Francistown will be buzzing this weekend as she plays host to one of the major milestones on Botswana’s business calendar, the National Business Conference.
The NBC is a gathering of the private sector elite, government representatives and other stakeholders, like the non-governmental organizations.
It has, in the past, been hailed as Botswana’s economic think tank where government and private sector gurus brainstorm to chart Botswana’s economic future. Major milestones geared at enhancing economic development and public-private partnerships have seen the light of day at previous NBC gatherings. These include, among others, the High Level Consultative Council, Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency, Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board and the Local Enterprise Authority.
What makes the 10th edition of the NBC even more special is that it will be hosted in Botswana’s second city, Francistown. These, together with other initiatives, like the BOCCIM Northern Trade Fair, are part of a plethora of concerted efforts by BOCCIM to expose the northern parts of Botswana, especially Francistown, as an alternative investment destination.
Francistown has, over the years, experienced very little success in terms of economic growth and infrastructure development when compared to the southern parts of Botswana. This despite the fact that Francistown, at way over a hundred years old, is one of the oldest towns in Botswana , and was part of Southern Africa’s initial gold rush.
To date, there are no major enterprises in Francistown, save for a few long standing exceptions like Nortex and the mining operations in and around the city. Even the BOCCIM Northern Trade Fair has, in the past, drawn a lot of criticism because of poor preparation and low turnout. The northern trade fair fades into oblivion, in terms of turn out, preparation, advertising and other factors, when compared to a number of business expos that are continuously held in Gaborone.
A number of businesses that were previously operating in Francistown have closed shop and relocated to greener pastures in the southern parts of Botswana.
But hope came when minerals were discovered in the vicinity of Francistown. Suddenly, developments were flooding into the city, and its reputation as a dispensable player in the national economy, famous only for its skyrocketing HIV infection statistics, were fading into oblivion. There was hope for the second city after all. The mining industry would bring with it a facelift of the city, intense property developments, and an influx of qualified personnel with a lot of buying power, thus necessitating the opening up of service oriented businesses.
To date, the city boasts of big industry players like Tati Nickel and Mupane mines. Recent developments at the Mowana mine in nearby Dukwi have also served to once again escalate the economic prospects of Francistown.
Demand for retail and office space has skyrocketed as businesses open up shop in Francistown. The resurgence of the mining activities breathed new life into Francistown’s economy boosting the retrial, property and transport sectors.
But it goes without saying that the resurgence of the mining activities has not really helped to boost the city’s economic prospects to the dizzy heights that were expected. The service oriented companies that were expected to flock into the city have not come at the exorbitant rates that we had anticipated.
At the same time, service providers like the City Council and parastatals, like Botswana Power Corporation, Water Utilities and Botswana Housing Corporation have not responded positively to facilitate the expedition of Francistown’s development. While the situation has somewhat normalized, Francistown was, in the last few years, labouring under acute water shortage. The power situation remains unchanged.
BHC is only now planning to build a paltry 500 houses at Gerald Estates.
Councilor Peter Ngoma recently commented that had it not been for the foresighted private investors who saw it fitting to establish estates like Molapo Estates, Francistown would have faced a debilitating accommodation crisis with the advent of the mining boom. Many people concur. Some of BHC’s properties in the city are in a deplorable state and an eye sore to the community. The city council cannot even provide adequate services like garbage collection. The traffic in Francistown is deplorable, especially along the Blue Jacket Street.
As if that is not enough, Norilsk Nickel recently made a startling announcement that the trailblazing Activox technology, which was to be unveiled at the Botswana Metal Refineries plant east of Francistown, has been shelved indefinitely because of a number of factors. Francistown has been dealt a deathly blow because with the Activox technology, the city would have become not only a major player in the national economy but also in the regional and international industry. Through the Activox technology Francistown would contribute millions to Botswana’s gross domestic product and foreign currency earnings.
It was expected that the Botswana Metal Refineries plant would, at peak construction, generate three thousand jobs and the returns to the economy of the city of Francistown were unimaginable. Yet, again, thousand of qualified personnel lost their jobs and a lot of them have found alternative employment elsewhere.
The Sunday Standard is informed that plans were already underway to construct a P100 million golf estate in Francistown, primarily because of the resurrection of mining activity around the city. But this does not look like a profitable venture anymore because of uncertainty surrounding the economic future of the city.
The golf estate, an initiative of property giants, Tati Company, was to be situated in the southern parts of the city. The golf course was expected to be ready for tee-off in two years’ time with a coast of P25 million to completion. It was revealed during the unveiling of the project that Tati Company and Time Projects had been doubtful about the viability of the project for years and they were buoyed to action by the resurgence of mining activities in Francistown.
Pundits have commented that the projected golf estate would have been a step in the right direction. “Big money spenders need luxury to while away time. There should be top of the range golf resorts, private schools and private hospitals to cater for their needs,” they said. Sadly, Francistown does not have these and, therefore, cannot attract big investors.
Worse still, Francistowners are repeatedly faced with the frustrations of having to travel to the capital city, Gaborone to seek the most basic of services. Even some of the private sector companies in Francistown are just branches with no executive capacity to service the needs of potential investors. “I cannot understand why I have to travel to Gaborone just to register a company or register for VAT” one frustrated Francistowner has been overheard saying.
All these factors are combining to make Francistown a very unattractive investment destination. While the city has been touted as the gateway to Maun, Kasane and Zimbabwe, the sad reality is that that is not the case anymore. When traveling from Gaborone, one does not necessarily have to pass through Francistown to reach Maun, especially because there is nothing attractive here. The Nata-Kazungula road is in a deplorable state and many prefer to fly rather than drive. At the same time, what would one possibly need in Zimbabwe?
Another disadvantage of Francistown is that it is far from South Africa, which is the source of a number of our raw material and inputs. To that end logistics like transport become an issue.
It, therefore, goes without saying that the NBC and, more especially BOCCIM and government, will have to work a bit harder to try and resolve the issues that bedevil Francistown. There is potential in the city, but it has to be tapped and nurtured for it to bear fruit.