Sometime last year, the Public Service Reforms Commission, chaired by Vice-President Saulos Chilima, engaged the private sector in a frank talk on what kind of reforms the country needs, especially that would help improve the operating environment for businesses so that they can thrive, create jobs and contribute to government revenue in form of taxes.
Apart from the business sector, the commission had also reached out to other interest groups and stakeholders to ensure that it had a consultative roadmap for the country’s reforms agenda.
As expected, all the business captains that matter were led by the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI) to offer possible solutions to the reforms proposals government had drafted. Never mind that they were late for the meeting!
But guess what? The biggest issue that MCCCI—through its chief executive officer Chancellor Kaferapanjira—raised was to oppose the alignment of the tenure of the Army Commander, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) director general and other influential public office positions to the presidency.
The commission listened to this and, eventually, this particular reform proposal was dropped.
But my question remains: Of all the reforms that the business community would have expected MCCCI to bring to the fore, was the alignment of some offices to presidential tenures that big a deal to the private sector?
Why is it that in this country we are so obsessed with politics that we end up forgetting the core mandate of our institutions and the constituencies we represent?
Fast forward to June 2015. The leadership of MCCCI was at it again. Government pulled off the first ever investors conference on Malawi soil to entice those with the muscle to bring foreign direct investment (FDI) into Malawi and work with local entrepreneurs in ventures that could transform the country’s economic landscape.
One would have expected the MCCCI—whose private sector members would likely be the largest beneficiaries of the potential FDI flows—to rise up to the occasion and play the ambassadorial role in terms of painting a positive picture of the country to woo investors to come to Malawi.
I am aware that Kaferapanjira told delegates that the business climate in Malawi has improved and that most of their members are willing to scale up production while new ones are interested to venture in as well.
But much as this was important, it was not enough from MCCCI, a body that should have taken over the whole show and play the advocate role to the maximum and not rumbling without hitting the nail home.
Mind you, I am not suggesting in any way that the chamber should have lied through its teeth that we are the epitome of a friendly business climate.
All I am saying is that sometimes, at times like these, patriotism should come naturally.
I would have loved to see the MCCCI dwelling much on the strength we have as a country instead of glossing over it and sending the signal that ‘we are trying, but are not there yet’. That doesn’t just cut!
The chamber’s voice is so powerful locally and internationally that their word carries a lot of weight. Any sign of skepticism from the private sector representative body is taken more seriously than the government’s word.
One wonders what could have happened if the ambassadorial role was not played by the dean of diplomats Zimbabwean High Commissioner to Malawi Thandie Dumbutchena and Sindiso Ngwenya, the Secretary General for Comesa who came straight to proclaim to the potential investors that Malawi was an oasis of peace as any global peace index would show and the investment destination of choice.
It was Comesa courting investors to Malawi and not MCCCI. Calm, fluent, and authoritative, Ngwenya told the investors that they should invest in a country where military conflict is almost unheard of; a country with warm, hardworking, skilled and trustworthy workforce; a country that is part of a vast, integrated market stretching to as far as Cairo.
He did not stop there, but also indicated that he would take a key role in selling Malawi’s compendium of projects packaged by the Malawi Investment and Trade Centre (Mitc).
My point is that MCCCI has times without number talked and released reports about the country’s business environment.
It has lobbied for its improvement with policy makers and most of us already know their litany of complaints, most of which, by the way, conveniently neglect self-examination of the micro encumbrances that are self-defeating to firms; so many internal inefficiencies at companies that even if government were to improve the climate, they would not have the competitive edge to respond to them.
By repeating the same song at that international gathering, the chamber was not sending any new signals to Capital Hill—it may only have succeeded in scaring away some of the potential investors.
Simply put, MCCCI did a terrible job of marketing the country’s private sector and the business environment in general.