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Namibia: Tackling Entrenched Inequality – Monica Kalondo Geingos

INTERVIEW

If you were determined to wipe out poverty and were president of a country, you'd want by your side someone who has diverse expertise in a variety of sectors, such as business and finance, management and the law – and who shares your passion for addressing inequality. Five weeks before his inauguration last year, Namibian President Hage Geingob married that person.

Monica Kalondo, who, following custom, added Geingos as her married name, has often been called a trailblazer. But two years ago she told the New Era newspaper that being seen as the first black or first female "should not make us celebrate the few individuals who break barriers but, rather, question what these barriers are and focus on removing them."

Kalondo was a founder and managing director of Namibia's largest private equity fund, was chairperson of e-Bank - a technology-driven institution aimed at making financial services accessible to all – and served on numerous public and private sector boards. The Chamber of Commerce had named her Namibian Business Personality of the Year, and she had won the Most Innovative Entrepreneur award from South Africa's University of Potchefstroom.

She has a law degree, campaigns against gender-based violence and is patron of the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia, which works for poor people's access to land and housing and is an affiliate of Shack/Slum Dwellers International.

Monica Kalondo Geingos talked to AllAfrica's Tami Hultman about her newest venture, theOne Economy Foundation. Launched 16 May on the outskirts of Namibian capital, Windhoek, in Otjomuise, an area straining with an influx of people from rural areas seeking employment, the foundation aims to build a bridge to opportunity for the 90 percent of Namibians caught in the cycle of poverty.

"Inequality entrenches itself", she said, when African countries fail to include economic inclusion as they pursue national reconciliation and governance. Improving prospects for the majority requires a multifaceted strategy of education, social support, skills training, access to capital, and job creation.

The First Spouse sees the One Namibia Foundation as complementing the Harambee Prosperity Plan to eradicate poverty, introduced by President Geingob in his 5 April State of the Nation address.Here are excerpts from the conversation.

The One Economy Foundation is named after what I strongly believe to be part of our legacy of inequality.

We have two economies, and I think most African countries have this problem. Because of colonial legacies, you normally inherit a country where one or other minority, whether it's ethnic or racial, have dominated the economic prosperity of that country pre-colonialism.

Once we gain independence, we are busy rebuilding the governance architecture – institution building, ensuring that independent courts are set up – and addressing the economic architecture normally waits until last.

We're focused on national reconciliation, making sure that democracy takes root, and we kind of forget about the economy. In that way, inequality entrenches itself and roots itself.

That's very true in Namibia, where you've got an economy that is world class. It uses the latest technology. It's knowledge-driven, it's integrated with the rest of the world, and it's highly prosperous.

The problem is that only 10 percent of Namibians participate in that first economy. Ninety percent of Namibians are in the second economy, which is primarily rural or informal, or hasn't been able to access financing and network in order to infiltrate this first economy.

We'll never have one economy where everybody participates, but we'll have more people from the second economy who can participate in the first. That's really the focus of One Economy – to see what is preventing many Namibians from participating and what we can do in building a bridge for that participation.

The one thing that we can and must do is to try and make Namibians more employable. In order for Namibians to be employable, they need to have quality education.

Again, we need to go back, unfortunately, to the past and accept that many Africans – highly talented, highly intelligent Africans – were denied educational opportunities. They've ended up doing menial work where they could have been doctors, lawyers, professors. They could have been whatever they wanted to be, but they were denied the opportunity. So, let's call that the colonial crack that they fell through.

Falling through the poverty crack

Post-independence, there are a lot of Africans falling through a poverty crack. So, a very, very intelligent African child in a rural area may not be able to fully actualize their potential, because they didn't get the educational underpinning they needed.

The first program that we'll be focused on is early childhood development and looking at the aspects that prevent children from being able to learn. The government is putting a lot of resources in terms of increasing the quality of education that's provided. But we must accept that until that is done, there are likely to be highly talented Namibians who will fall through a poverty crack.

So the One Economy Foundation will try and identify talented Namibians who come from environments where they otherwise will not be able to access quality education. We identify talented children in rural areas and urban areas where poverty is prevalent and put them into schools that can offer the quality that should be ubiquitous.

We will support these children from the moment they get into high school until the time that they finish, with academic support, with family support. There will be a team of psychologists and social workers who will be attached to this team and really play the role of a parent, while not removing them from their home environment. We will attend teacher's meetings, school events, and give the child the support they need.

The second program relates to entrepreneurs who are struggling to access funding. Again, the problem is not being able to access collateral-free funding. That segment simply doesn't exist in Namibia at the moment and we want to run a mentorship program that lasts for about six months to a year. While we run that mentorship program and get to understand the mentees better and their businesses, we also want to do some risk profiles, and have some of them qualify to access collateral-free funding in order for them to scale up their businesses, and allow their businesses to grow to the point where they can fully participate in the first economy.

You have many entrepreneurs who are doing exceptionally well, but they don't have the capital to spend in order to make more money, and that's one of the challenges we also want to address.

The essence of One Economy Foundation is to play a role in what we believe undermines or limits the economic potential of Namibians, particularly women, and Namibians who live in informal settlements or rural environments. It's maximizing and, to the extent that we can, fast-tracking that potential.

We tried to be intentional about everything we did. We took participants from the first economy [for the board] – chartered accountants, the owner of a private equity fund, a highly experienced corporate adviser – but we also took participants from the second economy.

We have an engineering student, we have a woman who is a cleaner in a corporate entity, and we have a car guard. It was intentional, because we need the understanding of youth: we need people in that second economy.

The gentleman who's a car guard reminds me of my father. He is very dignified. He believes in earning everything he gets, and he's clearly highly intelligent. Had he been given a fair opportunity and been able to access university when he was young, he would have certainly become a highly successful whatever it is he wanted to become. But there he is, relegated to car parks guarding cars, because of the lack of access to opportunity. He's exactly the personification of what we're trying to prevent.

He really embodies somebody who adds value at board level. We've given director's training, everything is explained, and he reminds me of why it's important to help people who are willing and able to be helped.

The government has declared a war on poverty. This is the essence of the Harambee Prosperity Plan, and I think my role is to complement the president's focus. This ties in very neatly with my personal skill set but also ties in with his policy direction.