Thursday 30 November 2006

The Innovation Hub

So off I went to the “National Stakeholder Seminar on a proposal for a Botswana Innovation Hub” in Gaborone this week.

Hundreds of people were there to hear what Government were proposing. At the workshop were Government Ministers, academics, senior people from BEDIA, BOCCIM and the TEC, endless “Captains of Industry” (I think I am more of a corporal frankly), stakeholders (useful for killing vampires) and me.

The proposal for the Hub has wonderfully ambitious and lofty goals. The draft report states that the “Botswana Innovation Hub’s mission is to ‘put Botswana on the map’ as a location for world-class businesses engaged in knowledge intensive activities. The BIH will act as a catalyst for knowledge intensive industry to improve Botswana’s ability to compete in the global market with a technically skilled labor force.”

Sounds impressive and when you look at the success of these things elsewhere in the world they are very impressive. They are all over Finland and attract all sorts of Research & Development (R&D) companies and genuinely seem to foster a creative, dynamic environment that produces real results.

The Hub, as envisioned by the consultants and the various Ministries would act as an “incubator” as much as anything else. The plan is that start-up companies can begin there, soak up the creative atmosphere, partner with all the rich, successful companies that will have been attracted to come here to be part of the great experiment.

But I kept asking myself why they would come here when they can go elsewhere? What’s so special about Botswana that we will attract foreign investors? Yes, we all know about our relatively low levels of corruption. We all know about our long history of genuine democracy, low levels of crime and what thoroughly nice people we are.

But we, and now most of the rest of the world, understand that at the moment we have a number of genuinely impressive disincentives. Bureaucracy, red tape and queues really do put investors off.

If we want the big guys to come here we’ve got to offer them something different, something special, something unique. The trouble is that our history isn’t quite enough. It needs to be something new, something radical, something exciting and genuinely business-friendly.

Also I confess that I’m sceptical about the proposed involvement of Government. I genuinely mean no disrespect to them but they are not actually themselves business experts. I think that Government has a role to play but that it’s limited to painting white lines on the road to the Hub, stopping people from speeding on their way there and making sure that the companies pay their taxes on time.

I’m also not convinced that academia has a huge role to play. The atmosphere I think that we want in an innovation park is not academic, studious and peer-reviewed. It should be fast, reactive and entrepreneurial, none of which are frequently found at universities. I also don’t think that innovation and entrepreneurial spirit can be taught. Everyone at business school is taught the stories of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ray Croc and Larry Ellison but that doesn’t mean we can all become them. The entrepreneurial spirit is something you either have or you don’t have.

As our business environment stands today I don’t think the Hub stands any chance of success. At least not until we face a few facts and decide to take action.

We need a massive overhaul of business regulations. In fact we need a radical deregulation. If we want to become somewhere like Singapore or Hong Kong we have to adopt some of their approaches. Take a pair of scissors to the rule book and cut out everything that gets in the way of anyone, Motswana or expatriate, from doing legitimate business here.

We need Government to be brave and take a step back. Let them retain responsibility for what they do best like policing and building schools and hospitals. If this sounds scary, remember that they actually did this a few years ago when they completely abolished foreign exchange controls. It took guts but the signal it sent to investors was powerful. We are confident that our currency is sound, solid and stable. Why can’t we do that again with business deregulation?

We need a real set of incentives for businesses. NOT handouts, not huge loans, not licences to buy flashy cars. Instead give new companies tax breaks. Start by reducing corporation tax for everyone a little bit but give genuine investors major breaks. Other countries trying to do this have offered 0% corporation tax for the first year or two, just to get a company stable. IFSC companies get a few things like this but we don’t go nearly far enough.

Two final points. Charles Tibone, Minister for MEWR said at the launch that we need to change out mindset and start to adopt risk and change as the way forward, not stability and “business as usual”. 100% correct and SO refreshing to hear something like that from a senior politician.

Secondly something truly impressive. A very young woman stood up at the workshop and took us old-timers to task for not including youth in the plan for the hub. As she pointed out, it’s a project lasting longer than a decade so she and her follow youngsters will inherit this eventually. She also pointed out that what works elsewhere will only work here in Botswana when we have adapted it to our local, specific needs. Best practice elsewhere is not necessarily best practice here. So if that was you wearing that red and white stripy top then email me. I want to offer you a job when you finish your education.

This week’s stars!

  • Kabelo at BTC, yet again for the usual excellent service. Frankly it’s getting a little tedious how often he gets celebrated!
  • Daniel at BSPCA for showing that we DO care for animals and yes, the Watchdog HAS adopted a new puppy thanks to him!
  • Mr Jain at Gaborone City Council for fixing a problem amazingly quickly.
  • Lorraine at FNB Head Office for “wonderful service”.

Friday 24 November 2006

Nobody is too important

We had an interesting experience this week.

We took a call from someone who had experienced what she thought was poor service. She had turned up at the airport in Gaborone with a friend and there had been some sort of mix-up with check-in and her friend ended up missing her plane entirely.

The details of this issue aren’t important though. What we thought was amazing was how the airline in question reacted. After we heard from the caller we phoned up the airline to get their side of the story.

This, incidentally, is what we always do. We never just accept one side of a story. We always see what the other side have to say for themselves. Only when we’ve done this can we really judge the true merits of a case.

Anyway, back to the airline. We called them and asked to speak to their Public Relations people. However, and we’re not quite sure how this happened, we got put through to the Chief Executive Officer himself. We explained that this probably wasn’t actually an issue for him to deal with but he wouldn’t take No for an answer. He insisted on hearing the details and investigating himself.

Half an hour later he was back on the phone to us, having made a few calls himself and he had a proper response for us. As it happens on this occasion he didn’t feel that his airline was at fault. He used a phrase we like to hear from managers when they firmly believe their staff haven’t made a mistake: “I have to support my staff on this one”.

So who was it? Isn’t it obvious? Air Botswana. Yes, the one’s going through privatisation as you read this. Surely you would think that their CEO has a million and one better things to do than respond to a customer’s complaint? In fact the opposite is true. If it isn’t related to pleasing customers then ignore it.

The lesson here is simple. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your fancy title is and whether you have a glossy MBA certificate on your wall, you are NEVER too important to take an interest in customer care. We teach this to our victims, sorry I meant “trainees”. Whoever you are, if you take the call, it’s your responsibility to make sure something is sorted out.

So the lesson is simple. If you work in a company that attempts to serve customers, but you aren’t prepared to risk speaking to an irritated customer, then don’t answer the phone. You’ll probably be fired, or your company will out of business sooner or later but you’ll have quiet life.

Something for free

As our regular readers will know, every so often we go crazy and give things away for free. Crazy I know but we’re just like that.

You may have seen in the papers in the last week an Invitation to Tender from the Ministry of Trade & Industry. Tender number MTI/MTC/DMM/57.3/2/60-07 (just printing that tender number in every newspaper probably cost them a few hundred Pula) asked for consultancy services “to undertake a detailed study to review and assess the impact of policies, laws and regulations on the operations of small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs).”

Well, we seriously considered offering our services on a commercial basis because we know we have the skills. However being the crazy people that we are we’re going to give away our consultancy services entirely for free. So here we go. Here is our consultancy service regarding how “policies, laws and regulations” affect small businesses.

They get in the way!

The fact that small, new, struggling business have to pay the VAT they have charged their customers BEFORE they have themselves received it is crippling small businesses.

The fact that it takes up to six months even to start a business legally stifles the entrepreneurial spirit.

The fact that the citizen-owned businesses we all want to see succeed are GIVEN money to start themselves up, rather than not having it TAKEN AWAY during the first, really hard couple of years just adds to the complacency we see, the purchase of flashy cars, the occupation of fancy offices and their inevitable collapse and “In The Matter Between” notices in the papers.

In fact, the sooner the “policies, laws and regulations” that are there to regulate small businesses are themselves regulated the better. The word “regulate” comes from a Latin word regula which means “to rule” but conventionally it means “to control” or “to limit”. I don’t think that businesses should be ruled, controlled or limited at all. Yes, of course they should obey the law, that’s obvious. Companies shouldn’t behave like the Mafia. Murdering the opposition is a bad thing. Not paying your taxes is a bad thing. However, other than a few basics I think that small companies should be left entirely alone. Let business men and women follow their instincts and then succeed or fail.

Rather than submit their business to regulators, policy committees and the Government I think we should let businesses submit themselves to the greatest judge of all. The market. The free market is the very best judge of who should succeed, not regulators.

This week’s stars!

  • Lance Brogden at Air Botswana firstly for taking personal responsibility for a customer complaint and secondly for sticking up for his staff when he felt they had actually done nothing wrong.
  • Another company we dealt with who seem to believe their customers are beneath their contempt. You would think they would understand that their customers are all that matter. But they can’t. No, I won’t name them but if you email me I’ll give you a clue!

Friday 10 November 2006

Wise words from on high

It is always very important for any writer to name their sources. I think that it’s unforgivable for anyone writing in a newspaper to pass off ideas as their own when they actually came from someone else. So this week I’m going to be completely up front and name my primary source for this week.

The President.

Yes, our one. Nobody else’s. His Excellency Mr F. G. Mogae (followed by too many letters to list here).

As you will have read in all the newspapers this week when he gave his State of the Nation address he covered a huge range of topics. Obviously this included things like HIV/AIDS and crime, the things that worry us all on a day-to-day level, but he also covered things that I think are critical for our long-term future.

Less than two minutes into his address, he said something that grabbed my attention. He said “Let us be driven by the quest for world class service”.

Awesome. I think that it says a lot when it’s not just the MDs of banks and insurance companies that say service is important, but the Head of State thinks so too. Clearly he understands, and he’s a hugely experienced economist of course which helps, that service is an essential element of a successful economy. It’s not just commodity prices and stock exchange indices that matter, it’s the way things are actually done that makes a difference.

But there are risks. As anyone who has visited our website will know, the Consumer Watchdog team were interviewed by the BBC a few months ago as part of their “Psychology of Consumerism” series. It’s not just us that worry about the impact of “consumerism” on an economy like ours. The BBC and our President talk about it as well. While we advocate consumer rights and great service there IS a risk with “consumerism”. The risk is to do with expectations.

We can’t all drive flash cars. We can’t all live in mansions. I know it’s not fair but that’s just life, OK? As H.E. said, fixed assets like a house and a child’s education are what matters most. As he warned us, “a lot of us are borrowing simply to fund luxurious vehicles and extravagant lifestyles”.

He also spent time discussing the way forward for citizen empowerment. I think it’s important that he and others have realised that what we’ve done so far hasn’t actually worked that well. Yes we have all seen the advertisements from CEDA proudly showing off success stories. I’m the first to give credit to our friends and relatives who have succeeded in business but we all know how many failures there have been, the number of people with hopes shattered and flashy cars repossessed. Just read the regular “In the matter between” entries in the papers where CEDA is the plaintiff. It’s not working nearly as well as it should do. If we really want to encourage citizen entrepreneurs to succeed we need something new.

I think that the recent report from the Botswana Economic Advisory Council and the President’s address have got it right. We need to demonstrate local excellence before we can expect success. It’s no good succeeding on the basis of handouts from Government. We will only be respected by the international community when we succeed because we are the best. Imagine a country where every shop, every bank, every government department is like Primi Piatti. OK, perhaps slightly lunatic but thrilling to be in.

As he said I think that the way forward involves one of those over-used marketing words: partnership. As an economy that is still developing it’s not entirely reasonable to expect us all to function at the highest level, with the highest productivity and effectiveness without external assistance to begin with. Forgive me for telling a personal story. Several years ago I worked in the Philippines on a couple of major projects that were entirely new to the country. A year later I got a very charming email from the customers telling me that (and I’m putting it simply) they were grateful for my assistance but I didn’t need to come back on business. Next time I should come back as a tourist they said. They had downloaded my brain and were now entirely self-sufficient. I think we need to be much more like the Philippinos. Partner with foreign companies, absorb skills, pay them well and recognise that a trade has occurred. Skills, experience and profit in return for profit. Both sides do well as a result. Most importantly if we show enough initiative and hard work we then become skilled and experienced ourselves.

Please forgive me for one last point. He suggested that change should start at the top. We should expect to be led by example by our politicians. We should expect productivity from them. I think his point is exceptionally good. Think about it. Do politicians work harder because of performance management systems, performance based reward systems, the balanced scorecard or process re-engineering? No, of course they don’t. Politicians work at their very best when they are approaching an election. When they are faced with being fired by the electorate!

This week’s stars!

  • Candy at Ola Milky Lane at Game City in Gaborone for being celebrated by a range of people, too numerous to mention!
  • Urgent from Total Filling Station at Game City in Gaborone for always being friendly and jolly!

Friday 3 November 2006

Enough is enough

No, for once I’m not talking about being treated with contempt by shops, restaurants, banks or supermarkets. In fact, this week, as far as I can recall, no service provider has disrespected me or indeed anyone I know.

No, this week, I’m planning to abuse my position as a columnist who talks about customer service to talk about something that seems entirely irrelevant.

Road safety.

Last week, as I was doing my daily duty, driving my kids into school along the road into Gaborone from Lobatse I was unlucky enough to come across the aftermath of a horrific car crash. It had clearly happened just a few minutes earlier as there was little hold-up and no emergency services. On the other side of the road was a Toyota Camry, on my side was a large ball of metal that I think, at one stage in it’s life, was a red Hyundai.

Surrounding the red wreck at the moment I passed was a group of men desperately trying to rip the doors off, presumably trying to get into the car to help the occupants.

Unlike some of the people passing by at the time I didn’t want to stick around. There was nothing I could have contributed other than getting in the way. As I passed the white car burst into flames and just another passer-by expressing morbid curiosity would not have helped in the slightest.

I found out later that in the red car were a Primary School teacher and two young children, all of them dead. The Camry was a Government vehicle and luckily the driver escaped with his life, if not his legs intact.

Now obviously I’m not going to comment on who might have been responsible but I am going to say one thing. Why do we put up with this?

This morning I saw two saloon cars going through a light 2-3 seconds after it went red but then, to my astonishment, a combi went through the same red light almost 10 seconds after it had turned red.

Yes, we’ve all seen this time and time again. Anyone who has spent any time on our roads will have seen such horrors and will be used to by now. The trouble is that we also get used to the causes of these tragedies. We get used to combis dashing through red lights. We get used to BX vehicles being driven by people who seem to be going out of their way to cause accidents.

So who should take action? Is it Government’s job? The Police? The President? Politicians? City Council? The Pope? The United Nations? No, it’s actually nothing to do with any of them. . It’s not the Police’s job to prevent us from driving badly, they are there either to prosecute us or pick up the pieces afterwards.

No, it’s nobody’s job but ours. Yes, you and me. Nothing at all will change until WE change our attitudes towards homicidal drivers.

So enough talking, what are WE, that’s all of us, going to DO about it? Are we content for our children to be mown down? Are we happy for our neighbours, foreign visitors, tourists to see us driving like we have a death wish? Most importantly are we truly happy with ourselves for allowing this to happen?

I’m not claiming to be beyond criticism myself of course. Public confession time. I have occasionally gone through a robot, a fraction of a second after it turned red. I’ve been caught speeding a few times and even more times when I wasn’t caught. Mea culpa. (I do SO like a little Latin on a Friday, don’t you? It’s great to speak a language no sane person, apart from lawyers, speaks any more, but I digress…).

I think we need a zero tolerance of this sort of behaviour. If we’re in a combi and it’s being driven by a lunatic I think we should force him to stop and demand our money back before getting out. Then write to City Council about him and tell them what happened. Same with taxis. Let’s do what I urge all consumers to do (see, it IS a consumer issue after all!). Vote with our wallets and purses.

Oh, and as for BX drivers… Take down their registration number and send it through to the Director of the Central Transport Organisation at Private Bag X048, Gaborone and let him know the registration number, the date and time of the incident and what you saw. But let’s be positive as well. Let’s start to celebrate the combi, taxi and BX drivers who drive responsibly. Surely they exist?

But most importantly let’s take action ourselves. If I benefit from being in a combi driving at 120kph in a 60kph zone because I got up late this morning then I am part of the problem.

So here’s a final challenge. Let’s all get up 5 minutes earlier each morning so the combi doesn’t have to rush. I think it’s a fair exchange. Every working person in the country sacrifices 5 minutes sleep. Maybe one child will live.

I think it’s a fair exchange.

This week’s stars!

  • The Good Samaritans who stopped at the scene of the accident and did their very best to save some lives. It’s not their fault there was nothing they could do.
  • Amigo at Pick N Pay at Molapo Crossing who insisted on getting a shopper a bargain.
  • Nancy at FNB Corporate switchboard for taking personal responsibility for finding a phone number in South Africa and phoning our reader back with it.