Despite its multifarious trade and industry functions, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry has long had a negative public image, especially with members of the business community who generally perceive Commerce as a mere “rice and gas” Ministry whose core functions have been reduced to shutting down businesses. The Ministry has also faced criticism from the public for doing little or nothing to promote Liberianization. Axel Addy, the current Minister of Commerce and Industry, has opened up in a very frank exclusive interview with the Capitol Insider, explaining key domestic and global trade challenges and successes of his administration, as well as his vision and benchmarks set for promoting Liberian businesses.
Q: Welcome to The Capitol Insider magazine, Minister Axel Addy. We will like to start this exclusive interview by first asking: who is Axel Addy?
A: Thanks for inviting me to this interview. Well, I am a Liberian, born and raised with my Grandmother in Mamba Point, until I was seven years old. I attended Jane Levette Howard Elementary School in Mamba Point. I also attended Daniel E. Howard for a year or so and then Philips and Barnes School now called Philips Preparatory. From there, I went on to the Monrovia International School and continued on to J. J. Roberts United Methodist School. When the war started my family and I moved to the United States where I lived with my biological mother who was already in the United States. There, I attended a boarding school in Pennsylvania, at a place called Church Farm where I stayed for four years and graduated, then continued on to college. I started my undergraduate studies at St. George University, transferred to the University of California at Long Beach where I got a Bachelor Degree in Political Science with emphasis in Public Law. I continued my graduate studies at UCLA where I got a Masters in International Studies with emphasis in International Development. During my school days in the States, I had to do two to three jobs to pay my way to school because my parents had lost everything during the war. In 2006, I became the first Liberia Country Representative for Population Services International (PSI) -a global health, social marketing and behavior change communication organization. I had earlier worked for PSI in Washington DC and when I moved home, I was approached about starting the platform here. I am a new father. My daughter just turned one year old; she is named after me. I am married to Fatu Addy, a businesswoman who has been in business in Liberia since the late 80s. She is actually my toughest critic in terms of screening what we’re doing for Liberian businesses.
Q: You’ve been at the Commerce Ministry since 2012. What are some of the challenges and what can you say are benchmarks of what you have achieved since your ascendancy to this new job?
A: When I got appointed as Deputy Minister for Administration at Commerce Ministry, I brought along some of my NGO development discipline acquired during the eight years I worked in social marketing. My first task at Commerce Ministry was to embark on a journey called “rebranding Commerce”. Before taking on the job, I decided to talk to policymakers, business people and other stakeholders about how they perceived the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. From most of our conversations, I received a lot of negative vibes about the Ministry – that Commerce is in the pocket of business people; that the Ministry is unable or unwilling to protect the consumers; that it’s just a “rice and petroleum” ministry. On the other hand, I got to also understand that the public expects Commerce to tackle four main areas: prices in the market, substandard goods, Liberianization and BIVAC inspections. So when I came on board as Deputy Minister for Administration in 2012, I fought to understand how our miniscule budget of a little over USD two million worked in providing the necessary tools to allow Commerce ably execute its mandate. I was shocked to know that the bulk of the Ministry’s budget went primarily towards paying salaries and meeting operational overhead costs. Not much was being done to improve the business climate, providing incentives for SMEs, building the capacity of business institutions, and providing the right legal framework for businesses to thrive. We also discovered that we faced serious funding challenges. It was in this environment that we embarked on the journey to rebrand Commerce and corporatize the public institution. But first, we had to do some internal housekeeping.
And one of the first areas I tackled was HR (Human Resource) - getting Commerce employees to understand the Ministry’s mandate - by holding them more accountable to their job. Next, I focused on cleaning up our payroll. My first interesting experience at the Ministry in terms of payroll cleaning was discovering 27 ghost names on our payroll. I was shocked! How could we pay people months in, months out, that had died since three to four years? Despite such challenges, we managed to restructure our HR Department - in terms of developing staff job description; staff orientation manual, a general HR manual, and a comprehensive HR database. This assistance from USAID helped us immensely to overcome immediate HR challenges.
Wastage was another big issue at the Ministry when we took over. In fact, I became very unpopular because I instituted a tool called the “Procurement Requisition Form”. When I came here, there was a lot of indiscipline: people would go out there and take laptops; go on shopping spree at various stores, taking things from business houses on credit. Some would carry their cars for servicing and tell the mechanics to bill the government. I put an end to such wastage by ensuring everyone followed the new procurement process of the PRF, which meant every internal expenditure requisition must meet prior approval. And then we had to inform the business community about the process; that they should not honor any requests from Commerce without the approved forms. Of course, it saved us a lot of money. For the first time at Commerce, we paid “thirteen months bonuses” to our staff. It made a lot of people happy. It was a huge game changer.
Also, when I got promoted as Minister proper, we had to work on a lot of complaints from people unsatisfied with the unprofessional behavior of our inspectors. Our customers were saying that the inspectors screamed at them, fined them, and closed their businesses without prior notice. So we had to conduct workshops for our inspectors, educating them on how to properly conduct their assignments in a more professional manner. We hammered the fact that the Ministry should be more concerned about making businesses more compliant than closing them down. The scheme worked. We’ve been able to generate over a US$100,000 just by our inspectors following the new rules.
We’ve also been working on ensuing standardization. For example, the public had been telling us for a long time that they believe a lot of gas station pumps were being tinkered with to cheat customers. When we decided to develop a proper protocol to do gas station calibration, we received a lot of criticisms; but our effort at standardization in this regard is ensuring customer satisfaction.
Q: Let’s look deeper into your core mandate. As the Minister of Commerce, can you say you are effectively supported and positioned to deliver?
A: Generally, we have a good cooperation which has led to some of the successes we’ve had. The level of feedbacks, cooperation and coordination has improved how the Ministry operates. We’ve worked closely with the Ministry of Finance, the Liberia Revenue Authority, the National Investment Commission, and all of our different colleagues across the various sectors that have something to do with business in Liberia. From the business side, we’ve been working with the business people through special groups or committees. For example, we have started what is called the “Trade Facilitation Forum” whose membership includes various business associations such as brokers and policymakers that impact trade in Liberia. The TFC meets quarterly to tackle issues of monetary barriers. We also have the “Liberia Better Business Forum” which is another vehicle to bring the private sector and government together to tackle issues pertaining to the Doing Better Business climate. Through these avenues, we’ve improved our business registry, and eliminated some of the fees that got in the way of compliance. We’ve also created ad hoc committees that deal with specific business and trade issues as they arise. For instance, there is a working committee on petroleum that deals with gas station pump calibration. As soon as the public complains, we bring stakeholders on board to form committees, with specific mandates to tackle the challenges.
We generated close to US$10 million in technical assistance from our WTO (World Trade Organization) extension process to facilitating trade to capacity development, as well as technical assistance to train our staff abroad, and to train and empower small business enterprises (SME) in Liberia. Of course, our SME program is one of the areas that I have a soft spot for because the numbers show that a huge percentage of our people operate in the informal sector as SMEs. These are the people that create jobs.
Q: In terms of promoting small businesses, where does the Ministry stand?
A: SMEs account for over 80 per cent of all business transactions in West Africa. That’s a lot of money that’s operating in the informal sector, accounting for over 200 million people, mostly young people, in West Africa. We’ve ensured passage of the Small Business Act (SBA). In 2013, we held our first SME conference that brought together policymakers, financiers, business incubators, entrepreneurs all under the same roof for about two days. There, we showcased made in Liberia products. That interaction led to over US$600,000 investment for SMEs. Last, year we did the same thing- the SMEs conference focused on agriculture; promoting Made in Liberia agricultural processing. Through that experience, we had several donors that are now investing in SMEs.
How a nation consumes can either empower or disempower its citizens. I remember talking to one of my colleagues from a stakeholder agency about “Eat your pride”. It’s a concept I’ve evolved at the Ministry, similar to our Wear Your Pride Campaign. “Eat your pride” promotes us to eat what we grow, especially our Liberian country rice. But this particular colleague was totally against the idea. “From the time I knew myself, I’ve been eating my pussawa rice, then you’re talking about we must change it?” So how do we change the typical Liberian mindset towards wealth creation and consumption of locally produced commodities? When government is nationalistic in its consumption, it creates wealth among its citizens. When citizens are nationalist in their consumption, it creates wealth among the citizens. I always give the example of the Ghanaians: a Ghanaian will come to a shop and she/he walks in that store and speaks Twi and if one doesn’t respond in the local language, they’ll keep moving to the next store. We need to be able to translate that sort of nationalism to empower our people. Look on the street, you’ll see people are suffering; people are struggling to survive. Most people will opt for a job than a free offer, because there is dignity in labor. You see an appetite for work from the way you see these guys who do the “push-push”, pushing these huge containers of water up these hills. If they want to be around begging people, they would have done so. But the fact that they put in their time and energy to push water around the city, to customers, means there is an appetite for our people to be entrepreneurs. The key now is how we translate that entrepreneur appetite into a productive appetite instead of consumption base appetite. We consume a lot but we don’t produce a lot. And that is the challenge even in agriculture. Everything we eat is imported. So we’re just a trading hub. Some of the things that can be produced here we import and even when it is being produced here, we don’t value it the same way we value the imported ones. Like the other day, somebody was condemning Liberian made water. So I said if I had the authority, I would just re-label some of the foreign water and mix it with the Liberian as an experiment to see whether anyone will notice the difference. There is a perception that everything from outside is better than what is in Liberia. But sometimes, the problem has to do basically with how we brand and market our locally made products. We’re now working with SMEs, showing them marketing techniques.
Q: Lastly Minister Addy, how do you want to be remembered long after your stint as a minister of Commerce and Industry?
A: Well, when I started three years ago, I wanted to change people’s perception of what the Ministry of Commerce is. All along, I’ve refused to be known as the “Rice and Gas Minister”; that the mandate of the Ministry of Commerce is much larger than rice and petroleum. And so, I have never made it my priority to get fixated on rice and petroleum. We manage those sectors, we published the information and we let it run its course but we would want to be known for policies, strategies that are going to empower Liberians. We want to create an environment where business can thrive, where foreigners can come here and invest, and their investment can be secured; where they can forge partnership with Liberians and we can see their business grow. In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether the business is a foreign or a Liberian owned business. Ultimately, they create jobs for Liberians. So, I see my success in terms of how many new jobs we are creating. I have a number in my head. I’d like to create ten thousand jobs per year. I tracked that figure based on the number of factories that are coming up; by the number of SMEs that are growing to create more jobs for our people; by the number of people that we are training. Currently, we have a project at BWI called the “Kumatsu Training Center” where we’re training young people to operate heavy machinery because there is a huge deficiency in terms of capacity within that sector. A lot of those young people will graduate and automatically get jobs. We want to see how best we create an environment where business can thrive. When business thrives, we create more jobs; we reduce the number of people that are living under the poverty line, and, ultimately, we achieve socioeconomic transformation. If I can help in even the most modest way to achieve this, my time at Commerce would have been well spent.
Culled from The Capitol Insider Magazine