“…they will take the fruit; we will get the leftovers!”
Kebour Ghenna served as President of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce for four years beginning 1997; and as President of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce. He also founded and still serves as the Executive Director of Initiative Africa (IA), a non-governmental organization known in recent years for organizing the Addis International Film Festival, Ethiopia’s annual week-long event showcasing documentary films from around the world.
Kebour is also the Executive Director of the Pan-African Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He ran as a candidate for a prominent political party during the sixth national elections last year but withdrew from active membership soon after. Kebour is never hesitant to participate and partake in issues that he thinks matter and have the potential to bring about a change in Ethiopia. He has had a front-row seat to the developments and challenges of the private sector for over two decades and regularly reflects on the sector and overall development endeavors in the country on social and mainstream media platforms.
Now, as Ethiopia is eagerly searching for peace, he has once again taken a stance through Initiative Africa. He believes that peace is not an issue the government can tackle alone, and calls upon the business community to take part. Kebour speaks to EBR’s Lydia Tesfaye on his latest initiative, and the role private sector can play in securing a lasting peace.
Economists and private sector advocates have long advised the government on all kinds of matters. Do you feel like the government has heeded the advice? Or have the words been in vain?
Which economists? That is what determines it. Not all people that are called “‘economists’ have similar views or opinions. They are likely to have different ideas as each and every one of them has their own thought, background and philosophy. And there is a saying: If you ask a single question to 10 economists; you are going to get 10 different answers.
And the question of whether or not the government is taking our suggestions into consideration is difficult to answer. We are trying. Everyone is making an effort to give their opinions via different media outlets. There are also economists who work for the government. They also present their ideas, views and perspectives to the government.
In the midst of chaos, countries must make difficult decisions. As we can see now, the Ethiopian economy is in crisis, and there have been swift and sudden actions. One, for example, is that doors are going to open to foreign banks. How much examination do you think goes into such decisions?
It is not a new thing, it has long been said that some state-owned enterprises will be put on the market. But, as the situation was not ideal and as the interest of the government was not clear, it has been a long overdue.
From the western point of view, they are interested in a stake inr any of those profit-making enterprises, as they also have the capacity. And nowadays, when we look around the world, there is not much new. Therefore, there is a need to snatch these valuables from some countries – I call it snatching. And at such times of chaos, their [Western] requests and pressure will take on different forms and will likely be intensified. And they may be able to force the government to take actions that it did not want to take. This is not happening in Ethiopia only; it is a tactic that has been used in different countries.
The federal government recently sold the country’s first-ever private telecom operator’s license, and a second bid is on its way. What impact will these kinds of decisions have on the market, especially at a time of crisis?
It might have an impact. But,also looking at the country’s potential, buyers might come and they might offer huge sums to enter the market. It has been said that the intentions behind such decisions and opening the market to international companies is to create competition within. Such licenses are offered for sale considering that it will strengthen the telecom sector and supposing that with competition, services will expand. But what we have to see here is, are they even competitors? For example, boxers in a ring are supposed to have equal weight, age, and capacity. When we see what is happening right now, it is difficult to say they are competitors. It is like opening the gates and letting them take it all. It also needs to be studied properly. Our problem is a lack of strategy. The strategy that I see right now is giving away our resources, hoping others will do the job while we sit and consume. How is that even possible? I mean, they will take the fruit; we will get the leftovers.
Initiative Africa has launched a new project called ‘Business for Peace’. What is your goal with that project?
It seems like a new project because it is now related to the current war and unrest in Ethiopia. But we [African Initiative] have previously been working on the issue of peace. But now, as the word “peace” is stated in front, it seems new. We believe that peace can only be built by the union of governmental and non-governmental entities, including business organizations. It is unrealistic to hope that a single organization can bring peace. Thus far, the business community has not given attention to the issues of peace or peacebuilding. Therefore, the project sets out to encourage the business community to actively participate in peacebuilding in order to ready the country for growth and prosperity.
To what extent do you say the participation of the business community in such platforms will bring about the intended change?
It is difficult to say that the issue will be resolved in one project or within two or three years. It is a process. It needs us to create awareness among many people, invite them for dialogue, and show them the way to overcome their problems. But it has to start somewhere.
We hope that, in the coming three or four years, the acceptance of the project will grow and the business community’s interest in participating in issues related to peace will grow alongside it. If, for instance, only five Pct of organizations are participating at first, and if that number rises to eight or 10 Pct gradually; that means there is growth. That is how we see it.
How is it going so far? What is the feedback from the business community?
There is acceptance, and there is also a demand. Many of them are in the process of working out how to adapt to the issue and how to be part of it in relation to their work. We are also working on opening a dialogue as to how they can participate in peacebuilding in relation to their ongoing businesses. For now, I believe that the discussion has begun is a significant step in the right direction.
Africa is a vast continent with countries of different colors. As it is also one of the aims of the Chamber of Pan-African Trade and Industry, how difficult is it to unify these diverse countries into a united culture of trade and business?
Yes, it took a lot of time to get here. Since the 1980s, African governments have desired to create a free trade zone. Even before that, there were attempts in the 1950s. So it has taken a long time. In Africa, we can see something amazing. For instance, you can take the World Cup. There were four or five African countries that qualified for the World Cup. They were all called African teams. Ethiopians were backing and cheering for Morocco, who qualified for the semifinal. Through this, we can see that there is an interest in the union. The issue of trade should also be seen that way.. Of course, it is difficult and it will take time, but as long as there is political support, we can get to the point that we aim for.
In relation to that, do you think that African countries have an opportunity for equal benefit?
Not all of them can equally benefit. Of the 54 countries, some are economically strong and some are not. Some of them produce and export different products. For instance, Morocco exports 80 or 90 different products abroad, while Chad has little to offer other than oil. Therefore, there are going to be countries that will benefit more than others. And some might even be influenced negatively. But for that not to happen, governments should provide the necessary support. Beneficiary countries, only protecting their own interests, can not offer peace to other African countries. Therefore, there is a desire to find a way to support each other and to make things work.
There are talks of 17 African countries working together to achieve a single African air transport market. What impact do you think this will have on Ethiopian Airlines?
The goal of the agreement between those 17 countries is not to compete with Ethiopian Airlines. The aim is to develop the transport business even further. For instance, Nigeria is one of those countries. In the agreement, there is an understanding where the two [Nigeria and Ethiopian Airlines] have agreed to work together and support each other. So, I do not believe that they will be opponents and I do not think there is an intention to disadvantage anyone. I do not believe that there is a threat.
What do you say this agreement would offer to African business communities?
It will help us very much. Earlier, 16 countries were on their way to bring their aviation markets together in order to expand the air transport business. Therefore, I am hoping that this agreement will expand the freedom of movement. I also believe that countries should be aware of the issue of visas. It is not easy to move from one African country to another. For example, one cannot get a visa easily while moving from Addis Ababa to Tanzania. Meanwhile, it is easier to fly to Rwanda or Kenya from Addis Ababa. Therefore, all countries should make the issue of visa availability a priority. The Chamber of Pan African Business & Trade is also working towards that. The Chamber Also advises governments to address these issues.
It has been said for decades that the root cause of our problems as a country is poverty. And nowadays, we are witnessing national unity being torn apart, resulting in instability in every corner. Do you agree that it is all because of poverty? Is poverty the root cause of our problems?
Some people, while defining poverty, say that a person becomes poor if he or she is not working hard enough and if a person is idle. They argue that if a person works hard, he or she would not be in that situation. Poverty has many different causes. It is a fact that when we came to the world, we brought nothing with us, rather we came naked and alone. That vacuum is filled by living within a community, communicating with people, making peace, and working together. Therefore, I believe that those problems are not the result of poverty, rather poverty is the result of those problems. If we can reduce those conflicts and disagreements, we can eradicate our poverty.
The destruction of infrastructure and property, including that of small and medium businesses, is a casualty of war and instability. The government has been mobilizing resources to rebuild infrastructure and public institutions. How do you evaluate its response to restoring the private sector?
Usually, during post-war or post-conflict periods, the business community does not quickly bounce back. There is fear. Because they are risk takers, and as they are investing their money, they do not want to lose out. So, they wait until issues are wholly resolved. But the government can bring about changes. There also might be civil societies that work hand in hand with the government and other stakeholders in the society. Besides, the end of war does not mean there is peace. There are things that need to be done and fixed. For instance, the supremacy of the law must be restored, and rehabilitation must be given attention. Governmental works should also adapt to the situation. A process that could take six or seven months during a time of peace should be made to take a month or less to facilitate rebuilding efforts. But, during post-conflict times, if a business owner wants to work in the area where conflict happened, that person needs the support of banks as well as the government and other entities.
You were a prominent figure in a political party. In previous interviews, you used to say that you were not that interested in being a politician. How did you change your mind? And what pushed you to disassociate yourself from the party? Do you think you will ever make a return?
I did not join the political world as a full-time politician. Not only in our country, but throughout the world, politics is a job on its own. By the way, being a politician or participating in political matters means communicating with people, and addressing people’s problems and issues peacefully. I believe that it is a major job by itself. Of course, as you have mentioned, I have said that I do not want to participate in politics. That was because I was not sure. But then when I joined EZEMA, I had a reason. My reason was to be an ice-breaker for those who were standing on the edge, watching, but wanting to be part of it. And also those who hesitate between joining and not joining politics. But it was not my intention to stay, taking it as my job. Regarding that, I think I have fulfilled my goals and I am satisfied. If I had had an interest in staying, I would have never left EZEMA. I would rather have found another political party that I believe will suit me. I have zero intention of getting back to it.
You have the Addis Film Festival, the ‘Business for Peace’ project, and the African Chamber. You also write articles.Which one of these takes up the most of your time?
Nowadays the Pan-African issue is taking much of my time. Because many countries are members of the Chamber and those members have their own questions and needs. Therefore, maybe more than half of my time is devoted to the issues that come with the Chamber. The rest of the activities or work are what I have been doing for years. And I also have many young people who are working with me and helping. They are the ones expected to step up and take my place. It seems like I do a lot but it is not that time consuming. EBR