Look to ‘apps’ to shore up growth

Lazarus Shigwedha, Portfolio Manager at Investec Asset Management

IN the first two articles, Lazarus Shigwedha, Portfolio Manager at Investec Asset Management, looked at the predicament in which the Namibian economy finds itself and the need to policy reforms that would ensure long-term sustainable growth. This article explores the tools we have at our disposal to rebuild the economy.

At the risk of coming across as an armchair critic, we believe there are several measures that we as a nation can implement to drive a step change in our GDP and increase incomes sustainably over the long term. In the same way that apps have improved efficiencies in the digital age, we have listed below our suggested ‘apps’ that can shore up growth

Firstly, reduce government’s role in the economy through privatisation and outsource non-critical services to the private sector. This will result in increased service efficiencies and provide a solution to the bloated public wage bill. Outsourcing should focus on technology-led solutions to ensure transparency, ease audits and drive accountability.

Secondly, expand the agricultural sector to produce multiple varieties of cash crops for the export market and staples for the local market. The agricultural sector can serve as the platform for job creation, especially for the unemployed youth who do not have the skills, experience and educational qualifications to meet formal sector minimum requirements. Areas for potential irrigation in the south and north of the country which are close to water bodies should be exploited for farming using modern water wise methods.

We have a very good case study in the grape farming activity in southern Namibia, which is a large seasonal employer of low-skilled labour. Our suggestion is that Namibia should focus on crops that can be cultivated efficiently in other seasons so that cash crop production is not tied to one season.

It is well for Namibia to aspire to become an industrialised country, but the reality is that most of the working age population is at this stage ill equipped with the skills required by an industrialising economy. Therefore, we are suggesting agriculture as a realistic app to create massive employment opportunities for those who will be left behind as the economy advances.

Third, establish Namibia as an education hub in Africa. We need to encourage private education institutions to set up in Namibia and attract foreign students, teachers and lecturers. Private education incomes from foreign students will be annuity incomes in foreign currency, while the spinoffs and multipliers are numerous, impacting property values, tourism, retail etc. After all we have a case study in the Angolan students’ market that we have had in Namibia post-independence. Great research and development produced from these institutions should be utilised to encourage the development of further ‘apps’, which will contribute to an agile economy that is better positioned to compete in higher-value economic activity.

Finally, encourage local production and institute outward economic policies. Judging by history, every great nation apart from those in post-war reconstruction phases or in the post-communist era, achieved the highest economic expansion periods by seeking opportunities beyond those available in their local markets.

This last app ties in very well with the current thinking which advocates for Namibia as a logistics hub, but we would rope in the private sector as the key driver of this ‘app’.

The government should utilise increased revenues generated from these ‘apps’ listed above to deliver critical social services such as medical services, desalinated water produced with renewable electricity, and an overhaul of the failing public education system, while attracting competent talent to the public sector.

As significant investors in Namibia, one of our portfolio holdings is Namibia Breweries (Nambrew). The economic opportunity for Nambrew is greater outside Namibia, to the point that the economic opportunity available through their exposure to the South African market alone (notwithstanding the current economic challenges there) completely dwarfs the economic opportunity available in Namibia.

Today we would say that Nambrew is probably the most mispriced brewer on the African continent, partly due to limited information that is accessible to investors. However, the value of their foreign operations is indisputably attractive. Competing outside Namibia has forced Nambrew to innovate to compete against global competitors. Nambrew has a great portfolio of brands that talks to a broad consumer base which is paired with efficient operations. This is apparent judging from the operating margins, return on invested capital and free cashflow the business generates.

Our greatest opportunity thus as a nation lies not in encouraging entrepreneurs to confine themselves to the local procurement trough (which at any rate would result in increased and entrenched rent-seeking behaviour). Rather, we need the government to increase space for the private sector in the economy by not overreaching or overtaxing factors of production and by increasing policy certainty and transparency. At the same time, we need to see a refocused effort on the part of government to deliver critical social services to the nation, ensure that public resources are optimally allocated and wastage minimised.

The full series can be read at: iam.investecassetmanagement. com/unwind