My humanitarian background came as an unexpected journey in my life.
Prior to 2001, I was a random French citizen, freshly on my 30's, living and working in a distant Parisian suburban region, the Yvelines.
I was working as an after-sell service technician in a computer equipment & accessories wholesaler, mainly answering the company's hotline number for customers who would usually face technical issues with products they had purchased and accompanying them in the installation of newly purchased equipment, or technical resolutions.
I was not having any planned future and had recently broken up with my two years relationship.
I was living is a small studio and had very little social life.
At the time, I had hair and was regularly visiting an hairdresser who quickly became a friend.
One day, while visiting my hairdresser, there was a customer, introduced to me. We then decided to all go out over the week end.
Very soon, this customer became a friend and he started to tell me a bit of his life story.
He was working for a temp agency, trying to make himself a living. His father was a reputable finance specialist, deployed in Sierra Leone (West Africa) under a EU expert contract.
He then explained that he was making plans to go and visit his father for a while.
After a few months in Sierra Leone, this friend came back and we decided to meet. He started telling me all about life in Freetown (capitol of Sierra Leone), and how he and his father had a great time. He also explained to me that following a long and heavy war (last civil war ended in 1999), the country was raising again and that there were plenty of business opportunities. He actually met a few Lebanese business owners that promised him a management position to run a beach resort.
Discussing further this business opportunity, he offered me to come and visit him during the next summer holidays.
I had never travelled as far as Africa and although the idea was appealing, I was not totally open with the idea of travelling that far.
After a few months, living my "so basic" life in France, my friend and I talked to each other and the idea of joining him in Freetown came to life. I then decided to book myself a plane ticket and my friend started to apply for my entry VISA through his father's connections with the government.
At the time, there was no direct flight from France, nor from any other European countries. The best routing was to fly through Belgium, with Sabena Airlines (nowadays Brussels Airlines), with a night stop-over in Gambia (Banjul) and the final flight the next day to Freetown.
Freetown main airport (Lungi airport) is located at 5 to 6 hours driving distance from the city center and the options were either a boat (3hrs) or a commercial helicopter service (20mn).
Upon arrival, my friend and his father were waiting for me at the helipad to finally take me to their house.
After such a long journey, I went for an early sleep.
During my time in Freetown, I was introduced to the first Lebanese community I ever met, all involved in the biggest business making activities (either diamond related activities or supermarkets, night clubs, restaurants).
At some stage, we went to visit my friend father's office, the European Union central office. I was also introduced to the EU representative. While navigating throughout the office, I noticed that a local technician was working in repairing a desktop computer. I then asked the EU representative what was wrong with this computer and he told me that the technician had provided a report stating that the main hard drive was faulty and needed replacement, along with a pro forma around 400$ (spare part and labour). As I was myself an IT specialist, I offered to check this desktop over the week end which after my analysis resulted in confirming that the main fault was a virus affecting the hard drive, which corrupted the operating system. Without waiting any approval, I then decided to repair it, reinstall the operating system and brought the fixed desktop back to the EU office the following Monday.
The EU representative stated that a skilled technician with "honest" attitude would be most welcomed in Freetown.
My friend and I suddenly realised that there was a real business opportunity to settle formally and start a computer services company.
At the end of my holidays, I returned home with my head full of souvenirs, beautiful pictures of the white sandy beaches (such as Tokey beach and river #2).
My friend and I kept in touch while he had remained behind. Weeks after weeks I had this idea growing inside my head and although it was quite appealing, I was not willing to abandon my life in France and move to Sierra Leone.
I finally made up my mind, sold my car, quit my job, left my flat and packed my belonging to move to Freetown, without knowing what the future would bring and if this business opportunity would even come to life.
The beginning of this adventure was quite hectic. Firts of all, we needed to set terms of reference of our soon to come business (what could we bring to Freetown's business).
Then, we had to spread the word around in order to get credibility in our business.
We created our brand (Xtreme tech) and printed a few flyers.
It all started when a Lebanese diamond dealer was looking at organising a party. Through common acquaintances, I offered to entertain the party with my DJ skills. At the party, we came across various expatriates from the humanitarian community and along the conversation, we talked about our idea to provide computer services. By the end of the evening, we had a first confirmed appointment with Handicap International (now called Humanity and Inclusion) to discuss further their needs and how we could offer a customized service. We concluded to provide technical repairs and maintenance with a set monthly lumpsum for a limited number of supporting hours. After a few weeks, the word spread to other INGOs and after a few months, we ended up being the reference to all INGOs in Freetown, including ICRC and the UN. We also started to get the private sector, restaurants and supermarkets. The business grew to a stage where we decided to add consumables, IT equipment and spare parts provision to our activities.
After 3 successfull years of operation, due to interpersonal reasons, my business partner and I decided to stop our cooperation and I kept going on my own for another year before being overwhelmed and decided to sell the company and its client portfolio.
As I had entered into the INGO/Humanitarian environment, it did not take long before having the opportunity to join a reputable International NGO, Concern Worldwide, who decided to offer me a 1 year contract as their logistics Coordinator.