How Botswana’s economy can recover from Covid-19

By Shirley Tay

Bogolo Joy Kenewendo, the former Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, discusses the role of sustainable financing models and digitalisation.

Botswana, a small nation in Africa, has long been a poster child for the rest of the region. It has become one of the richest countries in sub-Saharan Africa since its independence in 1966, with a GDP per capita higher than the Philippines or Indonesia.

But as Covid-19 stopped international travel and impacted trading, the key pillars of its economy - tourism and diamond sales - were hit hard. Bogolo Joy Kenewendo, the former Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, believes this is an opportunity for the country to build back better.

Kenewendo is Botswana’s youngest-ever female minister, and a member of the UN Secretary General’s panel on digital cooperation. She shares lessons learnt from her time as Minister, and how Botswana can rebuild its economy from the pandemic.

Women, pull a chair to the table

The lack of women in the trade industry became “very glaring” to Kenewendo during her time as Minister. More women and young people will provide diversity in ideas, she adds.

She’s excited over the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the first woman and African leader of the World Trade Organisation, and hopes that will change the narrative around women in the male-dominated economics and trade industry.

Sharing her advice for young women, she says: “If there is no seat for you, bring a bench. But once you have a seat at the table, make sure that you’re not just there to check a box.”

Kenewendo emphasises that women should not be included for mere tokenism - but should speak their mind, contribute, and push for the changes they want. “That's why we ask for more women and young people, so we can start to see different impacts from various ways of thinking.”

Rolling out Covid-19 vaccines

Botswana plans to start its vaccination drive in March and plans to go ahead with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, Xinhua and Reuters reported.

To ensure the vulnerable are not left out, the government should create a national vaccination fund, Kenewendo says. The fund should allow both the government and the private sector to contribute, and be made transparent.

Medical aid companies need to “actively contribute to this fund”, she adds. One third of Botswana’s citizens are covered by medical aid - if these companies cover the vaccination cost of their members, the government can focus on providing for low-income families.

The government is “financially stressed”, and this is one way to bridge the gap. “We need as many private sector players to come to the table to ensure that the government does not get into debt just to provide a public good.”

South Africa’s government reached such an agreement with medical aid schemes earlier this month. “Everybody who is at risk is going to be vaccinated, they don’t have to pay for it themselves,” its Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said.

The world needs to find more sustainable financing models together, instead of “playing it on an individual basis because it will not generate the desired results,” Kenewendo says. Private companies, philanthropists, and governments must work together in the vaccine distribution effort.

Make way for digitalisation

Digitalisation will play a huge role in Botswana’s economic recovery - but a “deliberate and properly strategised effort” is required to ensure the current digital divide does not widen.

Botswana’s Finance & Development Minister discussed digitalising education and creating e-government services during this year’s Budget speech - something Kenewendo was happy about. “The light bulb was finally turning on, and we are hopefully going to turn a page when it comes to driving digitisation and stimulating new business models in the country.”

But the government first needs to “find the money”, because it’s running a budget deficit. “Where's it going to get the loans? Is it from the domestic capital market? Is it going to be from the IMF, other multilateral financing bodies and so forth?”

The government also needs to create legislation to support digitalisation. “We only legalised e-signatures when I was minister in 2018, 2019 - so you can see how lagged our policy environment is for digitisation.”

Many countries already have such legislations, and Botswana has already started some work in this area - “so it should be pretty easy to speed up the development of legislative infrastructure, especially because we can feel the urgency from Covid-19.”

Building back better

“Covid-19 is giving us an opportunity to build back better,” Kenewendo says. If governments do not respond quickly and efficiently, that could create “economic scarring that would disproportionately hurt the vulnerable.”

Botswana has been in a state of emergency for the past 11 months, and the ongoing curfew has hit businesses and livelihoods hard. “Companies are really drawing down on their reserves,” she says.

If companies are going to rebound, they need to be able to finance their activities. Industry support measures from the government would help, she adds. The government should also prioritise utility and road construction projects that would connect Botswana with its major trading partners.

“Instead of saying we're going to deal with the budget deficit by hoping that the diamond industry will rebound, let's just actively look at our projects, prioritise those that we need and maybe defer those that are not important at this particular time.”

From her time as a minister, Kenewendo learnt that governments need to back up their ambitions with capital. “With the right policy and ambitions, but not having financial support will really not yield the right results.”

That was a lesson she knew before, but was “really reinforced by the challenges we faced in the ministry.” It had a “very small budget” of around a billion Pula - less than US $100 million. “For the Ministry of Trade, that is very small.”

She recalls learning from Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister on how to incentivise the automotive and financial sector, back when she was still a minister.

“He’s a very tough financial man, which I really like. He gave me a couple of tips on how to finance for development without necessarily tapping into government reserves.”

Kenewendo started her own consultancy firm last year, and hopes to continue providing advisory services for governments and companies to recover from Covid-19. “If we do not respond aggressively and efficiently to the crisis right now, we will not have an opportunity to build back better.”

Image by Bogolo Joy Kenewendo