“Economic Prosperity Cannot Be Achieved Without the Investment of Citizens,” President Isaias Afwerki
It is to be recalled that President Isaias Afwerki conducted an extensive interview on the occasion of New Year with national media outlets on 28th and 29th of December 2012. The interview focused on national development programs, political and diplomatic developments in the Horn and Eritrea’s stance and outlook on different scenarios as well as other local, regional and global issues. Fifth part of Excerpts of the interview follows:
Your Excellency, the profitability of agricultural produce depends on the ability to process and add value to them. So what is the national plan with regards to developing our agro-industries, and how is it being carried out?
The fundamental problem of developing countries is that their export is mainly raw materials, which leads to more harm than benefit. In any agricultural project, we can take for example wheat, processing the produce is of the essence. Or else any investment in this field will be in-vain. For instances we can compare the examples of Eritrea where only two tons per hectare is harvested with that of the United States where it is twelve tons per the same amount of area. So the question is how we can reach to this level. There is a lot we can consider in this regard. We can think about producing energy out of rotten food products. We can also search for numerous alternatives to meet our basic needs. We can, for example, talk about processing vegetables and fruits, or cash crops like sugarcane and cotton. Similarly we can think about replacing the direct export of animal resources to processing their bi-products. We can also say the same thing bout our fish reserves.
Food and agricultural product processing should be an integral part of our food security strategy. True, we haven’t yet reached to a point where we can employ modern technologies to enhance the maximum exploitation of our natural resources. If we can be able to use our water resource through modern irrigation system we can start producing up to 3 times a year instead of just once. The point of most concern here is therefore, how to effectively use these natural resources that we have. We are living in the 21st century, which means that to increase our productivity, using modern technologies is not an option. Especially when you consider that we have limited resources compared to other African countries. However, if we follow through and carryout these policies, we can guarantee a sustainable development in our agricultural sector to ensure food security and still be able to export.
It is generally believed that Eritrea’s big marine resource can extend further than meeting domestic demand and can be exported. It is also said to have a potential with regards to creating huge employment opportunity to citizens. Is there any plan to involve domestic and foreign investment in order to ensure the sector’s contribution in food security, employment, and raising national income?
Considering its potentials, this sector hasn’t progressed as desired. It might have had its ups and downs but by and large we can say that we haven’t even exploited 10% of this resource’s potential in the past years. The issue here is not about domestic or foreign demand, because if you don’t have the ability to exploit this resource you cannot talk about it in the real sense of a reserved resource. Therefore, what we have lost in this sector in the past twenty years is not small. May be we can say that there were no capacity or experience in the field in the first stages of independence. However, for the past ten years it has been one of the programs we haven’t registered much progress in. All the necessary facilities as well as qualified man power should first be guaranteed. For this purpose jetties were constructed in Idi, Gelalo, Tio, but it can hardly be considered as full-fledged infrastructure. The same can be said of Assab and Massawa. The small jetties across the coastal areas are not suited for a large scale fishing activities. If the potential is to be exploited in its full scale there should be enough modern technological capacity; the lack of which was the reason we couldn’t utilize this resource as we should. There were small attempts like procuring fishing boats and training our man power, but all in all our capacity has been limited. The alternative therefore is to gradually build our capacity through the provision of the necessary infrastructures like enough energy, fridges, ports, and so on. We should also aim towards exporting processed and canned fish instead of just exporting it raw. This will add values to our produce.
In our attempt of gradual capacity building we have tried to involve foreign investment and work with foreign companies, but it couldn’t progress as needed. We have neither benefited from this joint venture nor developed our capacity; we are somewhere in the middle. Suffice to say that this sector is in a worrying stage and requires our utmost attention. There is a seasonal supply. However, we can’t make huge investment aiming solely for domestic market unless we can exploit the resource to the maximum. If we are to talk of real growth in this sector, we should think in terms of how long it will take us to reach from 5% utilization of this resource to 10%, and then 20%, 30%, 40% all the way up to 100%. Then we should think about what we should do to reach to this level. We cannot say that we have gained anything significance in this sector in the past 20 year. Let’s just say that this sector is an area towards which a lot need to be done as we haven’t been able to exploit it.
There have been many investments towards the exploitation of Eritrea’s mineral resources, and some have reached the level of production. What can you tell us about the potential role this sector can play in rendering economic growth and enhancing other development plans?
I have always had reservation on this issue. The reality is that until now the projects that have reached the level of production are not that many. If there are projects worth billions of Nakfa in the sector in general and if it can be used properly it would have a big role in the overall development program of the country. I don’t think it is beneficial to rely much on the much talked about projects like Bisha. We have to know that this resource is not limitless. In the end we have to think about how to build our capacity so that we are able to exploit this resource ourselves. How can we use these projects? I don’t want to provide an exaggerated level of growth just to raise the morale of citizens. All our hope should not be limited to this resource, and we should have patience. This project is just a supplement to our endeavors towards a sustainable development; hence our attention should not be limited to it. Our mineral resources and its overall potential have a value much larger than other resources we have. Its role in our development program is not also something to be taken lightly. However, we should not feel comfortable merely for this fact. We should know what sustainable development requires. I don’t want to talk about detail information about numbers, but the most important thing is the awareness that has been created about development.
Mr. President, you have mentioned earlier that improving productivity and administration capacity are among the decisive criteria of development. But there is a growing concern that administration capacity hasn’t been catching up with the development works that have been done and are in plan to be carried out. What plans have therefore been made to improve administration capacity with respect to accuracy, organization, and institutionalization? As it is as decisive as economic development, what plans are there regarding political work?
You hear a lot of things and it is understandable why people are sometimes concerned. We can’t of course be preoccupied by petty and trivial talks. I am not saying that there are no administration problems; but we need to bear in mind that administration is something dynamic. It is not about oratory. As mentioned earlier quality and quantity of human resource is fundamental to economic development. But one needs to know about each areas of field that person talks about before criticizing and belittling based on superficial knowledge and information. Administration needs capabilities of all kind and especially the necessary human resource that have to be cultivated in every sector and field. Human resource has to prove its productivity in every sector, field, or project. Although there is no doubt that there are weaknesses in administration, a lot of the criticisms are baseless and hence I am not that much concerned about them. The main thing here is the understanding of our capacity of accomplishment in the different development program at hand. We should evaluate this capacity in terms of the resources we have in machineries, different technologies, raw materials, and natural resources in order to make them worthwhile. The effectiveness of this capacity should also take time factor in to consideration. Instead of just talking and criticizing indiscriminately we need to be specific and factual. It is more helpful if we identify areas of weakness and suggest remedies. Shortage of man power in quality and quantity is another big challenge. The solution therefore should be fundamental, and it demands time to address it.
With regards to the political work you mentioned, the organization and effectiveness of PFDJ should be enhanced. I don’t want to go to details, but its strength is an essential factor. By evaluating our past experience and current situation, as well as with thorough study of expected challenges and opportunities this political force, which is the back bone of the nation, should strengthen its organization. It doesn’t mean there is no weakness, so figuring our ways of improvement through sober evaluation needs serious work. It is not something we can save for later. We cannot talk about anything else unless we accomplish this task first.
It is a common knowledge that nation building is not an easy task and that it demands patience and sacrifice especially when it is carried out with limited resources. What can you say about the cultures and values that need to be cultivated in order to achieve our goals in this respect?
It is not a philosophical issue. The power of this country is the result of a long and arduous struggle and experience. This struggle is not only of war. We have gone through stages to achieve this. The challenges this people have been able to overcome is not only the colonization by Ethiopia, but also by the United States and Soviet Union. How could we withstand these challenges? What are the values cultivated and what about the experiences and benefits of the 30 years of struggle? Our existence is intertwined with these values and we are part of this experience. We can’t just do away with these values and experiences just because we are in a new stage and new world. It is not practical and it won’t be allowed. As far as economic development is concerned, the power of this people emanates from the values it has developed over half a century. I would like to answer to those who think we can import values from elsewhere that it is a lost cause. It should be made clear that there are no alternative values we need in the development plans we are engaged in at the moment. The people are well aware of its values, its history, its prospects, and the guarantee to its development program. The Front in and of itself is a value that comes before anything else in this country. The Front and the people cannot be separated, and the existence of the nation cannot be seen in separation to this fact. Here we are talking about values and heritages that are built on a long struggle for liberation and independence. So the only point should be how to strengthen and organize the capacity of the Front. As to how and when, we can evaluate and study the experience of the past 10 or 20 years. As long as our main aim is building the nation and ensuring sustainable economic development, we need to make a meticulous study and evaluation of our current situation; how to overcome our challenges and utilize the opportunities which are ahead of us.