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Botswana's new 30-year-old minister unlocking private sector growth and investment

By Daniel Finnan

Botswana’s new president unveiled his cabinet at the start of April and named a 30-year-old woman as his minister of investment, trade and industry. Bogolo Kenewendo is said to be Botswana’s youngest ever government minister and boasts an impressive CV, having taken part in Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative and obtained a master’s degree in economics. Social media users welcomed her appointment, heralding it as an example of the potential of young Africans on a continent with a number of older, veteran leaders. Global Focus spoke to Kenewendo about her new government portfolio and what has inspired her in achieving so much in such a short time…

How does it feel to be appointed a government minister at 30 years old?

I am honoured, I am ecstatic and humbled by the trust that his Excellency President Masisi has bestowed upon me. Also truly honoured by the support and the congratulations and best wishes that I have received from the entire public in Botswana and across the globe.

Q&A: Bogolo Kenewendo

What are your main priorities as the new minister of investment, trade and industry?

Really, my job is to support the president’s priorities. He outlined in his inauguration speech that he is looking to create jobs, he is looking to grow, to have private sector development. We are looking at inclusive growth, this is something that my ministry will be working really hard at. Also in promoting investor attraction because over the years we’ve had a lot of competition from other countries. So we’ll be working on our Doing Business agenda and the reforms agenda as well, and we will be looking at more cooperation with the private sector to ensure that there is a conducive environment for private sector growth. Then looking at the development of local industry to ensure that Motswana are also quite active in the Botswana economy. Last but really not least, to ensure that Botswana continues to be that beacon of growth and hope on the African continent.

There’s been a lot said about the need to diversify Botswana’s economy away from the diamond trade. How do you think that can be done?

Diversification indeed has been a word that’s been on the tip of the tongue for many years. The challenge has been that the government has been trying to be at the forefront of diversifying the economy. I believe that it is our partners, the private sector, that should be at the forefront of diversifying the economy while we ensure that we are playing our role of facilitating business and not being in the business of doing business. We need to ensure that it’s not only a doing business environment where we talk about regulations that are conducive, but also that there is a good environment for investments. That we are able to help unlock those opportunities that exist in the domestic capital markets, but also in the international markets as well. The great challenge – and one thing that I should note – is that we’re no longer looking at diversifying away from minerals or away from diamonds. This is diversifying in and out of minerals. So we want to develop the value chain in diamonds, we want to talk about beneficiation. That applies to several other minerals that we have and beyond that into more industry and service-related industries.

You spent time working in the private sector as a consultant. Why did you decide to go into government?

I used to be quite frustrated in the private sector thinking that things were not moving from where we stood. When the opportunity came for me to join government, I thought this is an opportunity I should grab and work on the other side of the fence. To see if I can’t help to bring the private sector closer and deal with some of the issues that I used to advocate for. I used to be quite a strong private sector development advocate when I worked at Econsult Botswana and those are some of the issues that I’ll continue to look at as the minister of trade. And beyond that are still within the mandate that the president has set out.

What did you learn in Ghana? Because you spent two years there on a scheme working at the ministry of trade and industry.

I learnt so much in the ministry of trade and industry in Ghana. It was a really good introduction to how governments work. It gave me an opportunity to look at how deals are made intra-government and how you can bring the private sector in through support from development partners. Those are just some of the things I think will help me in this new role. It was really a good learning opportunity and I think will catapult me further in this new role.

What sort of message does your appointment send to young people across the African continent? Because there’s often lots of commentary about the age of African leaders.

It is really quite straightforward. Age doesn’t matter if there is trust and belief in your capabilities. Also what I want to share with the young people is – if you dream it, you believe it and you put your hard work into it, it will eventually materialise. We just have to keep opening those doors of opportunity that sometimes seem locked and you just have to keep pushing, eventually something will happen. But most importantly, I think it's the general leadership of the continent, just to say, the young people are here. We have to tap into the demographic dividend. We have to tap into our young people because we are educated and we are willing to serve our country. We are willing to see our countries to that new dawn that everyone has been talking about. When our leaders in the 1950s were talking about political independence, they were our age. They were not 80 or 90, they were our age, they were 26, 28, 30, 32 and they managed to bring the change that the continent needed. Now, our challenge, our greatest challenge is bringing economic freedom and economic independence. I think it has to come in the same manner from a younger generation that is more innovative that works with those that are seasoned and have the wisdom in existing structures. To really forge a path that will bring us into, or take us out of this transitory period from developing countries to developed countries.

You took part in Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. How did this contribute to the development of your career?

I take that as one of the dots that have contributed to the picture that is my life at the moment. It gave me a valuable experience, it gave me great networks across the continent, which I still use at the moment. That and being a Chevening scholar and Commonwealth Summer School student – all of those programmes, they really helped, not just for professional development, but for personal development as well.

Does it make any difference that you were actually appointed as an MP and haven’t been elected by the people as of yet?

No, it hasn’t made any great difference in how I contribute in parliament. I have an equal vote and I can contribute as actively as any elected member. The only thing is I don’t have a constituency and the way I’ve looked at it is I have the greater Botswana to serve as constituency. I’ve been focusing on youth issues, I’ve been focusing on women’s issues, I’ve been focusing on the private sector. This has allowed me to work on some of the things I’m most passionate about.

You studied for a Masters in International Economics abroad. Do you think you would have gotten where you are today had you stayed in Botswana?

Certainly, because I did my primary education, my junior education and my senior education in Botswana and in public schools. So I’m a public school product and I’m very proud of that. I believe that the basic education I received here is actually the reason why I managed to get into the University of Sussex.

What advice would you have for other youngsters who are looking to get ahead in their careers?

If you dream it, if you keep believing in it and if you put the hard work into it then it will materialise. Do not give up. It’s very important that you keep forging forward because we need you for the new dawn.

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