By Neo Kolane
The textile and apparel manufacturing industry remains Lesotho’s largest formal private sector employer in the country. Wages earned by workers in this industry are pertinent to raising the number of income earners in Lesotho.
Investment promotion agency, the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC), is therefore troubled by the downscaling of operations by key players which has resulted in considerable job losses.
In an endeavour to save these jobs, the corporation has engaged the companies that have downsized their operations through sizable layoffs. These companies have cited disruptions in the supply chain due to Covid-19 as the main driver behind downsizing.
A progressively deteriorating investment climate has also been named as a factor which affects business negatively.
The Corporation has initiated engagements with key stakeholders to jointly address issues that negatively impact on the investment climate. The Corporation has also resuscitated the Inter-Ministerial Task Team (IMTT), which is a high-level problem-solving forum led by the minister of trade and Industry to address investors’ grievances. The main objective of the IMTT is to facilitate collaboration with key stakeholders to improve the investment environment to restore investor confidence. The corporation has said it is exploring ways to preserve and generate more jobs.
Saving existing jobs is as equally important, if not more important to LNDC than creating new ones, particularly under these strained economic conditions. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Lesotho has made a significant contribution to job creation in the country. However, looking after the welfare of existing investors to ensure that they thrive and create additional jobs for Basotho as reflected in the Corporations mandate remains a key priority for LNDC.
theReporter’s Neo Kolane interacted with managing director and founder of Afri-expo textiles Teboho Kobeli who gave us an insight of the textile industry.
Who is Teboho Kobeli?
Teboho Kobeli is a 100 percent Mosotho, middle aged man who originates in Mokhotlong. I attended primary in Mokhotlong and St. Bernadette in Maseru then went to ‘Mabathoana High School, later I went to Lerotholi Polytechnic where I did a Maths and Science pre-entry course.
From there I went to Lesotho Flour Mills as a milling trainee so I spent 13 years there where I left the company as the head miller. I was head of the milling department when I left in 1999.
When I left my first and last employment, I came direct to business and my whole idea was to start my own milling company but due to the 1998 riots, the economy of Lesotho just collapsed and I made a decision to leave employment in 1999 January.
My first choice because I had a number of things to do was to start my own mill, second was to get into the retail business because I was clear I wanted to do something I like which is a business I enjoy.
I went for my second alternative, I pursued it and my opportunity was that most businesses got burnt down, everyone had to start from scratch.
I ran a very success retail business where I was specialising on PPE (personal protective equipment) called Batlokoa Holdings trading as Kobeli business.
In 2005, I opened another business called KBS Global Sourcing in China that is where I learnt that most of the things we are doing here. I was buying a lot of stuff made in China. I decided to go to China where I was sourcing for South Africa, Botswana, Ethiopia and Swaziland (now eSwatini).
I saw that Lesotho is big in textile and we are exporting to America but the whole business is Chinese-run.
Instead of seeing an opportunity, I got worried about the time bomb I saw us siting on it as Basotho that the second largest employer in our country is the foreign direct investment who has nothing in Lesotho except the factories built by the Lesotho government which they live in.
They are not contributing or building anything in Lesotho except for providing minimum wage for our Basotho vulnerable people.
I approached Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC) that I want to get into business but I was struggling because of not being provided a factory shell.
I was rejected by LNDC officials saying it is labour intensive.
Tell us more about your company Afri Expo Textile; where are its major markets?
Afri Expo textile is a garment manufacturing factory, we do all types of clothing but we specialize in denim wear and work wear and some of the PPEs.
It is situated at Tikoe Industrial, currently employing 510 people.
Our major market is South African chain stores. We do sub contract to some USA market but it is under rare intentions.
How does the manufacturing sector compare to other sectors in terms of contributing to the country’s GDP?
Textile industry can be called a backbone of the economy of our country. The reason for that is textile industry can employ more people in a small space. In a 2000 square meter small factory shell which does not have a laundry facility, water waste treatment plant, we have got 500 people.
Even if you have farming, you need a big land for 500 people.
That means if we can expand on this business, it employs a lot of people who get disposable income and they have buying power then money circulates then the economy grows.
What is important about this industry is that it brings foreign currency into the economy.
What is your take on shutting down of firms in the country?
It is very unfortunate but I saw it coming way back even before I can start this business, that Chinese one day will pack and go.
The fact of the matter is how we prepare ourselves as the nation.
The good news is that LNDC’S CEO has it as a priority to have the textile manufacturing industry to be localised. What is necessary is for the government to support him.
Should foreigners be the only ones with firms in the country?
Not at all. It is a big mistake. When a foreign company comes in the country, we should have policies in place which prepare the locals to take over when that foreigner leaves the country.
Regardless of the industry, we should work on a clear policy of the succession plan because that foreign direct investor comes with a clear plan to come and make money.
We also make money for the economy; we do not want the foreign direct investor to come here and create employment and then in the middle of nowhere when they have enough money or difficulties they leave our people.
Like that, it is very dangerous. We need to put our policies in place so much that any foreign direct investor who leaves the country, the locals hold on the reigns.
We need foreign direct investors for new things to come into our country but we need to learn and take over, whether the private investor wants to stay longer, its ok but we need to make sure it is going to sustain beyond that.
Would you say Basotho are too dependent on foreign-owned factories?
Yes, we are, and doing nothing. The problem is that we have been depending on them for as long as we got independence as a country.
We do not develop policies for whatever that comes into the country.
We should train entrepreneurs and make them similar to Sam Matekane who grows into Lesotho and invest into other countries.
The government with its institutions and ministries and departments must come in handy to mobilize Basotho to understand what is going on, so much that when someone goes to school abroad they know what is happening in their own country.
So that they learn something that will help and equip them to deal with such instances of investing in other countries.
Youth unemployment has been described as a ticking time bomb, what is your take on that?
I think for me it is like a slogan! I have been saying many times that we are living in a very dangerous situation whereby our young people with all the strength do not have employment. That means us as the adults and as the government and as institutions we are not doing enough to make sure that we create opportunities for the youth.
Because we are working in silos, and not working together, because if we could work together we would create opportunities either in agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, sports, you name them all.
We must come up with something for the youth in the near future.
Government has been accused of a half-hearted approach to addressing youth unemployment, do you agree and why?
Yes, I agree with that because the government’s main business is to level the ground and not create employment. So that the private sector can create opportunities.
The problem is fragmentation. As far as my sector which is textile industry is concerned which is the answer to the immediate problem being unemployment.
How can more Basotho firms contribute to youth unemployment?
If we get the collaboration with the government and LNDC is supported with its initiative to localise then we could have more Basotho. More Basotho are ready, they need to be trained.
Unless we sit together with government and then discuss unemployment and the economy of the country, because when people are working, they will not bother the government.
The government will do its work to make sure that the roads are made, health sector is ok, and so on and so forth.
Asian-owned textile factories benefit more from AGOA than Basotho. How can Basotho take control of textile factory so that Basotho benefit more from AGOA than Asia?
I agree with the statement. Sometimes they term it Asian growth or China growth because it is not growing us but if it can, I cannot say 100 percent of it comes to Basotho.
Unfortunately this is a foreign industry, a foreign technology, it needs government support.
Those Chinese going all over the world looking for opportunities, they are being supported by their government.
If there is more participation of Basotho in this industry Lesotho will be different. Those people with their profits will develop the country and create opportunities in the country.