Beaming with BEMA

Baitshepi Sekgweng

Bema in a different colour maybe?

A vastly experienced professional with an eye-catching record in executive leadership positions, Mmantlha Sankoloba is a woman who gets things done!

The Mochudi marvel currently serves as CEO of the Botswana Exporters and Manufacturers Association (BEMA), a role she has fulfilled whole-heartedly for the last six years…

Kindly introduce yourself?

I have been working for BEMA since 2017 and I come from Mochudi where I was born and raised. I have done my tertiary at North West University where I did Human Resources Management & Public Administration majoring in Economics. I’m currently doing my executive MBA at Botswana Open University.

Before joining BEMA, what were you up to career wise?

I started my career as a Human Resource practitioner, working with Woolworths as their HR where I spent a couple of months before moving to join Limkokwing University, where I did more of my growing up. I was part of the group that started with Limkokwing in 2007 while it was still at Fairgrounds Mall.

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I worked there for five to six years. I left the school and became self employed for two years running a consultancy mostly on HR matters and grievances.

I understand your relationship with BEMA actually dates back way beyond 2017?

Prior to working I had done my internship at BEMA. I stumbled into BEMA’s offices one time selling phone routers but instead they gave me an internship to sell the organisation to companies to join! So that’s when I had to learn about BEMA at an early stage. BEMA were even the ones who recommended me to Woolworths.

While I was still self-employed, I saw the vacancy for the CEO post and that was the time in which Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was trending so I started studying it and went for the interview. There were three of us and I came out tops and started working with the organisation.

Briefly sum-up BEMA’s mandate for us?

BEMA has a broad mandate with particular focus on manufacturing and exporting space. It started in 1995, when it was called Exporters Association of Botswana because the main focus was on exporting, so facilitating companies to export was key.

As it evolved, in 2005 that’s when it changed to BEMA with the main objective of incorporating the manufacturing element into the whole organisation because back then there were few exporters, especially in the manufacturing sector. So it was important to focus on grooming these companies at manufacturing stage and then enabling them to export eventually.

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The mandate is actually advocacy on the ease of doing business for the sector and market access. Our market is small at 2.3 million, even though we are at that figure it doesn’t mean we will consume our products. So market access is a very important subject because we still have to work harder for the products to make it in the domestic market.

Again, interest in soliciting markets outside the borders. Initially it was within the SACU space because this is where we were trading better with the other members States with all these tariffs negotiated but of course there has been a dream to penetrate the rest of the African market, AGOA, European Union and across the world.

Creating networking platforms by coming up with events, workshops and trade exhibitions that allows for interaction amongst the stakeholders within the manufacturing is key for us too.

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How many members to you have?

Covid has really shaken us because most of our members are out of business. Before the pandemic we stood at over 400 but have gone down to 300. Of course some are still paying subscription fees but a significant number are either struggling or not in business anymore or can’t afford the membership fees. Our focus areas are textiles & apparels, steel pipes, cement, electric cables, leather works, food beverages at large scale and individuals who do at small scale.

When you assumed the reigns, what was your roadmap?

I took BEMA at a point in which it was struggling financially and in stakeholder engagements. By that time 60 percent of members had left and my biggest job was to bring them back and create value proposition for members first and understand their issues. So mine was to build confidence within the organisation and I gave myself two years to do that – something I managed to achieve.

My biggest hurdle was to reintroduce BEMA to its stakeholders so it was an uncomfortable start for me, if I was a weakling I could have left!

What other achievements are you particularly proud of?

I’m proud of myself for building the confidence of members once more back into the association. They now know they can rely on us and know their issues can be resolved by us. The other thing is bringing new members to the organisation, we have never gone out on a recruitment drive, we have allowed our work to speak for us.

For the industry to say ‘we see your work and now want to be part of what you are doing’ is hugely satisfying. We are a reliable government partner for the private sector; govt had the choice to pick any other association for many roles but they came to us so we have positioned ourself as a partner. Sometimes we challenge the government and come with uncomfortable subjects to discuss but at the end of the day the goal is to make a better Botswana since our strategy has always been diplomacy.

Let’s talk about Botswana not being able to benefit from AGOA…

AGOA is a beautiful thing and a noble gesture for the Sub Saharan region. But you will find that there are stringent requirements to access the AGOA market and there is an issue of capacity; the USA is a big market not only open for Botswana. So some countries, like Lesotho, are doing well with AGOA because they have well lubricated systems in terms of incentives. Most companies there are foreign; it takes a lot to attract foreign direct investment – one of the main things is the environment of doing business: is it permitting for companies to come and do business?

Incentives also play a key role, more especially utility incentives. In Lesotho these are things which are incentivized and cushioned but here it’s rough. So that makes us to not be competitive as Botswana and these are things we have outlined to the government. Govt has good strategies, the only problem is implementation and ownership of these and who is exactly responsible for lack of accountability. We should work on building capacity because there is potential since previously companies tried and failed because it’s expensive.

The first ever Local Manufacturing Summit was held this year, how did it go?

The platform for dialogue was massive because there were conversations around market access. Remember the mining industry is a big sector locally and expectation is that they should be giving to the economy of this country. Manufacturing has lots of potential in the supply chain and the good thing is that conversations didn’t just start at the summit. Already other mining companies like Debswana had Supply Development programmes and Morupule is coming with Citizen Economic Empowerment programme. I think the idea is to see other miners coming on board because they are so many mines; they should play their part since the pie is big – the summit should send a message to those who haven’t started. We have quality products so this is not compassionate buying!

Contacts were shared so it was a marketing platform for local manufacturers and there is dialogues along areas of doing business. Further, this was the first dialogue with President Mokgweetsi Masisi on issues of manufacturing and as BEMA we have been praying for this because it gave us an opportunity to submit to HE about: finances for SMMEs for a funding model to be created, research and development because there is so much potential and looking for investors who can not only bring money but skill in manufacturing and those who have focal point in our sector.

What challenges does BEMA face?

We have four categories, being: micro, small, medium and large scale who have unique challenges but the common challenge is market access. Last month we had the Local Manufacturing Summit with the mining industry and the most disappointing thing about such is that we like ‘talk shows’. We like talking but are slow in implementation and it goes back to the issue of accountability. So I think from the testimonies we had from companies, as much as they have produced quality products it is still difficult to sell to local markets. Some are exporting 100 percent of their products and it’s not because they want to, it’s because they have been rejected by their own market!

The export market is expensive because of stringent requirements, for example with AGOA they have to come here to make assessments and if you don’t meet certain requirements you lose.

Another challenge is those already supplying the domestic market are paid late, some end up getting into debt just because they want to keep the company running due to overheads to take care of. Some end up looking for funds around and by the time they are paid they are in losses and some are no longer trusted by financiers. Lack of proper finances tailor-made for the sector, more especially for the SMMEs, what we have now is just general with high interest rates and many requirements.

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Tell us about the school uniform instrument?

We collected data and approached government and it took much convincing for government to put the instrument in place. I don’t have collected figures but we had one company operating at large scale which in December produced 420, 000 pieces of different school uniform pieces to feed the local market. One interesting thing about this is that we visited communities and this has brought hope to many, especially SMMEs. Over 95 percent of textile businesses are women owned and at some point they have given up but now they are back because there is hope. Again what we should understand is it’s up to communities to make this work by offering their support.

One worrying factor we have noted is that there is an element of rejecting new players, but everyone deserves the chance to benefit from this. It’s a matter of mindset change and being accommodative. Another threat to this is locals fronting for foreigners because uniform and personal protective equipment is reserved for locals. The trend we now seeing is bad and it’s us Batswana doing this – it’s high time people understand the negative impact this will have on the instrument.

Your final thoughts?

I resonate a lot with mindset change because it’s important in many ways. The survival of the sector is in our hands as Batswana and decisions we make in our private space are felt and the impact of that is felt by the whole country. If you decide not to buy local despite the good capacity and quality, you are denying the multitudes of Batswana an opportunity to change their livelihoods. So we should change our mindset and start embracing our own: we have the power to change the way things are, let’s support local.

Beaming with bema


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