, receiving $1 million and technical support with the goal of planting and growing 1 million trees in deforested areas. The ambitious project will create a new digital marketplace to support tree maintenance and the urban canopy using digital technologies.
On being a role model
Aki-Sawyerr is the daughter of an academic and a midwife. She is a chartered accountant by training, and becoming a politician was never part of the plan. But now she is four years into her tenure and has a growing list of political achievements to her name.
Being Freetown’s first female Mayor has its upsides and downsides. Unsurprisingly, Aki-Sawyerr has had to overcome a certain level of misogyny during her time in office. Being a female Mayor also comes with the privilege – and responsibility – of being a role model for women and girls. Knowing that she is someone’s role model keeps Aki-Sawyerr motivated, and not least accountable.
The Long and Winding Road From Accountant to Mayor
Aki-Sawyerr is a chartered accountant in England and Wales, and worked in the financial services industry in London for over 20 years before returning to Sierra Leone in the wake of the 2014 Ebola epidemic, feeling “unable to watch from the side-lines”. She joined the National Ebola Response Centre as Director of Planning and subsequently became Team Lead for delivering the President’s Recovery Priorities (PRPs) after the outbreak. As a result of her outstanding work, she was awarded the national Ebola Gold Medal, and the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II, in 2015 and 2016 respectively. More recently, she has been listed in the BBC’s 100 Women of 2020 and Time Magazine’s Time100Next in 2021 for her “genuine dynamism and can-do spirit.”