Benjamin Gasamagera, who was last month elected as Chairman of the Private Sector Federation (PSF) has committed to building a strong and more focused private sector that will help drive the country’s economic growth by the end of his three-year term.
Benjamin Gasamagera, proprietor of the Kicukiro based Safari Centre was last month elected into his first full three-year term as Chairman of the Private Sector Federation (PSF). Gasamagera had come in as a replacement after the resignation of former leader, Faustin Mbundu, in June 2013. He talked to The New Times Kenneth Agutamba. Below are excerpts.
The last time I came to this office, you had just won your first term, replacing the former chairman, Faustin Mbundu. You have now won your first full term. Tell me about your first experience as Chairman?
Although I had spent almost six years serving in lower leadership positions in the private sector, my first term was a bit challenging but passionate as well. Having started off as the first chairman of the young entrepreneurs, I went on to become the chairman of the chamber of the industry in 2011 before being elected Chairman in June 2013, so I thought I knew it all.
But I later realised that being chairman of the entire private sector is like swimming in the deeper end of a swimming pool, quite different from the two chambers I had served in before; it’s a 24-hour job.
Like the country, Rwanda’s private sector is growing at a very fast rate and as Chairman, one has to measure up to the task because the expectations are high; you have to be alert to the changing dynamics nationally, regionally and globally in order to guide members.
Initially, the role was overwhelming but you get used as time goes by and I must say I am happy for the opportunity to serve my country in this role. It is a great experience that has given me a wider perspective of our private sector through regular interaction with various stakeholders at national, regional and international level.
You said being Chairman is a 24-hour job; one wonders how you balance the job with running your own company?
I was lucky, before I was elected as the chairman we had organised our company (Safari Centre) so that I could get some free time to focus more on the strategy rather than direct running of the firm.
Actually, as Chairman of the private sector, my role is more or less similar as the one I play for the company which is to develop strategy and provide oversight leadership. Therefore, the day-to-day management of my company is no longer demanding.
However, serving as Chairman also requires one to be passionate about servant leadership and will to contribute towards national development in any capacity and all it takes is for one to be flexible and adapt then deliver; and once you deliver, you get hungry for more challenges.
What does it take to serve in such an important role in a fast transforming economy like Rwanda?
Passion is all that you need. As the chairman of the private sector you are the eye, ear and the heart of the federation and you need passion to serve the federation and the country as a whole.
I remember when I returned to start my company, it was like a dream come true but the desire for our country to rejuvenate after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi required one to have the passion for nation building and be part of a rebirth of a nation.
The beauty is that there’s a shared vision being implemented by the government, a vision shared by all Rwandans and the leaders have put in place the right environment that allows the business to prosper and this makes my job easier.
Even when faced with challenges, one gets satisfaction from the fact that by serving, one is playing a central role in transforming the nation.
After what happened to our country, it’s reassuring to see that after the liberation, the government has made security a priority which provides the much needed stability to allow private enterprise and sustainable growth of those enterprises.
With assured security, the next responsibility is to administer the country through an organised system but one must feed the people and who feeds the people? It’s the private sector.
I always tell people that they need to be well fed and that’s our role as the private sector, we must produce to feed the nation.
What challenges did you encounter on opening the door to the chairman’s office?
The challenge I faced the day I assumed office are the same challenges I face today. As a country and private sector, we have set ourselves high ambitions and we are already somewhere as a result of our efforts but there’s also where we want to be.
Therefore, the challenge is to get where we want to be but we also know that it’s something we can’t achieve overnight, we must continue trying until we get there.
Everything else, I mean factors hindering private sector productivity, are part of the challenges. The factors that stand between where we are and where we want to be.
As leaders, today’s challenges should be our motivation to attain tomorrow’s victory. Also, in the same challenges we face today lies opportunities for the enterprising and innovative members of the private sector to create solutions.
We need to restore the old Rwandan values of nation building that existed in the pre-colonial era where for instance we had the ‘Umutware wa Umukenke’ whose job was to ensure enough production to feed the people.
Such administrative set-up gave the people a sense of ownership of their own country’s welfare; but these values were eroded by the colonial system.
We lost ownership and national responsibility and gave way to individualism where people worked for self-aggrandisement and not for national development.
Fortunately, since liberation, we continue to witness a deliberate effort by the leadership to restore those values among Rwandans to value their own self-worth (Agaciro), and own their national development agenda in order to shape their destiny.
But this is a work in progress that requires continuous effort to ensure that we attain the required change of mindset and in my opinion, it’s an onus that’s incumbent upon all leaders at all levels.
And to achieve that mindset, what kind of relationship do you want to see between the private sector and the government?
This is a vital link in any modern country with big ambitions like ours. The private and public sectors should be so close to a point of almost confusing them, not in their responsibilities but the way they complement each other.
In countries like Singapore when you talk to someone you may not distinguish whether they’re from the public or the private sector because they speak from a shared scrip vision.
I am glad we have that kind of relationship here in Rwanda through platforms such as the Public-Private Dialogue for all key sectors. Forinstance we have the tax forum where members engage with Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA) and address any issues that might exist.
That close working relationship is very vital to push us toward our ultimate aspirations.
But it also calls for an organised Private sector, doesn’t it?
Oh yes! And we have done quite a bit of work in that area. You see, it’s like running a relay race, the previous chairmen laid a strong foundation and I have to pull from where they stopped until I pass the button onto the next person.
For instance, we have moved from years when we used to be a government chamber of commerce to being a private sector federation which allows us to work very well across the country.
We have organised our members into sectoral based chambers and associations that allow us to mobilise and reach out easily to them.
It has also enabled the federation to have a countrywide presence through a newly established but very effective decentralised system.
Now our efforts are being directed at improving capacity among these decentralised institutions and giving value to our members through advocacy and other services.
You’re into manufacturing, a sector that government is trying to build, what challenges does the sector face?
I am a fan of Deng Xiaoping, the man who three decades ago launched the reforms that have transformed China.
He succeeded Mao who focused on feeding the Chinese who were starving at the time. Deng focused on science and technology to transform the peasants into industrial workers. What’s needed is to equip people with skills and capacity to produce more efficiently.
May you comment on our potential in the East African Community?
I am quite confident in our potential there; actually, all our efforts here are aimed at putting us in a position to favourably compete and draw benefits of integration. Even as a small country, we should prove that success is not about size but how organised and focused people are.
What will you focus on during your three year term?
There are mainly two things; first is the challenge of capacity building where we need to do business more efficiently in a professional way, which will make us more competitive.
Secondly, I want to see auto-regulation of the private sector, if we understand our responsibilities, then we can auto regulate and give the government space to focus on other pressing issues for national development.
At the end of my term, I should see results to all these aspirations, a more focused private sector that would be ready to take the mantle of being the engine of economic growth.