In October 2016, the then president of Botswana, Seretse Khama Ian Khama, removed Kitso Mokaila as the Minister of Minerals, Water and Energy Resources and replaced him with Sadique Kebonang.
At least 5,000 direct jobs disappeared, many more indirect jobs suffered, companies closed down, unemployment skyrocketed, suicides were reported in large numbers and general gloom and doom covered the town.
I was raised in Selebi-Phikwe in the 1980s and 1990s when the economy of the town was booming. Opportunities were plentiful and the town had a buzz like no other. In a December like this, we would have been looking forward to Mpho le Mphonyana (13th cheque) where, as my Makhubu CJSS Social Studies teacher Mr Rakeresie used to say, “Mongwe le mongwe o ne a tlaabo a eme ka podi le koko ya gagwe”.
In its heyday, BCL in December would have injected P140 million into the economy (5,000 jobs at an average mining salary of P14,000 according to Statistics Botswana’s latest labour report, times two since there would be the 13th cheque). Now when you walk through the streets of Phikwe, it is desolate.
But hopefully not for long.
Earlier this year I paid a visit to Phikwe in a bid to find possible warehouse space for a potential manufacturing project. I contacted SPEDU and they directed me to their real estate agent (who also happens to be the mother of one of my former classmates in primary school).
She asked me what was going on because in the 12 months to the time I saw her, real estate space for warehouses was being snapped up at an alarming rate and that she foresaw that within a few months all the space would have been taken up. It seemed something was in the air and some hope was returning to the town.
While I didn’t have an answer for her then and don’t have a conclusive one now, I do think there are green shoots of economic hope breaking ground across the region. In the past five years, the Government of Botswana has stepped up its effort to revive the situation in Selebi-Phikwe and finally it feels like those efforts are finally bearing fruit. Pun intended. Below are some of the activities that are taking place that could provide opportunities for Batswana and bring this once glorious town back to life.
1. BCL Mine re-opening: Earlier this year, a company headed by former BCL managing director Montwedi Mphathi, was given exclusive access to perform a due diligence that would inform a possible reopening of the mine. PNR is expected to invest close to P4 billion in the mine in the next few years with the spill off effects to small and medium enterprises already expected to be great. This would reignite employment and activity and the expectation is through the Selebi-Phikwe Town Council, SPEDU and other stakeholders, opportunities to leverage on the mining value chain will be plenty. 2. Selebi-Phikwe Special Economic Zone: It is expected that in early 2022, SEZA will commission a consultancy in Selebi-Phikwe in order to determine what sectors can be created in the town that will attract massive investment locally and internationally. The projects will be expected to be in industries that could compete internationally and have excellent export potential. Similar to the BCL Mine re-opening, a large focus will be on creating a value chain cluster economy where the large businesses would create supply and service opportunities to smaller businesses that will create employment and economic activity. These could possibly be in agricultural processing and mining supplies manufacturing. 3. Economic Recovery and Transformation Plan (ERTP) Cluster Strategy: As one of the strategies in boosting agricultural economic performance in Botswana, it was announced in the ERTP that the Selebi-Phikwe area had been identified for development as a possible pilot for the cluster model for horticulture. Due to the area’s abundance of underground water and virgin land, the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food Security is currently developing a policy that would see farmers moved to the area so they can share amenities and infrastructure that would allow for easier commercial farming and possibly feed into an agro-processing special economic zone as elaborated above. We should therefore expect to see an approved strategy by end of 2022 that would then kick the investor attraction efforts into full speed ahead.
All of these policies are finally giving the town hope that we may see an economic recovery that would return us to the opportunities and prosperity we grew up around in the 1980s and 1990s.
While these green shoots may not become a forest in the next 12 months, it is important that the average ‘Phikwe citizen’ begins to prepare themselves to take advantage in the next few years. This could mean upskilling oneself via stakeholders such as the Local Enterprise Authority, to possibly get funding from the likes of Youth Development Fund, Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency or Botswana Development Corporation. This could finally realise the dream I have had and discussed with various Selebi-Phikwe alumni, about going back ‘home’ to assist in the reawakening of the town and also selfishly taking advantage of possible investment opportunities. For a while, walking down Kopano Street was like walking through a ghost town; but now we pray that 2022 will prove rather to be the re-emergence and rise of the Smoke Town.
*Mphoeng is a director at MP Consultants, a local citizen-owned corporate finance, economics and business consultancy. Previously he worked for the University of Botswana as a Lecturer in Accounting and Finance, Botswana Investment Fund Management (BIFM), Standard Chartered Bank and Bank of Botswana