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Sounding the empowerment trumpet

Trailblazer: The late Nchindo PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO
It is often said that the next powerful man in Botswana after President Festus Mogae and Vice President Ian Khama is Louis Nchindo.

That Nchindo heads Debswana Diamond Company, the largest earner of Botswana’s foreign exchange, is only part of the story.

Picture this. He has been close to Mogae since they were students at Oxford University. He still has the president’s ear. With Khama, Nchindo shares a passion for wildlife conservation. The pair is amongst the most influential figures in the conservation lobby. Even outside their common interest, they are everyday firm friends.

Now, what do you do when two of your buddies run the country? Simple. Identify a cause – in this case, citizen empowerment – and trumpet it as loud as the elephants in Kasane where you occasionally retreat for conferences and private holidays.

But in all fairness to the man, his advocacy for citizen empowerment began even before the State House changed occupants. The launchpad for his new project was a dinner-dance hosted by the Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Industry and Manpower (BOCCIM) in September 1997 where he made that now famous statement about the folly of a parent who devotes his attention and love to his neighbour’s children because they happen to be more gifted than his. In that speech, he made a blunt call for prejudice in favour of citizen businesses and professional services.

“The ‘level playing field’ is an attractive notion, but it doesn’t necessarily produce the right result. On a level playing field, the soccer team which starts with the financial resources and the reputation to buy all the best players is likely to emerge top of the league,” he said.

The analogy was repeated last May at the Hay African Client Conference in Kasane.

“Given the social and economic history of this sub-continent, it is not surprising that citizens and citizen businesses are somewhat behind in the game. They have after all, been playing uphill for many decades.

“What is needed now is not (to) level the playing field – for that will merely consolidate the disadvantage. What is needed is what happens in all sports. The teams must change ends at half time and the citizens must now play with the slop and the wind in their favour.”

Nchindo is aware that his remarks may be interpreted as advocating outright discrimination against foreigners. But he defends his position by pointing out that governments the world over prop up their firms. In that spirit, the Botswana government should unashamedly back citizen-owned enterprises.

He says he is driven by the realisation that though Botswana has made great strides in various fields since Independence, citizens do not play a meaningful role in business. He feels Batswana are left behind because rules and attitudes tend to favour foreigners. A personal experience is used as an illustration.

“When I had a chicken far, it took me two years to get FAP (Financial Assistance Policy). And by the time I got it, I had lost money. It was no longer useful.

“Yet I know foreigners who have come here, taken FAP money and gone, and nobody has followed them up.

“Most Batswana will tell you that it is much harder for a Motswana to get government help than a foreigner. We like to see foreigners succeed, not our own people.

“It’s a very strange attitude.”

Nchindo identifies lack of access to credit facilities as a sore point for citizen businesspeople. Banks are strict with them. They don’t get support even from government departments. Take the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) and the police, the largest buyers of textile products. They still prefer to import their uniforms, and in the process bypass local manufacturing firms.

“If the government itself, which is the biggest purchaser, cannot support them. (local manufacturers), who is going to support them?”

He sees it as a matter of urgency to find ways to help Batswana raise finance at reasonable interest rates, “not 18% because if

anybody charges between 18 and 20%, you have to be manufacturing golden eggs to pay him back.”

A ready example of the “unreasonableness” of financial institutions in dealing with Batswana is in the immovable property market.

“In the 1980s, we had a boom – like we are having a boom now – in construction. Batswana thought that commercial buildings were a safe investment. Unfortunately, we had a downturn in the economy in the last few years.

“What happened was that BBS (Botswana Building Society) and everybody else started repossessing these properties and very often selling them to foreigners at a fraction of the value.

“If you owe BBS P4million on a building and they repossess it and they sell it to a foreigner for P2 million or P1/2 million, who is BBS trying to help?

“We have to find ways to protect Batswana’s assets.”

Then there is the irony of Pandamatenga farms where government literally led a number of Batswana farmers, not only into temptation, but bankruptcy as well. The project failed mainly due to bad drainage and damage caused by animals. A lot of local farmers have not recovered from the effects of that experiment.

Now government wants to correct the wrong things. It is going to fence the place, clear it and correct the drainage before the next batch of interested farmers come in.

“But we do this when 90% of the farmers are now foreigners. It is a good thing but it should have been done for our people. This is our problem: even when we do the right things, we do them too late.”

OK, the diagnosis has been done. What is the prescription? He reverts to the analogy of sport.

“If you put The Zebras against Manchester United, what hope do you have? Manchester United have the best coaches, the best this, the best that….What chance have you got of beating Manchester United or England, even more bizarre?

“We have to get the best trainers, and we have to start at the beginning. If you want to develop sports, build more sports facilities at school so that kids begin to develop very early. The same applies in business. We have to start training our people from early on.”

In his crusade, Nchindo tries to make a distinction between citizen empowerment and citizen enrichment. What he is looking at is a family of policies for every section of the population. In this regard, he welcomes the recent announcement by government to create a national micro-credit scheme.

He however feels more still needs to be done in that direction to cater for other sectors of the population. He feels there has to be a scheme to help people retain their properties, as well as assist those who want to build houses.

“The rate of inflation for houses has gone up and yet the salaries have not kept pace. We have to find a way of making housing cheaper.

“We should have a special bond rate for houses, especially for the average worker in government.”

He feels it is in order for government to shed off some of its operations to the private sector. However, Nchindo is quick to caution that for Batswana to participate in privatisation, there should be a credit facility that would enable them to borrow money at reasonable interest rates to buy a meaningful number of shares. The unique thing about privatisation of parastatals is that government is in a powerful position to ensure that all Batswana participate.

How do Mogae and Khama take Nchindo’s ideas on citizen empowerment?

“Both of them are very clever men. Generally we agree, but they have to take of people with them. They are politicians, and they depend on political support.”

*This article was published by Mmegi in the 08 – 14 January 1999 edition





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