New Zimbabwe (London)

5 August 2014

Zimbabwe: Start-Up Entrepreneur Tells Obama How Sanctions Hit His Business

interview

TAKURA Chingonzo, a 21-year-old Zimbabwean entrepreneur, on Tuesday afternoon, interviewed President Barack Obama on stage at the US-Africa Business Forum in Washington which was attended by representatives from 200 corporations and 50 African countries. The forum was held in conjunction with this week's US summit with African leaders.

Chingonzo, co-founder of wireless start-up SAISAI Wireless, told Obama about the impact sanctions which were imposed by Washington against Zimbabwe in 2004 following allegations human rights violations and political repression were having on his business.

The sanctions were supposedly targeted at President Robert Mugabe, those around him and businesses said to be supporting his repressive regime but Chingonzo told Obama how the sanctions were hitting small start-up companies such as his.

Below is part of the interview ...

So thank you very much, Mr. President for this opportunity. I'll start by wishing you a belated Happy Birthday.

Thank you. Have you introduced yourself to everybody?

I wanted to really jump into the issues. (Laughter.)

Yes, go ahead and introduce yourself.

All right. I'm Takunda Chingonzo. I'm a young entrepreneur. I'm 21. I'm from Zimbabwe. And I'm working in the wireless technology space. We're essentially liberating the Internet for Zimbabweans. (Applause.)

And let me just - this is an example of our young African leaders; in fact, the youngest young African leader. But one thing I will say, though, if you're going to promote your business, you've got to make sure to let people know who you are. (Laughter.)

Definitely, definitely.

Just a little tip. You can't be shy, man. (Laughter.) Please, go ahead.

That's correct, Mr. President. So I was really going to start by delving into a personal experience. I was going to get to my business and how I got to where we are.

So as I was saying, we're working in the technology space. I'm working on my third startup - it's called Saisai. We're creating Zimbabwe's first free Internet-access network, hence liberating the Internet. So in our working, we came to a point in time where we needed to import a bit of technology from the United States, and so we were engaging in conversation with these U.S.-based businesses. And the response that we got time and time again was that unfortunately we cannot do business with you because you are from Zimbabwe. And I was shocked - this doesn't make sense.

And so this is the exact same experience that other entrepreneurs that are in Zimbabwe have gone through, even though the meetings that I've had here. You know, you sit down with potential investors, you talk about the project, the outlook, the opportunity, the growth and all that - and they're excited, you can see. All systems are firing, right? And then I say I'm from Zimbabwe and they look at me and they say, young man, this is a good project, very good, very good, but unfortunately we cannot engage in business with you.

And I understand that the sanctions that we have - that are imposed on entities in Zimbabwe, these are targeted sanctions, right? But then we have come to a point in time where we as young Africans are failing to properly engage in business with U.S.-based entities because there hasn't been that clarity. These entities believe that Zimbabwe is under sanctions. So what really can we do to do try and clarify this to make sure that we as the young entrepreneurs can effectively develop Africa and engage in business?

Well, obviously, the situation in Zimbabwe is somewhat unique. The challenge for us in the United States has been how do we balance our desire to help the people of Zimbabwe with what has, frankly, been a repeated violation of basic democratic practices and human rights inside of Zimbabwe.

And we think it is very important to send clear signals about how we expect elections to be conducted, governments to be conducted - because if we don't, then all too often, with impunity, the people of those countries can suffer. But you're absolutely right that it also has to be balanced with making sure that whatever structures that we put in place with respect to sanctions don't end up punishing the very people inside those countries. My immediate suggestion - and this is a broader point to all the African businesses who are here, as well as the U.S. businesses - is to make sure that we're using the Department of Commerce and the other U.S. agencies where we can gather groups of entrepreneurs and find out exactly what can be done, what can't be done, what resources are available. It may be that you and a group of entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe are able to meet with us and propose certain projects that allow us to say this is something that will advance as opposed to retard the progress for the Zimbabwean people.

So what I'd suggest would be that we set up a meeting and we find out what kinds of things that the young entrepreneurs of Zimbabwe want to do, and see if there are ways that we can work with you consistent with the strong message that we send about good governance in Zimbabwe.

I see. Because really - the point of emphasis really is that as young Africans we want to converse with other business entities here in the U.S., and if these sanctions are really targeted, then in honest truth, they aren't supposed to hamper the business that we're trying to engage in, the development that we're talking about.

Well, let's see if we can refine them further based on some of the things you're talking about.

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