07 Nov Interview with Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi, President of Botswana
BF: I would like to begin with the concept of Botswana as a role model in development in Africa. You are a role model and today you have one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. 2021 showed 11.8% growth, and in 2022, 6.7. Your national transformation strategy is making speed as you focus on SMEs, attracting FDI, and expanding new innovative sectors. Botswana is in full bloom. Tell us about the key factors involved in Botswana’s, incredible upswing in economic growth following the COVID-19 pandemic, and what you’re now focusing on to continue your development.
Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi: When Covid hit we had been experiencing modestly growth in our economy. But we had a pretty narrow base economy which was very much influenced by our mineral endowment. And the processing of those and the selling of those has yielded what you now have as Botswana. And when Covid hit, everything stopped, including the mines. That’s our lifeline. And so we saw our revenue hit rock bottom. We also had the rest of the economy stop because of the management protocols that we had to put in did not allow people to function as normally. And that restricted the performance of the economy. The creatives were stopped. The restaurant and hotel industry suffered a devastating blow. The transport sector also stopped except for essential services. We blew out our savings but we kept the society and the economy just going. Most of the money that we had from the government was spent on the therapeutics necessary to manage the protocols, but also the therapeutics and the interventions to sustain life, which costs a lot of money. For the therapeutics, we had the misfortune of also paying in advance. We got some from the global or multilateral ordered procurement system. But we also got some that we arranged directly and paid for ourselves as a government. But both these were delayed in coming because the producer countries prioritize themselves, and so our people suffered for much longer, and we lost many lives that we could have saved. Nonetheless, we came through it at a huge cost because these drugs cost an awful lot of money, and there’s nobody else to produce them. So, we had no option but to save ourselves.
Fast forward to when we overcame that most massive hurdle in our lives, we also had to put money into rebooting the economy. We put in an economic transformation recovery plan. And in terms of the running of government. we put in place the Reset and Reclaim agenda. And the Reset and Reclaim agenda was essentially about prioritizing because you had to think differently. You had to do things differently as you recover from Covid. Fortunately, when the mines and economy kicked in, we were small enough so that it made a difference quite quickly. We were able to recover quite rapidly. People were eager to get back to work and produce goods and services. So it was that we found some of the stuff that we produced in demand and payments came through, and that’s how we registered that impressive 11 percent growth. But we as a country like to see ourselves being well organized and consistent with sticking to the methods of play and the rules of the game, including financial. For instance, in our constitution we have a cap on the amount of external borrowing relative to our GDP that we can get. And we’ve never exceeded that. And so, we remain viable. We’ve also been a democratic country all our lives. And even under the stresses of Covid, we maintained our democratic credentials.
BF: Today, the country is in full swing again. We have a moment in time where foreign relations and foreign investment is the game today. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which was hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden in December of 2022, gathered 50 African delegations in Washington DC to discuss challenges such as environment, energy, health, governance, security, investment, and development. He stated during that summit that, over the next three years, working in close cooperation with the United States Congress, they plan to commit $55 billion in Africa to advance the priorities we share and to support the agenda 2063. Now it’s your turn to host. And from July 11th to 14th 2023, Botswana will receive the 15th U.S.-Africa Business Summit, a major platform to strengthen U.S.-African trade and investment ties. How would you assess the U.S.’s shift toward financial investment in the African continent?
Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi: It was inevitable for the U.S. to re-look at Africa and prioritize it. For the longest time before that, there always has been a contestation among leading developed countries to trade, invest in, and partner with countries in Africa. It would seem that there were others at an apparent level that were more aggressive than the U.S., and you only need to look around when you drive around many cities in Africa and look at the products that people use. You only need to look at the motor vehicles that they drive. You need to look at the construction that’s going on. You need to look at the tools that are being used. You look at their apparel and what people are wearing. You need to look at the signage in some places. And you can see there’s been a recent influence that to some extent has constrained the access that U.S. industries have to these markets.
Politically, Botswana has always been an ally of the United States of America. Botswana shares many values and many deals with the USA. Many people in Botswana, myself included, studied in the U.S. and benefited from that; a lot of it out of bilateral consideration and relationships. And so politically and through the way we are an organized society and economy, there’s been a lot of influence that the U.S. has had. It’s almost axiomatic that how businesses in the U.S. work and how businesses would work in Botswana would relate and understand one another. The systems of financial flows and management talk to each other. The products that are produced in Botswana have found a good market in the U.S. Our biggest, most precious, and most valuable product export lands in the U.S., and the nation is the single biggest market globally.
As we speak now, there is a big annual fair in Las Vegas called the JCK. It’s a diamond fair. We are participating at a high level. The Minister of Minerals is there, the mineral policy committees are there, the head of the public services is there, and other very ranking officials of the Botswana government in the diamond space. It’s a very important market for us. And so, when we went to Washington DC as the 50 or so African leaders to the U.S.-Africa summit, there was a lot of excitement and eagerness in this because it had been an extremely long time since we would gather and interact with the U.S. at a government-to-government level.
The last time something close to that occurred was during President Obama’s administration, which was as a U.S. business summit on the Africa business summit on the margins of the General Assembly of the UN. So I really commend President Biden for organizing a deliberate and targeted summit on Africa.
BF: What would you like to let foreign investors know about Botswana as a destination for FDI? There are many very strong points taking that into account. How do you assess the current level of participation between Botswana and the U.S. on the public as well as the private platform? How would you like to see the relationship step up in terms of cooperation and bilateral agreements?
Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi: I want to see it grow in various ways, in scope and intensity. There’s a lot that we can offer to the U.S., a lot more than has been realized. And perhaps, America being America, they might be attracted to the big and grand. We may be small, but we’re extremely valuable and loyal. So, we would like to be looked at for that, for instance; purely out of the convenience of geography in terms of the latitude in which this tropical zone occurs. You need to go there, breathe it in, and feel it where you are one with the wonders of nature. We are home because of our peace, serenity, and environmental stewardship of the world’s largest herd of elephants in the wild. We have set aside, like no other country in the world, 40% of our land mass for conservation. Now, that’s a big give-up by my citizens. And it’s not just for us, it’s for the global community. And so, we invite these participants to the U.S.-Africa Business Summit to come here. And they cannot leave without seeing part of this 40%. It’s a travesty if they did. We’re home to the largest lion and ostrich reserves known in the world. We are more than ready to receive happily every single one of those who come. And I bet you’d be surprised if none of them arranged for a return visit; but hopefully with investment. We have the richest diamond mine in the world. And the largest piece of real estate available in the world.
BF: Botswana has set up a target to cut its carbon emissions by 15% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. Where do you see Botswana in the next 10 years on this front? What partnerships are opportune on the energy front to overcome the hurdles that you’re currently facing?
Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi: I see us advancing ahead of our targets, realizing them sooner, but also adjusting our targets because we realized that we may have set them too low. For instance, we are reviewing our integrated reset plan. We want to provide for a higher percentage of the production of clean energy. And we also want to see ourselves cutting our carbon emissions by more sooner. And it cuts across the whole value chain of our economy because some of the heaviest use our mines, and so we are working very hard to try and use green energy production to conserve and save energy use in the mines. All of them. But that also extends to water and how we use water. And one of the reasons why we’re so keen on the knowledge economy is to enhance innovation; by enhancing innovation, it means we are partnering with technology companies that are global and leading. Our best thinkers will also take part in innovating systems and technologies that would reduce this carbon footprint. It’s our contribution to global peace because we believe environmental stewardship is a big peace investment.
BF: As you mentioned, part of this is to make sure that you know how to go greener with energy use in mines. And as you mentioned, you are the largest diamond producer in the world by value. Some people speak about the end of the De Beer’s contract. You’re renegotiating. And now you’re at a peak moment. You’ve also got a great new contract with HB Antwerp. This is the boon that has given you the means to have feet on which to stand for the rest of the economic sectors. Tell us a little bit more about your vision for the future of diamonds here. What would you like to see in your partnerships and minerals in general?
Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi: I see a brilliant future for our mineral sector. We have a long-lasting and exemplary global example of our partnership with De Beers which started in the late 1960s. It’s about a 53-year-old partnership. But like with anything, when a baby is born, you start them with the infant formula. And as you grow, you start to eat different food, but you still partner with those who provide the food to you. You value them, you value the land, you value the crops that you get, and the processing that you get into. But the relationship changed. We are a peaceful country. We believe in the rule of law. We honor contracts. We have a contract with De Beers. We honor it. The contract also provides for a renegotiation, and the renegotiation is about that. The renegotiation is not about separation. The renegotiation is about adjusting the mutually beneficial relationship. So, we want a mutually beneficial relationship to emerge between ourselves and De Beers that is superior to what we had. I’m inclined to believe De Beers wants the same. We are committed to realizing it before the deadline hits, which is the end of June. And so, we’re working feverishly hard at that. But renegotiation also entails compromise. Both parties are going to have to compromise to realize a relationship and continue the partnership. But we cannot keep the same relationship because we’ve matured, and De Beers has matured. We cannot keep the same partnership because systems have changed. Technology has changed.
No country in the world beats Botswana with the issue of providence. That’s a value that we’ve added to our diamonds as a country single-handedly. We have added that as a value. And it’s so important to value now, particularly with the conflict going on between Russia and Ukraine. And the response particularly from our biggest market, which is the U.S. Botswana and diamonds mean much more than they used to mean. This has got to be factored into how we negotiate and the outcomes of that. Both parties have got to step up, grow up, and realize that. We have developed a quest for a knowledge-based economy. It means we want our brain power and our intellectual capital to permeate the whole economy, including the diamond space. And that automatically means that it is irrefragable that you could have a raw diamond or most of our diamonds export a draw. They need to remain here. Our intellect, including the derivatives of our intellect, which are the technology and systems we use, the marketing, and everything else would need to be added to those. We demand to play a part. We have new realities. Our demographic dividend and our demographic profile are fundamentally different from what it was 53 years ago. So, any sensible entity would see this. These shifts are what we use to leverage our negotiations but also to continue to ensure that peace and stability are sustained and therefore the prominence assured. There is no better place with the greatest assurance of clarity and certainty for that being than Botswana. And that’s why the Botswana diamond sticks out more than anywhere. There is no country in which diamonds mean as much as they do to Botswana. Not a single one. There is no company for which diamonds mean more than they mean to the Botswana people and citizenry. And so, we are very intent on ensuring that our diamonds will forever be for development. And this development is not just ours. It buys global peace. We contribute to that. It buys global environmental stewardship. It pays for that. These resources are finite and that’s why we need to, as quickly as possible, as efficiently as possible, transform their value into a sustained value through human capital.
We’re set and ready. We are investing in HB Antwerp with no ill intention to anybody except good for ourselves. And we’re investing in those diamonds that we own on our own as per agreement. And it cannot be fathomable that it would cause discomfort to anybody. And in any event, we’re a sovereign state who wants to extract maximum value by agreement in the same way as our partner has also accepted. For us, the profits go to our people through the HB Antwerp deal. We’re very proud of it. It’s only the beginning and you can extend the logic of reasoning to other commodities. And that’s how you’re going to get sustained peace globally.
BF: You stepped up as president in 2018. You’ve successfully seen the country through some incredibly challenging times, including the pandemic and the large shift in global value change that followed. You have been largely credited with the country’s fast transformation during the period and its current path toward growth. What is your vision today and what do you wish to see in the next five years?
Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi: My vision borrows a lot from the national vision. We have a long-term vision that was crafted through a very open democratic consultative process with our people. And they put together a document commonly known as Vision 2036. And that’s where we have stated in very simple, clear terms what we envision for this country, its people, and its prosperity. It has increased incomes, the assurance of democracy, and strengthened institutions. It has also increased life span and reduction in infant mortality. It has reduced the burden of disease and works toward elimination of HIV and AIDS. It has reduced crime, corruption, and injustice. It has increased peace and prosperity. And these do not come about by accident. They came about through very deliberate intentionality. They come about through an iteration with the shareholders of this nation-state who are its citizens, but they also come about through a realization of who you are relative to everybody else as a nation. And part of my vision is born out of the analysis that we had 2.3 million people now and could do better if we were able to enhance this figure to be bigger for economic sustainability, viability, and competitiveness. And that’s why I reach out with all manner of power I have to bring them as close to us as possible.
BF: Do you have a special message that you would like to pass through this report to the readers of this report?
Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi: Yes. I’d like the readers to get very curious about Botswana, my country. I’d like the readers to put me to the test. Come visit my country; come and retire in my country. Come and eat our food, and particularly our beef. Come and sleep under our most radiant stars and moonlight. Come and inhale our clean air and be satisfied. Come to Botswana because Botswana is infectious. You just want to be here. And come to Botswana where your money is well stretched. I’m very proud of my country. I love my people. I love our landscape.