Last week I was on route on the UL 227 to address a global forum on tea that was staged in Dubai. As soon as the aircraft was airborne and gaining height, I could see the contour of Sri Lanka taking shape.
My mind went back to the time when I had to travel almost on a weekly basis to Jaffna on military aircraft to develop the private sector businesses in Jaffna during the height of the final battle. From 34 companies that were operating in Jaffna in the 1990s, we were able to harness the real potential of the peninsula where by the end mid 2009 there were over 150 private sector companies in operation either directly or through indirect methods of distribution.
But even with all this work amidst a war with one of the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world, if one googled brand Sri Lanka, the reports were not that encouraging.
Googling in March 2009
The Googled information that surfaced were the bombings in the Wanni and the alleged civilian casualties, the human shields that were being used by the LTTE, political instability in the country, the downturn of business in the private sector, the continuous fall of the stock market, the ballooning budget deficit that was at double digits and the fear psychosis that was gripping the city that resulted in the low tourist arrival into the country. Things were pretty negative at that time.
Today if one Googles Sri Lanka, the data we see on our computer screen is quite different. The ratification of the Free Trade Agreement with Asia Pacific, a bid to host the 2018 Common Wealth Games, Indian star Vivek Oberoi doing a film in Sri Lanka, the stock market being ranked as the best in the world, American business delegation discussing business, weekly conferences by almost all chartered associations attracting the cream of talent like the great Sally Darwie of the British Olympic bid team, oversubscribed bond issue of the Central Bank, many companies wanting to launch IPOs and to cap it private sector profits growing by 284% whilst tourism arrivals are booming at an all-time high.
Whilst these can be the positive reports emanating just like any country in the world, be it China, India, Thailand, South Africa, Vietnam or Russia, there are bound to be some negative reports.
In the case of Sri Lanka, the Googled information pieces are the Army General in prison, agitation by university students, opposition crying out on the emerging dictatorial rule and the fall of trade pacts such as GSP+ due to human rights issues. In my view this is what adds colour to brand Sri Lanka, even though it can be unpleasant in reality.
Googling in December 2011
On the other hand, if one were to Google Sri Lanka on 31 December 2011 (end of next year), what will we like to see? The following can be some of that data that should be showcased:
1. Doing business – Top 50 country
We must see reports where Sri Lanka is ranked as a top 50 country on the ‘Doing Business Index’ from the current 105th position. We must get strong ranking on attributes like paying taxes from the current 62 payments per year to just one payment just like Malaysia; the total tax as a percentage of the revenue from the current staggering 64% should be brought to an equitable level that is acceptable to an investor; the ranking on enforcing of contracts from the current 1,318 days to around 321 as it is in Luxemburg; time taken to register a property from 83 days to two days like in Saudi Arabia; and getting construction permits from the current 214 days to 67 days, which is the case in China.
If these strategic reforms are not done and announced to the world, we not be able to attract the global companies to invest in Sri Lanka even after the hard-earned war from the LTTE is my view.
2. Lending rates – Hotels
The cost of finance must be at a competitive rate to the hospitality industry even with an Average Room Rate (ARR) at 150 dollars from the current 82, so that a typical investment can be financially attractive. As at now constructing a five star room ranges around Rs. 18-20 million and unless the ARR is at around US$ 250, the return will not be attractive on a time scale of eight-10 years.
By 2015 we must target 15% of the country’s employment levels to be consumed by this industry. This will enable the country to achieve zero poverty level. This is the kind of data that I would like to see by end December 2011 when I Google Sri Lanka.
3. Exports – 10 billion
There must be a report that Sri Lanka’s exports industry has crossed the US$ 10 billion barrier. The focused industries that may be featured might be the software sector, tea, apparel and rubber just to name a few. Whilst focusing on the SME sector, for a quick win large organisations will have to be targeted for support so that we cross the magical mark, which means that the Googled data will have interviews of the industry captains to give credibility to brand Sri Lanka.
4. Atchuweli – A reality
By end December 2011, there has to be something very significant from an economic sense in Jaffna. The Atchuweli Industrial Zone being featured will propel the overall attitude to business in the conflict-driven marginalised business sector of Jaffna for a typical viewer. This must not be confined to the four apparel companies, but also target the 43 SMEs which want to enter the mainstream business of Sri Lanka. This will give a positive rub off to the Diaspora that keeps attacking Sri Lanka.
5. PPP – Infrastructure
It will do a world of good if we can have some large conglomerates featured on news reports on successful partnerships with the Government on infrastructure development. This could be the Kalpitya tourism development project on waste management, Kuchchaveli or the Pasikudah hotel development projects where water systems are required, to just name a few.
6. People ownership
We have to accept that governments around the world have not been successful in driving business. We must ensure that at least the key industries such as LPG gas and SriLankan Airlines are up and running by end December 2011 so that we give the give the correct vibes globally when Sri Lanka is Googled.
7. Tea – Lease
The first privatisation asset of the country was the plantations sector. A colossal 1.5 billion loss-making industry has been made viable by the strong leadership of the private sector. One of the key recommendations of the 10-man committee appointed by the President in 2008 was to increase the lease period to cover two cycles of bush life, hence to 66 years. By 2011 December this recommendation must have hit the market place and it must be on all websites around the world so that Sri Lanka is featured as a country that is serious about developing the agricultural sector, which is linked to lower earning households of Sri Lanka.
8. SMEs – New policy
Let’s accept it; the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy is the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). It is paramount that we have the new SME policy activated by the end of 2011 so that we can unleash the true potential of the country. The good news is that the white paper is ready and it should be firmed up and linked to the developmental agenda of the industrial estates so that Sri Lanka will be seen as a model country in the development drive of the SME sector. This will further strengthen the ‘Mahinda Chinthana – Idiri Dekma’.
In the recent past, many of us have been involved in forums on sketching out the ‘hub status’ on different sectors. At least by end of next year it’s important that one of them takes shape in form or structure so that we visually demonstrate a key identity for a Sri Lanka. May be it can be the naval hub with the development of the Hambantota Harbour.
10. APTA – Link to the world
Putting into operation the Asia Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA) by the end of next year must be a high priority task so that it becomes the vehicle that tells the world that Sri Lanka is bridging the linkages to the rest of the world.
This can be a demonstrable action so that the rest such as EU can follow suit, which will hit the global websites of the world.
The above are only some of the initiatives I am personally exposed to that I believe must be on the computer screen when Sri Lanka is Googled, but in a macro sense there can be many initiatives more relevant than the above.
We now need to ensure real actions hit the market place rather than just press releases so that Googling Sri Lanka becomes a learning experience rather than a chore
From the vibes I got from a cross section of countries at the ‘Dubai Conference,’ it was very clear that Sri Lanka is taken seriously now. In fact I was proud to be Sri Lankan. Now the challenge is making this benefit the common man on the streets of Sri Lanka.
(The thoughts expressed by the author are purely his own views and is not reflective of the office he holds in the public, private or international civil service.)