BOTSWANA: ‘I and my staff are here to find US investors’
Botswana has made it into headlines in recent years because it has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection in the world. Some 37 percent of the population is known to be infected. But the real news about Botswana is the way the country has rallied to tackle the disease, with comprehensive prevention and treatment plans, available to the whole population.
And as terrible as the scourge of AIDS has been for this country of 1.7 million people in southern Africa, it has not driven it from its path of continuous development, begun at independence from Britain in 1966.
As Botswana’s ambassador to Washington, Lapologang Caesar Lekoa, tells it, Britain was glad to be rid of an impoverished region called Bechuanaland that boasted only two kilometers of paved highway and virtually no institutions of government. “We didn’t inherit anything,” he says of what Botswana received from its colonial rulers when it got its start as an independent state. “They said good riddance to it.”
But unlike so many other African countries at independence, Botswana was fortunate to have leaders guided by the desire to improve the lot of the people as a whole and committed to establish and preserve democratic institutions. As a result, Botswana is one of the few African countries that has enjoyed real, continuous democracy since independence, and with it steady economic growth.
Ambassador Lekoa says that Botswana has been blessed with wise leaders who believe, “The resources of the country belong to all the people.” Thus, beginning with virtually nothing, Botswana has steadily developed. “The Vision of our political leaders has lead to prudent management of resources,” the ambassador says.
Last year, the country’s purchasing power parity (GDP per capita) hit $9,200. And, as Ambassador Lekoa points out, at this level Botswana no longer qualifies for most development aid, putting pressure on the government to seek increased dollars for foreign investment, exports and tourism. “That’s why I am here with my staff,” the ambassador says frankly. The embassy is focused on finding US investors to consider using Botswana as a business base to reach the southern African market and other parts of Africa.
Botswana’s GDP grew 3.4 percent in 04, a respectable amount, but from the 70s through the 90s it enjoyed double-digit growth most years. And, what’s worrying its leaders today, GDP is expected to shrink by as much as 30 percent over the next decade because of the murderous impact of AIDS.
But Botswana has a lot going for it as a country, which should help counter the AIDS impact. The ambassador says Botswana’s infrastructure of roads, electricity and telecoms, as well as medical and educational facilities, are probably the best in Africa. It is highly rated for its good fiscal management and has a credit rating on a par with Japan, and its track record of democracy means investors need not fear arbitrary decisions from government or an unsavory business environment. Transparency in government and the rule of law are well established. The ambassador notes that his country is blessed with a wide variety of fauna and flora, making it an ideal destination for Africa-loving tourists.
What Botswana does not have is a strong international profile that will encourage investors. Hence the embassy’s efforts to promote the country and investment from US firms. At the same time, in a move that reflects a forward-looking administration, Botswana recently invited bids for companies to help it develop a new brand as a nation. It is also planning to sell some of the assets it owns, such as utilities. However, since the state inherited no assets from Britain, and “[has] never nationalized anything,” according to the ambassador, “[it doesn’t] talk about privatization.”
The two main pillars of Botswana’s economy have long been mining and beef. Early after independence, the government invested in these two fields and even today remains the largest employer in Botswana. Ambassador Lekoa says that as his country started from scratch, it was necessary for the government to take the lead in developing major industries, and to this day it controls the trade in diamonds, beef and other major exports as a way to assure the quality of Botswana’s exports and to make sure suppliers, miners and farmers, are paid a fair price for their products. “We compete on the basis of quality,” the ambassador says, noting that the country is exporting most of its beef to the European Union and that the quality of beef that Botswana has rivals that of Argentina. He said even within the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states, which also have access to European markets, Botswana tops the list in beef exports to EU member states.
But the government also recognizes that wealth generation ultimately depends on the private sector, and for the past 20 years it has pushed to diversify the economy away from minerals, and encourage the creation of small and medium size companies. Among other incentives, the government offers seed and expansion capital for entrepreneurs seeking to start businesses through a Venture Capital And Private Equity Funds For Development facility administered by the Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA). The process has been fairly successful, but unemployment remains at 19 percent, the ambassador says, and over 40 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line.
However, the poor enjoy free medical care and education, offering a path to improve themselves and a minimum level of security. And the government has faced the AIDS crisis head on. It now has a program, supported by funding from the United States, European Union and various NGOs, as well as from the national budget, to provide anti-retroviral drugs free to any HIV/AIDS sufferer who wants them. This program is estimated to cost US$2 billion through 2009. Furthermore, AIDS patients receive the same free medical care as other patients.
“We have had tremendous results,” the ambassador says, with deaths from AIDS reduced by 70 percent since the introduction of the anti-retroviral drug program two years ago.
Ambassador Lekoa says his government invests 60 percent of the budget allocated to fighting HIV/AIDS on prevention, with emphasis on abstinence, promoted through the use of media, schools and public fora to try to achieve changes in behavior. The rest of the budget goes to treatment and care for those affected and infected by the disease. One of the effective programs has been for doctors to offer to test any patient for HIV, with the patient’s permission, regardless of the illness that brings them to seek treatment. “Ninety-nine percent of the patients asked agree to the test,” the ambassador says.
Nevertheless, the toll of AIDS is staggering. In the early 1990s, Botswana had one of the highest ratings for its human development index, with life expectancy close to 70, infant mortality rate low, quality health and educational services widely available and excellent doctor to patient ratios. Today, the ambassador says, life expectancy in Botswana is a mere 50 years. However, some estimates put it as low as 34 years.
The ambassador would like American companies to look into what Botswana offers them, including low inflation, low interest rates, a balanced government budget, excellent infrastructure and well-established rule of law. He notes that Botswana is a member of one of the oldest free trade regions in the world, the Southern African Customs Union. SACU came into existence in 1969 with the signature of the Customs Union Agreement between South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland. It came into force in 1970, replacing the Customs Union Agreement of 1910.
SACU has a population of 50 million, with a combined GDP of over US$180billion. It is part of a wider market of 300 million people in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), constituting an economic block akin to the European Union. This market should be of interest to multinational companies, and the ambassador encourages American investors to take advantage of Botswana’s position to access the SACU and SADC markets.
He said as Botswana’s long-term commitment to poverty reduction, the government has promulgated a Vision 2016 plan that calls for, among other things, “an educated and informed nation; a nation of information technology; a prosperous, productive and innovative nation; a nation with sustainable development; a compassionate and caring nation; a safe and secure nation.” The goal is for Botswana to be an open, democratic and accountable nation when it reaches the 50th anniversary of its independence. The ambassador admits that this is an ambitious plan, but given Botswana’s track record of success, the mission seems possible to achieve.
Curriculum Vitae of Ambassador Lapologang Caesar Lekoa
NAME: Lapologang Caesar Lekoa
DATE OF BIRTH: 17 February 1954
PLACE OF BIRTH: Pilikwe, Botswana
MARITAL STATUS: Married with two sons
University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Administration)
Mookane Primary School
Pilikwe Primary School
African Centre for Strategic Studies Seminar on Civil/Military Relations
Washington, D.C. USA (February 2002)
Senior Government Conflict Resolution Programme
Cape Town (August 1998)
British Council International Seminar on Diplomacy in the post-Cold War Era
Birmingham, UK (March 1995)
Seminar on Management – Institute of Development Management
French Language Training
Vicky, France – Obtained Advanced Level Proficiency in spoken and written language (1979-1980)
1996 to date
High Commissioner of Botswana to Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda
Director of International Relations at the Department of Foreign Affairs
Counsellor and Head of Chancery, Botswana Embassy & Mission to the European Union, Brussels. Belgium.
First Secretary, Botswana High Commission, London.UK
First Secretary, Botswana Embassy and Mission to the European Union. Brussels. Belgium
Second Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Third Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
a) Acting High Commissioner to Zimbabwe and also accredited to Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland, 1993/1994
b) Chairman, National Organizing Committee for Joint ACP/EU Assembly Meeting held in Botswana, 1992/1993
MAJOR CONFERENCES ATTENDED
United nations General Assembly
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD IV)
ACP/EEC Negotiation Meetings for Lome II, III and IV Conventions
ACP/EEC Ministerial and Summit Meetings
Commonwealth Ministerial and Summit Meetings
OAU Ministerial and Summit Meetings
Global Coalition for Africa Meetings
SADC Officials, Ministerial and Summit Meetings
Frontline Heads of State and Government Summits
Launching of the SADC/EU Berlin Initiative
Reading, Table Tennis, Soccer and Physical Fitness Training