interviewBy Francis Xoagub
New Era journalist Francis Xoagub sat down with the re-elected chairperson of the Namibia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI) Northern Branch, Tomas Koneka Iindji, for a wide-ranging interview that covered the activities the chamber has planned for the year, including job creation, development of small and medium size enterprises (SME's) and the Targeted Intervention Programme for Employment and Economic Growth (TIPEEG). They also discussed what he plans to accomplish during his term in office.
Tell us about yourself, who is Tomas Koneka Iindji?
"Koneka Tomas Iindji was born at Olukonda, in the area of Ombuga-ya-munyoko in the Oshana Region on February 01, 1980 in a family of five. He attended primary school at Ombuga Combined School until Grade 9. He later also attended both junior and senior secondary school at Oshakati Secondary School. He completed his senior secondary education in 1997 at the age of 17. He holds a Diploma in Financial Services from the Institute of Bankers of South Africa, which he successfully completed on July 12, 2004.
"I joined the banking profession at the tender age of 21 where I started in the lending division. I was instrumental in the implementation of the [Government's] Small Business Credit Guarantee Trust Scheme. I joined First National Bank (FNB) of Namibia in 2004 and I am currently serving as a manager. It is a challenging and exciting job. The position requires patience and diligence as the interests of the bank and the bank's clients have to be taken care of. In fact, the office of the manager can be described as a 'clinic'. To succeed and to be elevated to this position has not been an easy route. It required hard work, commitment, providing results and enriching the knowledge base."
When did you become the Chairperson of the NCCI Northern Branch?
"I took over the reins after the resignation of former chairman and well-known businessman Ben Zaaruka. I was re-elected again this year at an extra-ordinary meeting. I am deputised by Joseph Endjala and Modestus Amutse who is the treasurer. It was very unfortunate that Mr Zaaruka had to resign due to work commitments since he had offered some valuable input into the running of the NCCI Northern Branch. However, with the team that we have I am sure we should be able to pull through and tackle some of the problems faced by businesses in this region. Other committee members attend meetings and often give advice on the way forward, as far as business in the north is concerned.
"The NCCI Northern Branch consists of more than 945 members who are involved in many forms of business, including agriculture, manufacturing and retail. Informal traders are also encouraged to register so that they can acquire skills and learn from the other established businesses. I am a true believer in the role of the NCCI. It is so crucial for any country to have a representative for the private sector. The NCCI uses its role to lobby in the interest of its members. One of our initiatives is to convert the NCCI to an e-chamber, to have more services online, to utilise technology, which has become a global phenomenon not only in Namibia but worldwide."
You seem to be a very energetic man, how do you manage your time, as the NCCI North Chairman and as a senior employee of the bank, a businessman and a socialite?
"I know the needs of the society both those which are urgent and those that are coming at a slower pace. Therefore, it is very easy to re-align my time to pay attention to urgent issues and address those are that not urgent. My activities at the chamber are not very far from my usual interaction with the community as a full time employee of the bank, because the same people that need my attention are the ones I associate with at the bank."
What is your general observation of the business climate in the north?
"My observation is that business is somehow starting to reach the ceiling and business people need to think outside of the box in order to diversify their businesses into other activities that will sustain the local economy. There are a lot of development ideas going around and projects beginning to take shape like the infrastructural development that has started; the ever growing Ongwediva Annual Trade Fair; the hotel and accommodation industry; the building materials industry and the initiatives of local business people to venture into the shopping centre industry; engineering, and the internet cafés as well as farming.
"There is a need for businesses to diversify and to enter into other sectors instead of the traditional shebeens, bars, car wash outlets, shops et cetera. Regrettably, my observation is that the business ideas have reached a ceiling. The exhortation to think outside the box has become ubiquitous in business. Such diversification will undoubtedly address the current unemployment rate and sustain the local economy."
What role does the NCCI Northern Branch play in terms of helping business people to grow and create jobs?
"The purpose of the chamber is to facilitate links between local businesses and other partners by promoting understanding of business regulations among the local business people and to participate within the existing policy framework, which might have a positive impact on business operations that would enable the economy to grow and eventually create employment for our citizens.
"We have a lot of initiatives and plans to promote creativity. Based on our current strategic plan, we have a lot of programmes in support of the private sector. Some of the innovative plans include the support of youth entrepreneurs, most importantly support to small and medium-sized enterprises (SME's). The idea is that innovation and creativity must be looked at, not only at a local or regional level, but it should be looked at on an international level. We have to commend the Ministry of Trade and Industry for including local businesses in trade promotion missions abroad. This is good for exposure and linkages."
There is a tradition in the north that aspiring business people opt for ventures like shebeens or bars? Do you have any advice on alternative business ventures?
"Well that was the starting point for our people and you cannot force people to change overnight and venture into an unfamiliar business environment without proper education and exposure. But our focus is to assist them on the need for diversification, by venturing into other sectors such as the tourism industry, transport, engineering and so forth.
The ideology behind trade fairs is to create a networking platform and exposure to local and international businesses. In comparison to the international fairs that you have attended, do you think Namibia is doing well enough?
"This is something that needs more deliberations, since the purpose of a trade fair is clearly to create business linkages and share business knowledge on services and products. According to my understanding the fair should not focus on shebeens or government institutions, but strictly on value addition."
Government has initiated the TIPEEG programme. As the NCCI leader for the Northern Branch, do you think the youth and business people are benefiting from this programme?
"We need to agree that yes, there were some shortcomings on this very important initiative which was created by the government and I do believe those shortcomings have to be rectified to enable the citizens to benefit. We also welcome the National Planning Commission (NPC) to advise us on the way forward."
In your opinion, what are the shortcomings of TIPEEG?
"I think the government should look at empowering the regions in terms of awarding TIPEEG tenders as well as managing the funds. However, this must not be based on favouritism or the influence of the consulting company. Irregularities and the lack of an effective monitoring process is making way for illegal activities thereby depriving the intended beneficiaries. Through these irregularities the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."
If there are any shortcomings, what is your advice to those responsible for implementing the TIPEEG projects?
"We still regard TIPEEG as a well-planned intervention by government to address the ever-increasing unemployment rate in the country. However, without the involvement of the business sector and proper planning we are only planning to fail in terms of the implementation of this noble idea. We need wider participation in the programme. Since it was introduced TIPEEG has been marred with claims of corruption, indefensible tender procedures and little sense of direction. A proper multi-sectoral consultative indaba on TIPEEG should be held in the future to find a solution to the current impasse."
Are there any other areas of improvement that you'd like to see worked on during your time, aside from improved communication with the towns and other stakeholders, or are there any other things that businesses are telling you they'd like to see changed?
"As you can see, the role of the chamber throughout the years has changed dramatically. As I mentioned before, there is greater dependency on technology, innovation and creativity. The NCCI realised that such demand exists, and to reflect that demand it has invested further in human resources, to provide professional people with exposure and experience to take upon such demand by providing programmes and strategies. Based on our strategic plan, I am sure that within the coming year, our members would be utilising state-of-the-art technology in order to offer only the best services. Problems faced by businesses in northern Namibia are not unique but could be exacerbated by the fact that they are still recovering from the effects of the floods and the global economic crunch.
"Many small businesses in the north do not see the importance of keeping financial records and this often creates problems whenever the taxman wants to collect his dues. Most businesses have their VAT payments in arrears and often cry foul when their goods or businesses are attached for non-compliance. We are appealing to the Ministry of Finance to consider an amnesty. We have also been in the process of identifying consultants who can train our members on proper business methods so that they do not fall in the same pit again.
"Another problem we have discovered is that when it comes to bidding for tenders, most SME's do not often succeed because they either under- or over-price on their bids and some do not have knowledge of filling in the required documentation. We will make it a priority early next year to have our members trained on how to make successful tender applications.
"The question of access to finance from the established commercial banks, while it may be easier elsewhere, becomes more pronounced for businesses in the north because many do not have title deeds for the properties they are operating from. Lack of collateral as a requirement from the banks becomes an issue here and many applicants have resorted to selling their household wealth such as cattle and other livestock to raise capital, but more often than not, it is hopelessly insufficient.
"To overcome this problem, we have appointed a commission where affected members can among others register their complaints or notify us about their rejected applications for loans, difficulties relating to municipal land acquisition and other requirements so that we can report these to the NCCI executive committee for further action. With all this, we see a very formidable task ahead, but we are doing everything within our means to overcome the problems so that we can help one another to grow."