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Singapore has slightly more than five million people yet it is already the world’s fourth leading financial centre and has one of the five busiest ports in the world. Capital’s Elias Gebreselassie talked to Cody Lee, who came to Ethiopia representing The Singapore Business Federation (SBF) which represents 18,000 businesses in Singapore about their first visit to Ethiopia.
Capital: Could you introduce yourself?
Cody: I’m the director for the Middle East and Africa from the Singapore Business Federation (SBF). My job is to promote trade and investment between Singapore and the world. The Singapore Business Federation is the national chamber of commerce for Singapore, and aside from having members who are actually in other associations we have 18,500 members. We represent the biggest companies in Singapore.
Capital: Could you tell us about the specific areas you may invest in?
Cody: This is our inaugural delegation and we do not have representatives from the financial sector or oil and gas. The reason, to be honest with you is that we are not fully aware of the opportunities down here. Which is why we want more Ethiopians to come to Singapore to promote themselves, so the world will have a better understanding of Ethiopia, the country isn’t only a fantastic tourist destination it is also a good business destination.
Capital: Tell us about Singapore’s development.
Cody: When Singapore first started, it was British colony like many others, when we were independent we were one of the poorest countries in the world, especially among the British Commonwealth countries, not only within our region in south East Asia. So we had to do things differently. When you are small and you have nothing you have to work hard, because we didn’t even have a sufficient agricultural sector, so we had to develop expertise in manufacturing and in value added services to grow the economy. One of the ingredients for our success is clean leadership with a very clear vision that steers people towards a common objective. We have a very good education system because we spend a lot. It did not happen by default. We spent a lot of money training people. When many Asian countries gained their independence they became nationalistic and rejected the idea of foreign investment. During that period, we did the opposite. We said please come, because for a person to put in a few hundred million dollars into a petrochemical refinery, they need to be certain that in the next ten years the government is going to be stable, and the government will be friendly. These are some of the key things that we provide them, a very investment friendly environment and most importantly a very clear and predictable investment policy, so as to assure that nothing will happen them over the next 10 years. We feel we can meet these expectations and that’s why people can come, to invest. We don’t have capital to invest in Singapore, we depend on foreign investors to bring in the capital and knowledge, that’s how we work with industrialized countries. Capital: You also have been to Djibouti can you tell us about that?
Cody: Djibouti in many instances is quite similar to Singapore, in the sense that they have a small population, with a service driven economy. The key economy they have is the Port and their financial sectors are not too bad as well, but eventually who do they serve? These services are primarily designated to Ethiopia, so when we went there we were looking at how to work with the Ethiopian government to develop their services because of the similarity that we have, and we wanted to understand how we can engage Ethiopia. We wanted to understand Ethiopia more from Djibouti’s angle. We wanted to hear what the Djiboutian people say about Ethiopia and how to do business. We wanted their advice because the Port is there.
Capital: Is Singapore shifting its focus to AFRICA?
Cody: We want to understand the opportunities in the horn of Africa, we have an African strategy and we work closely with our government in the Ministry of Trade and Industry. We work well with public, private partnerships, we work very closely to develop the strategies for overseas markets, and we’ve been to other African countries because Singapore is actually the leading investor on the African continent from south East Asia. So we do have investments. Even though there are not many projects they are large ones. We also have a telecom company called Air Tel Private Limited that is involved in many African countries, now our Singaporean telecom is actually the biggest shareholder there.
Capital: Often Ethiopia has mentioned Singapore as an example it wants to emulate why is this?
Cody: I think, like I said the investment policies must be really friendly, we can’t expect people to come and put their money in this country when people don’t know what’s going to happen in the next year. This is a typical phenomena in many African countries, but the good thing for Ethiopia is that you are very stable, your leadership is very stable, there is some form of predictability in that sense. It’s not like some other countries, where you don’t know the leader if is going to be dead the next day, so you have some basic ingredient for success, we want to have a real understanding of the country, its investment laws and its other aspects.
Capital: Tell us about the companies you are brining to Ethiopia?
Cody: Pacific International Lines (PIL), is one of the world’s top 20 shipping companies, they can bring logistics experience to this country, Crimson Logic, specializes in E-Government, they can transform the way this country works by providing more efficient government services. This can really make a difference in the lives of people. For example if you look at Rwanda they can open a company in two and a half hours. Even though we are a small country we tell ourselves that nothing is impossible. We feel like we are among the leaders in efficient government and we can help Ethiopia bring in more international investors.
Capital: What has the effect been of the financial crisis on Singapore?
Cody: Singapore is a very small market with a modest domestic economy, the impact of what’s happening in Europe and the United States with the financial crisis will affect us greatly in a sense that we will not have as much growth as before. When markets decrease we need to look for new ones in places like Ethiopia so that in the long run we can benefit more. When we come here we believe that if you come to Africa and work with the locals we can do more things to help diversify our economic dependency on a few countries to a wider number of countries.
Capital: Could you explain tangible ways business delegations help economically?
Cody: The Singapore federation has global destinations so it is important for us to know the investment and trade gestation period because they are quite long, and much of this information is not published. When people make big money, they will be very quiet about it, nobody is going to tell you that they’re making money, of course when things don’t happen they will be crying and telling you all the bad things. When people come to your country, if there are good things that we see we go back and tell about the things we have learned. Through this Ethiopia is letting the world know about its features other than its long civilization, tourism and the coffee, which I’m sure people can do in this country.
Capital: Do you have anything else to add?
Cody: Look at what China and India are doing, they’re old civilizations, now when they put in the right thing like in China, they’re doing well. So I think that Ethiopia will do very well if you can probably embrace more changes in the future. Before I came here I expected great things from Ethiopia. I appreciate history and people with a long civilization because people with long and sophisticated societies are a prerequisite for success. I’ve never seen an old culture in the world that has not done well if competent leadership and systems are in place.