Opinion was always divided about Francistown Investment Forum (FIF) even among the most optimistic in Botswana’s second city. While optimists insisted that the initiative, which came into being last year, would turn the city into an investment centre of vibrance by the year 2022, the pessimists dismissed outright as a political gimmick by jittery populist politicians seeking to strengthen their hand ahead of the general election in October 2014. At worst, it was viewed as an excuse by self-seeking individuals to position themselves for self-aggrandisement.
Some 10 or so months on, there is no evidence that FIF is still alive, even as a concept. Dubbed the Gateway to Greater Africa, the value proposition of Francistown is anchored on the fact that the city gives investors access to a market base of at least 200 million people, boasts an airport of international standards, has good road and rail connectivity, has abundant water and land resources and good scenic views, among other things. On the back of the euphoria that greeted FIF, Francistown became the City of All Things Precious.
But in the place of the enthusiasm that greeted the initiative, there is growing cynicism. The negativity towards FIF has been compounded by allegations of a power struggle which led, allegedly, to the dismissal of both the steering and investment committees amid allegations that some individuals on the executive committee sought to have a stake in companies that wanted to invest in the city. Reportedly, towering incompetence resulted in a company that had wanted to set up shop in Francistown relocating to Selibe-Phikwe.
Said Sylvia Muzila, the Mayor of Francistown and apex chairperson of FIF at a Full Council meeting this week: “Let me re-affirm that despite some challenges that we still face, some significant progress has indicated that we are on track in achieving these initiatives. Let me take this opportunity, therefore, to update this House on the projects and programmes of the city.”
The “update” that followed consisted of poverty eradication initiatives, a report on the performance of the Ipelegeng programme, the turnkey housing programme, the status of the Francistown abattoir, feedback from kgotla meetings held by the Mayor herself, and the city’s annual strategic plan, among others.
Defending her failure to give an update on FIF and instead addressing the usual challenges such as poverty, Muzila said in an interview: “We have to adopt a holistic approach and uplift Francistown in all respects. By getting rid of pit latrines, we are in a way addressing the goals of the Forum. As we go around looking for undeveloped plots and encouraging the owners to develop them, we will have no choice but to repossess those whose owners cannot develop them. These plots will be put into our land bank for the benefit of investors. As the council, we have a farm and I am happy to say that investors have been approaching us with ideas and proposals.” She rounded off the interview with a pat on her own back by saying she was “doing a lot” for the Forum in terms of talking to investors.
But Muzila could not give a clear answer regarding whether new businesses were setting up in Francistown as envisaged under FIF. “Remember I am new in the office and it took a bit of time before I was properly briefed about Vision 2022,” said the Mayor who assumed office in November last year after the general election. She explained in an interview that during the 18 kgotla meetings that she recently addressed in Francistown, she briefed the community about the city’s Vision. “I tried to make people understand that as a community, and consistent with the Vision, they must look after their surroundings and ensure that the town is clean,” she said. “I also talked to them about sports, especially football. They need to come together, rally behind the local teams and not allow of them to relegate as has happened to ECCO and TAFIC football clubs.” She added that in her next series of meetings, she will invite suggestions from the community regarding the Vision.
“I should be ready during the next full council meeting to zero in on the Vision more directly,” she said. “Besides, I have recently delegated the City Clerk to make a benchmarking visit to SPEDU in Selibe-Phikwe. SPEDU is an investment company. We have an investment company here called Mooiplek and would like to study SPEDU’s structure of staffing, the mandate of the company and its terms of reference.” She is looking forward to a meeting with the City Clerk to get feedback on the visit. Muzila disclosed that to demonstrate commitment to Vision 2022, FCC took time off to attend the BOCCIM Northern Trade Fair (BNTF) in Francistown recently where councillors and staff interacted with businesspeople as potential partners in the actualisation of Vision 2022. But another member of the Apex, Julius Bolokwe, is worried about progress thus far made by his committee. His worries are justified because none of the milestones set by the Botswana Investment Trade Centre (BITC) for FIF last year have been achieved. Noted BITC in writing then: “There is also need for the following to be done for the region to achieve its Vision 2022: capitalisation of the project, staffing, branding, planning and zoning, sales and marketing, project evaluations, policy advocacy and improving the investment climate.”
According to the BITC project plan, an investment company and a board should have been set up by the end of October last year. Critically, a CEO and a management team should have been hired by the end of January, but no such thing has been done. In addition to that, Trade and After-care Missions, which up to now do not exist, should have been put in place to go all out to attract investment into Greater Francistown, find markets for goods and services produced in the region, identify and invest in profitable projects both locally and internationally, manage and align the regional brand to the national one. No progress has been made in this regard either.
Says a crestfallen Bolokwe today: “The key thing is the hiring of the CEO. What is holding us back is the fact that the council, whose mandate it is to draw up a specification in terms of the type of person we need, has not done that. The council has not told us what it wants.” He adds that applications from potential investors are being handled by the District Commissioner and City Clerk. “This is not the most ideal situation,” he says. “With the current situation, we find ourselves having to be reactive because the people concerned also have their full-time jobs on which they must deliver. The CEO would, as a full-time employee, become more proactive.” Bolokwe is not alone in his circumspection. An insider who prefers anonymity discussing the contentious matter says Francistown is not endowed with visionary leaders. “This is a major problem,” the insider notes. “FIF is in trouble today due to self-seeking but incompetent leaders.” A major concern of his is that the inertia of the local leadership is engendering cynicism and negativity among stakeholders, especially the community.