Tom Mshindi: Tea with the PM is all right, but business wants action

In a week of dramatic ironies Prime Minister Raila Odinga rounded up a bunch of ministers, permanent secretaries, and parastatal chiefs to meet private sector business leaders and dubbed the event historic.

Actually it was not. It may be the PM’s first meeting, but private and public sector leaders have met before, many times. The irony is that Mr Odinga is making the same promise the Government has made time and again, and never delivered.

The other irony was the rather sudden – some say unceremonious – exit of Mr Abdallah Mwaruwa as the managing director of the Kenya Ports Authority, and the installation of Mr Brown Ondego as the executive chairman of the epileptic Rift Valley Railways (RVR).

Three years ago, Mr Mwaruwa replaced Mr Ondego at KPA, and except for the rather loud excitement of his arrival at the expense of someone many assumed would continue in office, there has been very little heard of Mr Mwaruwa.

The fact that port efficiency has not improved beyond where Mr Ondego left it and, unlike his predecessor, Mr Mwaruwa has not been very adept at managing the PR side of things to look like he was doing his best, the assumption is that he has performed poorly.

The opposite will be true for Mr Ondego who, having spent the past two years or so at Grain Bulk Handlers, has been handed the anaemic railways to babysit. The assumption is that one is a performer, the other not. True? Not necessarily.

Neither of the two gentlemen would have fixed the woes at the KPA without extraordinary support by the Government. The key difference is that Mr Ondego was able to articulate the challenges and opportunities of the KPA more effectively than Mr Mwaruwa was.

Thus, the former was able to win over public confidence and inspire them to share the vision of where he wanted KPA to go. And I have no doubt that this is where Mr Mwaruwa would have wanted the port to go.

Simply put, the port has currently reached the zenith of its physical capacity and process efficiency. It can barely take in any more cargo, and it can hardly move the cargo any faster. Its storage capacity at the Coast and at its inland container terminal is exhausted.

Of course an effective manager can conjure up a trick of two to extract even a 10 per cent better efficiency all round. But that is not what the business leaders that shared tea with Mr Odinga this week want. It is not enough either for the eastern African hinterland KPA serves.

The level of competitiveness required now sees the port doubling its handling capacity and efficiency within five years, an expansion of the port all the way from Makupa to the Likoni ferry, setting up a free port zone and running a 24-hour operation.

If I recall correctly, this was the vision we applauded three years ago and I am very sure that Mr Ondego did not walk out of the MD’s office with it.

If Mr Mwaruwa failed because he did not get the Government support essential to execute the revival and growth of the port, then Mr Ondego will perform only marginally in his new job because the railways network on which his success solely relies is in dire need of a $5 billion revival, the kind of money governments must guarantee.

Without this kind of investment, the railway infrastructure that President Yoweri Museveni calls a museum piece will only provide the kind of efficiency it did in the 1980s!

The point I am making is neither original nor novel, and Brown and Mwaruwa typify many other managers.

It is useful and expected that new chiefs like Mr Odinga still is, will want to be seen as focused and aggressive.

On this issue however, forgive us if we suppress a yawn. Regular round-tables are the last thing that business wants to deal with – especially if they are held to set agendas.
In business, agendas have long been set and shared with Government. I know, for I have been involved with the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, the Kenya Private Sector Association, the East African Business Summit, the East African Business Council, etc.

Ultimately, what business wants is competitiveness – make energy affordable, rationalise taxes, improve and maintain infrastructure, manage corruption, maintain peace and security, and then get out of the way.

Ironically, until this happens, no manager in private or public sectors, and no industry, will achieve the full glory of their potential.

And talking of ironies, not once in his written speech to business did the PM mention railways!

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