Diet tycoon tries to fatten Sierra Leone

War-damaged state turns to ex-Weightwatchers' boss for economic recovery

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The Independent Online

Ernest Koroma, the President of Sierra Leone, told his Nigerian cleric that he was seeking "a Tiny Rowland with a heart". In the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, trade and aid was declining in Africa's poorest economies and Sierra Leone needed help.

Two-and-a-half years ago, the cleric flew to London with a list of names of those who might help rescue a country that was still feeling the devastating effects of a brutal 11-year civil war that only ended in 2002. Fortunately, Steve Cosser, who made his fortune from pay-TV and buying out Weightwatchers, "needed a project as big as the sky to occupy my mind" when the cleric came calling at his home in upmarket Belgravia's Eaton Square.

In the few hours between the cleric calling him to ask for a meeting and when the emissary turned up, Cosser came up with the idea of fusing together the country's trillions of dollars of vast natural resources, which include oil, diamonds, lithium and even fisheries, into a sovereign wealth fund.

"It doesn't take a genius, even someone like me who left school at 14 and doesn't have a brain stuffed with too much knowledge, [can] work out why there is a disconnect between the wealth of resources in the country and the poverty there," says Cosser, who explains anyway that Sierra Leone needs access to the capital markets.

Although fusing together all those disparate assets could take years, President Koroma is now seriously looking at the potential of eventually floating that fund in New York. So many economists have come up with such wildly different estimates of what the fund could be worth that Cosser says he "doesn't believe any of them" – he just knows that it would be huge.

That fund wouldn't include the assets of London-listed miners have decided they can make fortunes from the West African country's virtually untouched gems and precious metals. African Minerals, the loss-making iron ore venture run by Romania-born entrepreneur Frank Timis, and Aim-listed London Mining Company are among those betting big bucks can be made in Sierra Leone.

Cosser, though, says he is looking to do something a little different: "I'm trying to smash together philanthropy and capitalism."

The Hackney-born tycoon has fought a verbally unrestrained battle with Sable Mining, which is chaired by former England cricketer Phil Edmonds, over the land rights to Bagla Hills, an impoverished area close to the border with Liberia. With malnutrition rife among the 50,000 population, the area is rich only in a type of antelope, the Jentink's duiker, and iron ore.

Cosser is recognised as the leaseholder, having agreed a 72-year deal with 23 families who own the land. He sits on an estimated 3.5 million tonnes of iron ore – the second biggest resource in the world – the profits of which he intends to use to help transform Bagla through his Star Mining venture. "We will make Nicolae Ceausescu's palace in Bucharest look like it is a half-lit lightbulb on the Moon in terms of the power we will generate there," claims Cosser, who, on Friday, sent 1,000 bags of rice to Bagla's population with a further 9,000 to follow over the next fortnight.

While Cosser concedes that Bagla is "not Canary Wharf", there is a port he claims the likes of Maersk are desperate to run. From there, he would look to export all over the world, making himself and the people of Bagla billions of dollars in the process.

If the results prove up to the talk, Koroma's cleric will have succeeded in finding the contradiction that is a compassionate Tiny Rowland.