There have been several interesting headlines from the United States of America (USA) in recent weeks where President Peter Mutharika was attending the 69th United Nations (UN) General Assembly that ended Friday.
Besides the main UN business, Mutharika fulfilled several assignments with potential and prospective investors in various sectors. He also held meetings with existing investors such as Universal Leaf, the parent company of local tobacco buying and processing firm Limbe Leaf Tobacco Company Limited.
Further, the President has also held discussions with representatives of the European Union (EU) on the possibility of resuming budgetary support to Malawi. He also had audience with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as well as other leaders, notably Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
In a nutshell, the President has had a busy schedule.
However, one headline that caught my eye screamed: ‘APM courts 180 US companies’. My reaction was like, wow! Really? Like, seriously?
Apparently, the President had just met the United States of America (USA)-Africa business relations which boasts a membership of 180 companies. He urged them to seize an opportunity for trade and investment.
This sounded good to the ear. It is one thing to woo or court investors and yet another thing to have them doing business on the ground.
Before the prospective investors board planes for a fact-finding mission here, it would be in order for agencies such as the Malawi Investment and Trade Centre (Mitc) to clear some cobwebs, especially legal framework, that delay processing of business registration and the like.
By way of example, it takes a maximum of 135 days (about four months) for an investor to complete the registration process of a business. Very few investors can afford to wait that long. They would rather take their money to where procedures are simpler and efficient. This waiting period, in fact, does not make sense in this day and era of information technology (IT). If that is not bureaucracy then what is. It is such red tape that has frustrated several prospective investors, including Japan Tobacco International (JTI) Leaf Malawi, whose investment proposal to the Malawi Government submitted in 2010 is yet to be responded to. The company wanted to set up a cigarette manufacturing factory and has since changed its plans and relocated elsewhere.
Sometimes, it is also individual attitudes by some public officers who let files gather dust on shelves for applicants to “feel” their importance. Please, trim that red tape.
Besides, poor infrastructure has been yet another let-down in terms of business environment here at home.
Back to the number 180. This is a colossal figure. Even if it were 20 or 10, my plea to authorities would be that they should be genuine foreign investors, not just traders like the scores we have running shops, barbershops, hawkers, restaurants and several other petty businesses that leaves one wondering how they obtained their licences as foreign investors.
A simple assessment of some “foreign investments” are below the minimum prescribed investment amount by a foreign investor of $50 000 (about K20.7 million).
During his earlier tour of the US for the US-African Leaders Forum, there were also similar glittering promises of businesses and investment. These things do not yield results overnight, personally I am waiting and watching.
In one of my previous articles I argued that for our country to benefit more from platforms such as the UN General Assembly, US-African Leaders and Sadc summits, we need to develop a checklist to direct follow-ups. In the absence of such a mechanism, as I have always said, meaningful investment opportunities will keep eluding us and such forums will remain talking shops offering delegation members “taxpayer-sponsored holidays”.