Black Business Owners Call for Unity

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By Mbatjiua Ngavirue WINDHOEK The Indigenous People Business Forum (IPBF) has made a strong call for struggling indigenous business owners to unite under the umbrella of the organisation, saying that alone they will achieve nothing. The IPBF held an information meeting for members and prospective members in Katutura on Wednesday. Speaking at the occasion IPBF Co-ordinator, Dangi Helu, said the organisation’s main aim was to act as the voice of marginalised indigenous business owners. The IPBF was formed in August 2005, and for all intents and purposes the term “indigenous” can be taken to mean black business owners. The organisation represents the real self-made black entrepreneurs that appear to have been left behind by the current vogue of high-flying, multi-million dollar BEE deals. The organisation has nevertheless now signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) on co-operation and information sharing. Helu said indigenous business people face a whole host of problems, which the organisation aims to solve in consultation with MTI and its other partners. Drawing attention to President Hifikepunuye Pohamba’s call to shebeen-owners to seek alternative means of livelihood, he questioned whether there were viable alternatives for indigenous people in the present circumstances. “If we don’t act now, indigenous people will become known for only owning shebeens and cuca-shops.” Problems indigenous people face include the lack of a proper support system where they could receive advice on issues such as business plans and problems with suppliers. Indigenous people usually had very limited financial resources and they could not afford to pay consultants for business plans or advice. A business delegation from South Africa’s Limpopo Province recently visited Namibia. Helu compared the situation in Limpopo Province to that in Namibia, saying Limpopo had an incredible support system provided by provincial government agencies. Access to finance was another problem, with loan applications by indigenous business people being rejected for even minor problems with credit bureaus. The IPBF expressed disappointment with the Development Bank of Namibia, saying it had abdicated its responsibilities by contracting out small and medium enterprise loans to commercial banks. Helu said commercial banks were purely profit driven. The result was that indigenous business people still faced unreasonable demands for collateral and complicated documentation. Sometimes commercial banks would phone applicants and tell them their application was not approved without giving reasons. Often this was done in an unfriendly, and even insulting manner, as when they sometimes told people “your application was incomprehensible”. The Ministry of Trade and Industry’s Credit Guarantee Trust was also sub-contracted to commercial banks, with the result that all SME financing was now in commercial banks’ hands. He again compared this to the situation in South Africa’s Limpopo Province where all SME financing was done through government agencies. A similar situation could be found in Botswana where SMEs could obtain finance of between 500 to 2 million Pula from a government development agency at interest rates of about 5%. This was in stark contrast to the high rates of prime, minus 2 or 3, charged by the commercial banks sub-contracted by the Namibian government. Another problem faced by indigenous business people was lack of protection from the huge South African chain stores such as Shoprite and Pick ‘n Pay. These chain stores had now virtually taken over the whole retail market in the black townships. This had killed off many indigenous small retailers, and driven others into a situation where they were now forced to operate from their homes and garages. “The retail trade has been taken away from us. Government should have told these South African companies that if they want to operate in the country they must go into partnership with the local people of the area,” Helu said. Manufacturers also face the problem that the South African chain stores refuse to stock locally manufactured products. Before stocking locally made products they first demand that local manufacturers must be “listed” as suppliers to their company, something that can only be done at their headquarters in South Africa. This often requires the payment of a steep fee, but often the South African chain store would in any case reject the Namibian product. The usual reasons they gave was that they were either not satisfied with the quality, branding or ability to supply of the Namibian manufacturer. “We feel that we are not part of this country. The Government says it cannot introduce tariffs because of SADC but Botswana, which is also a SADC country, uses tariffs to protect indigenous businesses.” There were also other ways in which other countries protected indigenous business people. For example, when a particular vegetable, such as either potatoes or carrots, was in season in Botswana the government blocked all imports from outside the country. Helu however urged members to be pro-active, but not confrontational in their approach to working with the Government to change the current situation. “It is after all our government, and we won’t achieve anything by working against it,” he concluded.