Kebour Ghenna Desta is a household name in the Ethiopian business community. He served as President of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce for four years, from 1997 to 2001; and also as President of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce. Not only that, Kebour is a multidisciplinary professional known for his active role in media leadership, having established the oldest English business newspaper, Capital, in 1998. He also founded and still serves as the Executive Director of Initiative Africa (IA), a non-governmental organisation known in recent years for organising the Addis International Film Festival (AIFF), Ethiopia’s annual week-long event showcasing documentary films from around the world.
A regular guest speaker at high profile continental and national business and social gatherings, Kebour is known for popularising the tag word loosely translated as ‘it is possible’, which later became a key note identifier of Haile Gebreselassie, Ethiopia’s most famed athlete-turned-business mogul.
Kebour is also Executive Director of the Pan-African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PACCI), a non-profit apex organization of national chambers. The continental body, currently based in Addis Ababa, was established in 2009 to promote public policies that foster continental economic integration, competitiveness, and sustainable growth.
He has had a front-row seat to the developments and challenges of the private sector for over two decades, and regularly reflects about the sector and overall development endeavours in the country on social and mainstream media platforms. EBR’s Amanyehun R. SiSAY met with the soft spoken and optimistic business leader to discuss the political turmoil that has been plaguing Ethiopia in recent years. The following is an excerpt:
EBR: Other than business and investment, you are active in civil society, arts and the media. You’ve been in the IT business too. What are the benefits of such an interdisciplinary approach?
Kebour: Some people like to work on and excel in one area at a time. Personally, I like to try new things, especially when it is connected with my [existing] work. I have had the chance to work on many different types of projects and that is how I want to continue.
The only field you aren’t involved in seems to be politics.
Politics is a tricky field. It shouldn’t be entered into without due consideration. You need people, like supporters and advisors. So, there is a lot to think about before going into that field.
So do you think you might try it?
There isn’t anything I would say is an absolute no. That’s not to say I will, but if someone has the will and means to go into politics, I don’t think there is anything to stop them.
How do you see the current political situation in Ethiopia?
Firstly, there is not much more I can say about it that is new. But I do have faith in the people. There is fear, clashes between ethnic groups, and there are many rumours going around, including that the country might disintegrate. I feel we are not at that point at all. But, there are situations that could lead to that point. One of the issues is corruption. The perception about the spread of corruption is high among citizens. The other is the right to speak freely and having an inclusive system; we are very behind on that front.
Especially after 2005, the government tightened its grip on opposition political parties, civil society, and the media. Many argue that this is why [the country] is at this critical juncture. What is your take?
Due to the lack of political discourse and discussions, the only ideas being entertained ended up being those of the ruling party. And to say that the ruling party represents all of the country is very difficult.
The ruling party managed to bring Ethiopia out of the dangers posed in the early 1990s to this point. Do you think the party can take the country to its next chapter?
Currently, what exists is being eroded and what was instituted is not being allowed to grow. I can’t say that it’s too late. But, I think that’s premature; party leaders have to use the opportunity they have. I don’t think there is a force bigger than the ruling EPRDF when we look at it in terms of organisation. The problem is that power doesn’t last forever. It fragments. Look at the Soviet Union, it had the largest military and was a feared country but it fell apart because it didn’t use the opportunities available to it at that time.
What do you think is the main ingredient missing in Ethiopian politics at the moment?
I would say that it is a good leadership. There is a leadership crisis and the country is now in a very worrying situation. In the past, when leaders pass away or lose power, the country manages to get one to fill the void, even if it is not immediately. The situation today seems similar. [But], I am hopeful that [Ethiopia] will find a good leader.
What kind of leader do you hope for?
A pragmatic and honest leader who is also supported by the majority of the citizens.
You’ve pointed to the EPRDF as both the source of the problem and the solution. Don’t you think that providing solutions to the problems is beyond the capabilities of the party?
The EPRDF has the capacity to solve the problems. But that doesn’t mean that it should solve every [problem] alone. It has the financial, organisational and human resources to [mobilise other stakeholders] to solve the problems.
In my opinion, the constitution needs to be looked at, because it has not unified [the country]. Rather, it is leading us to division.
Even though amending or changing the constitution is considered a taboo by the government, the experiences of many countries reveal that many benefits come from the flexibility [to amend the constitution]. For instance, gay marriage wasn’t mentioned in the constitution of the United States because it wasn’t an issue at the time. But, following judiciary procedure, the Supreme Court made it legal later. This shows that in order to accommodate the demands of the new generation, the constitution should be amended.
Do you think activists and protesters who voice their concerns can bring change in Ethiopia?
It is necessary for every individual to be interested and involved in the matters of the country. However, many believe that circumstances that allow for that kind of involvement do not sufficiently exist in Ethiopia. Of course, those who are able to sacrifice and bring change in any country are few. Our country doesn’t have enough organised manpower in political terms. Even if they exist, they are not strong. The reason is not hidden. It stems from fear.
For a long time, people all over the country have been voicing their concern about the deteriorating situations in the country; but it seems no one is listening to these voices.
The fundamental institutions, like the parliament and courts are supposed to listen to public grievances and instruct the executive to take corrective measures. Unfortunately, the parliament isn’t in a position to listen to public grievances. This is precisely because it was not set up that way. In fact, the parliament, the judiciary and the executive are almost inseparable in Ethiopia.
If the government cannot listen to the people, it is hastening its demise.
Do you think the unity of the country is at stake?
I don’t think that our unity will break down at any time. A country that has existed for centuries will not break down over an experience of 25 years. It will not happen.
Recently, you wrote an article entitled “Destroy Addis Ababa – Adios Ethiopia” that criticises the government’s move to enact legislation that legitimizes the special interest the state of Oromia has in Addis Ababa. Why do you oppose the move?
Addis Ababa is not just the capital city; it’s where citizens who come from every
corner of the country live. That is why a specific ethnic group can’t claim it. The city only belongs to its residents. This is what I wanted to portray. I think one of the biggest mistakes the EPRDF has made is that it neglected the things that could unify, and focused on things that could divide the people. Even the kebele/citizenship identification card magnifies the thing that divides us the most.
Compared to neighbouring countrieslike Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, how far behind do you think Ethiopia is in terms of providing a suitable environment for the private sector?
Many African leaders who have witnessed the growth of Ethiopia have expressed their admiration. The economic transformation that took place in the past 27 years is not something that can be easily overlooked. The country registered remarkable achievements in improving access to education, health facilities and other infrastructure.
In regard to the private sector, if you refer to the Ease of Doing Business Index published by the World Bank, you will find that there are many African countries that are doing much better than Ethiopia. In fact, Ethiopia is among the bottom countries in the index. In Rwanda, it only takes [a few] hours to open a business. But in Ethiopia, it takes up to six days. This is because one is required to appear in person to get a license and start a business. In many African countries, you can do that without going to government institutions. Even most government institutions in this country that are responsible for issuing licenses and collecting taxes do their work manually, whereas many other African countries have adopted semi-automated and fully automated working processes.
Automating work procedures needs a reliable internet connection. However, due to the government refusal to open up the telecom sector, this is not possible in Ethiopia.
Even with government ownership, the sector could still be opened to others in different ways. I don’t think the fact that the telecom sector remains in the hands of the state is the problem. Look at the Ethiopian Airlines. When you look at its operations, it is no different than any private company. In fact, it is excelling because of the government support. Why can’t that be a model for the telecom sector?
While locally owned small and medium businesses complain about taxes and lack of credit, foreign investors receive massive loans and in some cases, don’t even have to pay corporate taxes for up to 14 years. Can you reflect on this?
Beginners in business are usually young and they lack finance. They should start small and grow slowly; but there isn’t a system that allows this. In many cases, the local investors struggle and open businesses, only to close them after a while. The taxes that are levied on them aren’t clearly set out. I think, the government’s approach right now is to sweep it under the rug and see if people forget it. There isn’t a policy or environment that will encourage business, and I don’t see much desire to change.
In your opinion what is the major thing the private sector wants from the government?
The private sector wants the government to stop interfering [in their work]. I would even prefer if the Ministry of Trade could be closed. You may ask this question to the business community, does the Ministry of Trade support your businesses, or does it hinder your growth? Most would say the latter. So, the government should avoid creating stumbling blocks that restrict the expansion of the private sector.
Many, including the government argue that the private sector is too weak to play its rightful role in the country’s development; do you share this idea?
I can’t say that the government officials don’t care or aren’t trying to improve the country. They have good ideas and are sometimes able to put them into practice. For instance, in large scale farming, there was a time when the government was incentivising businesspeople to go into that sector. It went on for some time and then it stopped. When you ask why, they say that the investors were using the funds for something else. So, the weakness is not because the private sector is not striving. Rather, it is because of the government support [system].
But we have seen the government supporting the businesses it wants to support. For instance, it extends billions of birr financian in credits for Micro and Small Enterprises.
Exactly. But, most of the projects initiated by private investors stack up after some time.
Because of a lack of a comprehensive support system.
On top of the lack of support, the government accuses the private sector of under invoicing and tax evasion, as well as not contributing to job creation.
These malpractices emanate from weak policy and insufficient implementation. So the government has to look at itself. When it says there is malpractice, the question should be which policy is enabling it to continue? Business people look at their own gains. If there is a loophole, they will use it. The problem is the policy that created the loophole in the first place.
The government accuses the private sector of focusing more on profitable areas such as imports and other services, rather than manufacturing and agriculture, which are more value and job creating sectors. In fact, the government labels such practices as rent-seeking behaviour. Is the private sector at fault for being a rent-seeker?
It can’t be a fault on the part of the businessperson. The government has made it easy for rent-seeking practices to [flourish]. The first thing is to figure out where the problem lies. You can’t instead blame those who are pursuing their own profits. That’s what it means to be a businessperson.
The private sector avoids investment in manufacturing and agriculture because of the huge profit potential in the service sector. How should a government incentivise businesspeople if it wants to divert their resources from a relatively easy sphere to one that is more complex and risky?
Engaging in the manufacturing sector especially requires experience; there are a lot of ups and downs and it requires getting your hands dirty. What we see now is that finance and incentives are being availed to those who have little to no experience. So we can’t expect results from businesses like that. Rather, the government should look at companies with proven track records.
There has been in-fighting in the Chamber and some say that this has prevented the private sector from presenting a united front and protecting its interests. What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t see any problem with the fighting. It’s supposed to be like that. It isn’t supposed to be a monologue. For example, there are importers in the chamber who want the government to remove tariffs. There are also manufacturers who want the tariffs to stay in order to protect their industry. These two groups would obviously disagree on the issue. This is a sign of democracy.
What kind of leader would you say you are?
There are two kinds of leaders. One that leads from the front and one that leads from behind. I believe that everyone should have leadership qualities. We have to be able to bring that out of people. True leaders are those who are persistent, hardworking, and get up no matter how much they fall. That is the kind of person I want to be. I don’t know whether I am such kind of leader. But that’s what I aim for.
6th Year . March 16 – April 15 2018 . No.59