Lazarus Jacobs tackles economic barriers

A group of Namibian business executives have embarked on a historic journey of advocating for the control of big business in both the public and private sectors from the hands of the minority.

According to recent statistics, Whites comprise just about 5% of the Namibian population and have a bigger control of the economy.

Founding member of the Namibia Business Forum (NBF), Lazarus Jacobs together with his peers are now spearheading a campaign for the economy to be representative of the demographic make-up of the country.

Jacobs, Director and Co-founder of Paragon Investment Holdings (PTY) Ltd said the Namibia Business Forum was founded on the idea that Namibia has the majority of people with a minority stake in the economy.

“The forum will form an advocacy group to enhance the cause of black people to enter the national economy. It is in the national interest to start something like this in the economy. That’s how revolutions and coups are started. Namibia has the largest gap of ‘haves and have not,’ in the world,” he said.

The Namibia Business Forum was established to lobby government to create and pass laws that will benefit blacks and everyone at large. He cautions, “We (NBF) are not racists. If something special was done against us (colonialisation), something special should be done for us. Currently our economic structure has massive barriers of entry for a black person. It is very high. Blacks can’t even enter the mainstream economy.”

Jacobs says the NBF will challenge those that are against Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) arguing that those that resent the advent of blacks in the economy will be the first target once the revolution comes.

“My business partner and I enjoy success in our operations but we have realised how tough it is for blacks to do it, no matter how high you reach. We learnt it the hard way, now we have the idea of what the problem is. The problem is not colour. The problem is of a legislative nature. All black business people seem to agree that whites are not the problem; we have a problem with the legislation.

We have formulated recommendations for possible changes in legislation. Politicians that we vote for should make things easier for us through legislation not favours. Politicians are accountable to us, they are not businesspeople and neither are we politicians, so we will respect that. We know that their agenda is not ours, but we want to lobby them to be top priority on their agenda,” he argued.

Jacobs’ business partner, Desmond Amunyela, Monica Kalondo, Sidney Martin and John Walenga are some of the brains behind the Namibia Business Forum.

The forum says it does not want to antagonise government but will follow the right path in calling for BEE legislation. The lobby group is busy looking into the banking sector, among others, examining the barriers to starting a business for black Namibians, procurement policies within the public sector, and access to capital market for blacks.

This coming month, the advocacy group is expected to announce its intentions, officially.

“A lot of our work will be behind the scenes, but the results will be for everyone to see.”

According to Jacobs, it is imperative to note that although the NBF is mainly made up of successful business entrepreneurs, the forum is advocating for change in legislation which will benefit everyone in the country not the group’s personal businesses.

“We could have been selfish and done it on own our own by talking to these banks to change their perception and actions towards black Namibians. But our responsibility is no more the pockets of prosperity in a sea of poverty. It is national. The more blacks enter the economy, the bigger it will grow. Blacks are the largest population here. We are not chasing investors, instead we are attracting them. Investors will not like investing in war-torn countries like Somalia, but they will come to countries like Namibia where things are done legally and peacefully through organisations and advocacy groups.

Namibia does not have legislation that deals with the economic empowerment of blacks (BEE).
Successful implementation of BEE will mean economic growth and a vital element of enterprises’ strategy.

The BEE legislation will be supported in conjunction with various other forms of Legislation, including the Employment Equity Act, Skills Development Act, Preferential Procurement Framework and others.

Also expected to be tabled and lobbied for, are general guidelines and definitions, among which, the definition of the beneficiaries of BEE.

The legislation will be developed through numerous task teams and is expected to take years.

Jacobs argues that already millions of foreign currency is being lost in mining stating that there is no policy of how resources will benefit the country.

“Who is getting an Exclusive Prospecting License (EPL) and how much one gets depends on who you know in mining.

Uranium, gold, diamonds and other minerals are leaving the country en masse. Don’t blame the blacks in mining. There is a gap and people are exploiting it. If there is no referee in a match, everyone can score. In Angola you do not just get a mining concession. Few Namibians are benefiting from our natural resources mainly because of this legislative problem.

There is no reason for Namibians to be unemployed with all these resources. In Mauritius, 90% of that country is employed in tourism because that’s all they have.

They only have sand and the sea. And it has employed their 1.4million population. We have diamonds, uranium, and gold only for 2million people. With the ideas of the NBF, we can eradicate unemployment in our lifetime. We need government and business people to look at our areas of strength. It’s the corporatisation of Namibia, We should treat Namibia like a company, not today we want SME, the next day we want to be a manufacturing country, then tourism or mining at the same time. Vision 2030 has to translate to every Namibian.”

But the biggest challenge to the NBF has been the marketing of the philosophy. They already encountered resistance.

“When you deal with money issues; you deal with livelihood of people, so we expect some resistance. We also don’t believe that all blacks will support us. Smaller businesses that we want to include in this initiative are going to doubt us. But to convince them, we need results and results we shall give. It’s not want we do but what we get done.”

“We don’t want black elite,” says Lazarus Jacobs, adding, “We want an enabling environment to share the cake, which at the moment is not in our hands. The gap has become bigger over the years. The economy is not growing as we want it. The rich are getting richer and the blacks, poorer. All Namibians can have access to good health or education, when we have money. And to have money you need to have a good business. It’s all about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Martin Luther King Jnr said, ‘Everyman has a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but if he doesn’t have those, he merely exists.’ So it’s a human rights issue now. You cannot deny people a job or access to capital. We want to see the empowerment of the guy with a car wash, the guy with an upholstery firm in Katutura or a welding shop. The more people make money, the bigger the tax base, the bigger the tax base, the bigger the national development budget.”

He said there are some Ministers in support of the idea and want action to be taken for blacks to equally participate on the economic development cake. Politicians know that there can’t be peace and stability if people are hungry, says Jacobs.

One of the country’s most sought after comedians, Jacobs (40) hails from Grootfontein and has of late seen his comical theatrics be overridden by his business empire.

He completed his metric at Tamariskia High School in Swakpomund, worked as a clerk at the department of Water Affairs.

Jacobs once worked at the national broadcaster, NBC, in the mid ‘90s and was famed for producing popular television programmes such as ‘Talk of the Nation’, before moving to produce Youth Programmes on Rational Radio.

He was later offered a job by Minister of Finance as personal assistant, after which he worked as a public relations manager at the newly-established NamWater in 1996. While in a journey of stand-up comedy an opportunity to work for TWBA Hunt Lascaris Namibia came up and he joined as a shareholder and started working at the agency.

After two years, the former owner of TBWA, Tracey Eagles, decided to move to South Africa. Together with Desmond Amunyela, they bought out Tracey’s shares and became the majority shareholders in TBWA where they then started an outdoor advertising agency called Pomoja Media. Now with an advertising agency, and outdoor agency and hungry for more, the duo, sold their shares in Pomoja and bought The Windhoek Observer.

The whole Paragon Group now has a staff compliment nearing 80 now with five divisions which include Investments, Properties, Hospitality, Media and Corporate Services.

“The Group is picking up from global recession. The year started slow but it’s now starting to pick up. As you know banks are now very conservative on their lending, it’s as if you have to go on a lie-detector test to get funds.

The Group is praying for the reduction in interest rate to get breathing space.” he says.

There appears to be consensus that the global economy is emerging from the harsh conditions experienced in 2008 and 2009. With banks expecting interest rates to be, on average lower in 2010 than in 2009, companies like Paragon expect economic recovery. There is an ongoing process to evaluate risk appetite and the focus on operational efficiencies which started in 2009 coming into 2010.

“Desmond and I are perfectionists; we are never 100% happy with anything.”

The duo became the first blacks to own an independent newspaper in Namibia when they bought The Windhoek Observer.

“We started the Observer as a paper for every Namibian, Setting the Nation’s Agenda. We have now reached a brilliant position though we still face challenges in advertising. But the biggest challenge of them all is lack of skills in the journalism profession.”

Asked about the continued perceptions that The Windhoek Observer’s editorial is influenced by politicians and businessmen with close links to him personally, Jacobs responded: “It is true we are closely linked to some politicians. Before they were politicians, we were friends, and we were friends before the newspaper came. We did not think that now that we are newsmen, we stop our friendship.

We are Africans. Our friends are politicians by profession. We don’t hold a certain agenda. The only way to prove rumour wrong is to be true to ourselves. Take The Observer and question us. The Observer has always been true to its own editorial policy. Politicians don’t have money; we are not in their pockets. Some of our politician friends are even relatives, but none of them have come to us for a favor. There is zero-influence whatsoever in The Observer’s editorial policy. The newspaper even wrote a negative article about one of our subsidiaries. Which self-respecting editor will be remote-controlled? It makes me uncomfortable nowadays that some of my friends do not talk to me the way they used to be because they think I will have them written in my paper. No. I also only see the paper when it is out. I am being made to make enemies by default.”

Paragon’s next target is to be listed on the Namibia Stock Exchange (NSX). And having already been the first black owned company to start a marketing/advertising agency and also the first to operate on Air Namibia duty free, the sky is the limit.

“We pride in venturing into businesses where blacks dare not,” he says, adding, “that is why we are not into shebeen business.”

His first book, Shebeenomics is expected out later this July.

“It’s an economic and empowerment book. I am trying to share my own experience at Paragon and my business journey. It’s not comical as most people assume. It’s purely business and inspirational. I chose the name Shebeenomics because of the way my mother used to run her Shebeen. It’s those ethics of business that have brought me this far.”PF