Friday 13 October 2006

You can’t BE empowered

I know that I might be being controversial but I can’t stop myself. I can’t keep quiet any longer.

I think we’ve got citizen empowerment thing all wrong.

I’m not denying that some citizens have benefited from the government’s efforts to “empower” them, I just think that these people probably would have done just as well without government help, they just saw an opportunity to succeed more quickly and easily than they would have done otherwise.

My concern is based on something I believe very strongly. I do not believe that anyone can empower you. You can only empower yourself.

I was thinking about this again recently when I heard that the government, in it’s infinite wisdom, had again decided to step into the marketplace and control what we could buy. No I’m not talking about pornography, addictive drugs or weapons grade plutonium. I’m talking about the really dangerous stuff. I’m talking potatoes.

Yes, it’s official. We are no longer allowed to buy potatoes, cabbages and onions unless they come from Botswana. My issue is that I don’t see how this helps anyone, let alone the local producers of such things.

Now before you think I have some problem with local produce let me set the record straight. Given the choice of identical products I will always choose local ones. I strongly believe that, certainly when it comes to food, the closer the point of production and the point of sale are to each other the better the produce will be. It will be fresher, healthier and less likely to be covered or injected with all sorts of ghastly chemicals to help it survive the journey from it’s origin to my stomach. I also think that we should support our local producers whenever we can. It’s the right thing to do for so many reasons.

However, the key point is that I will choose local produce when it is as good as produce from somewhere else. Most of us do this already with some products. For instance look at the tomatoes on sale in most supermarkets. Hundreds of packets of tomatoes all with a little twist-seal at the top in the colours of our national flag. And they taste great as well. We even have top-quality local cheeses for sale in certain places. And do I have to mention beef? Anyone who chooses foreign beef over our own clearly needs to get new taste buds or go and take a holiday in that fine mental health facility we have in Lobatse.

But critically I think that we choose these products not mainly because they are home grown. We choose them because they are the best and are very reasonably priced.

So who benefits when the government decides that foreign vegetables are no longer allowed? Do we consumers benefit? No. We are deprived of choice, we are treated as if we don’t care about our local producers and the real irony is that we often pay higher prices!

In an article in The Voice last week a major vegetable seller pointed out that before the ban he could buy a bag of potatoes for R21, now he is forced to spend P36 for the local equivalent. Needless to say that increase of almost 100% will actually be paid by you and me.

So we certainly don’t benefit.

So maybe the vegetable grower benefits? Well, yes, perhaps he does, but I think he does only in the very short term. If it costs him twice as much to produce a potato as it does his South African cousin then frankly he’s doing something wrong. Protecting his inefficient business by outlawing his competitor just protects and reinforces his high-cost production techniques and it just makes it harder for him to compete when the trade barriers are eventually lifted.

Perhaps instead of failing to compete he should change direction. Do what the local tomato growers and cheese manufacturers have done. Find something he can produce cheaply or perhaps go into a niche market, something higher cost but that meets an actual demand in our economy. There’s certainly no demand for pricey potatoes here, is there?

It sounds harsh but being over-protective does nobody any good.

I know I keep saying this but I think that running a national economy is a bit like running a school. Yes, the students (and businesses) need to be given some basic rules of conduct and critically an education but we don’t do them any favours by doing their work for them. Should teachers do pupil’s homework for them? Well, they would all get top marks but they wouldn’t actually learn anything, would they?

No, school children, and businesses need education, encouragement, the occasional leg up and lots of praise but they have to do the learning themselves. Only then will their success be worthwhile.

Success in business isn’t a right. It’s something that must be earned and for almost every business person that only comes with hard work, sleepless nights and a product people really want to buy.

Competition is the greatest educator in business. By protecting those elements of our local economy that aren’t competitive we are surely doing a disservice to them, to their now compulsory customers and above all to the future of our nation.

Per ardua, ad astra.

This week’s stars!

  • Minkie from Air Botswana for excellent in flight service
  • Robert from Spur in Francistown for showing how good restaurant management can be.
  • Chezane and the entire cleaning crew at the Metcourt Inn also in Francistown for being wonderful and friendly.

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