The Erongo region is one of the dominant players in the economic growth of the country, being home to the fishing sector, major mining projects and tourism activities. In this special edition celebrating 31 years of independence, governor Neville Andre narrates the triumphs and shortcomings of the region in the last three decades.
LH: As residents of the mighty Erongo region prepare to observe Independence Day, what is the one aspect of our independence that we should celebrate the most?
NA: We need to celebrate our peace and stability. We must recognise and appreciate that with 31 years of independence we did not have any instability, war or other conflicts that threatened our democracy and that are all too common on our continent.
Government’s efforts over the past 31 years have been to ensure that our people have an economy that is sustained and maintained by the peace we enjoy in our country and also a robust legal and policy framework that underpins our rule of law and competitiveness. We also have the best infrastructure that competes with the best globally to attract investments to boost our economy.
That is the result of the peace and stability we have had and are still having. The recent regional council and local authority elections are a case in point where the ruling party lost some seats in some contested constituencies, but we had peaceful transitions, without any conflict, which is a situation not heard of in some parts of the continent and in the world. We are now working together, despite political affiliations, with the new regional and local leadership to ensure continuous service delivery, economic development and prosperity for all Namibians.
LH: What have been some of the key milestones that the region has accomplished in the last 31 years?
NA: There have been so many developments in terms of housing development, rural electrification, construction of classrooms and ablution facilities, where it did not exist previously, healthcare facilities, early childhood development facilities, which are just but a few of the noteworthy developments.
When it comes to other noteworthy investments, then one should look at the road infrastructure that links towns in our region; here it’s worth mentioning the MR44 and MR76 Swakopmund-Henties Bay-Uis-Kamanjab, which will shorten the transportation of both goods and people to the northern regions, and the MR44 and MR36 Swakopmund-Walvis Bay, which eases congestion of heavy trucks entering Swakopmund and Walvis Bay along the B2 road. Another big investment worth mentioning is the Namport Container Terminal Extension project which will without any doubt deal with the congestion experienced at the old terminal, as well as dealing with the increasing demand of cargo.
LH: What are the key developments we are working towards as a region?
NA: Water is a key challenge, particularly in Daures constituency, which is a predominantly rural constituency, challenged by enormous water problems in the settlements of Uis and Omatjete and then Otjimbingwe in Karibib constituency, as well as the Kuiseb river area where the Topnaar community resides.
We have to find water either through drilling or through desalination. Furthermore, we need to ensure that the blue or oceans economy benefits the local community through the green economy, basically greening the entire coastal line and planting crops. We need to enlist massive investment projects that will be aimed at generating jobs for our people.
We then have to continue with the decongestion strategies for informal settlements and backyard shacks by availing and servicing more land through partnerships and employee housing initiatives.
We need to also invest in education, with more satellite campuses for tertiary institutions as well as availing funding for our youth to study. Sport is another area that we need to also invest in if we want our youngsters to make a living through sport – we need to invest in infrastructure, training, coaching and funding for our respective athletes through sponsorships. We also need to empower youth leadership skills and active participation of youth in their future planning.
LH: What are some of the challenges that have been hitting at the region’s development and how are we working towards overcoming them?
AN: Besides the Covid-19 pandemic, which really hit our economy hard, I think another one that had a major impact was the drought of more than seven years. It really affected our farmers as well as our production capacity. Since we are the economic hub of the country, commodity prices also affected us heavily, especially the current oil prices which severely affected our mining industry. Industrial relations, especially as it relates to the fishing industry, where there are so many role players, is really a cause of concern. Most of the aforementioned we really do not have control over as most of them are outside our reach or natural in cause. However, the aspect of industrial relations – we need to come up with some measures that will ensure that only those that meet such measures or requirements stand to represent workers.
LH: What is your office doing to tackle the water challenge in Erongo region?
AN: We recently had an assessment on the water situation in the region. We are talking to relevant stakeholders in the region to look at the findings of the assessment, but one thing for sure that we will be doing is to hold a water indaba to once and for all look at tangible strategies to overcome the water problems faced in the region.
LH: The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the job sector greatly in Erongo region, with mines and fishing factories retrenching in the hundreds. As governor, what can be done to restore job opportunities in the region?
NA: The biggest casualty of Covid-19 is the hospitality and restaurant sector that is a vital lifeblood of the coastal economy. With the travel restrictions and lockdown measures that came with Covid-19, this sector came to an abrupt standstill – hotels had no guests as there were no travellers, restaurants and other tertiary industries suffered immensely and some have not been able to recover to date because of the lack of tourist traffic that had kept this sector alive. We are however seeing a slight recovery with the tourist and traveller numbers starting to slowly recover, but we still need the pre-Covid-19 numbers of tourists to see a tangible recovery in this sector.
The effects of Covid-19 on the regional economy cannot be over-emphasised, as most of our economic activities are based on exporting our raw materials, such as uranium, gold and fish. With the closing of borders through the successive lockdowns we experienced, these sectors were heavily impacted, and just like any sector, when volumes go down, it will have an effect on the workforce .
But to the contrary, we did not have many retrenchments within the sectors mentioned. What the different sectors did was basically to plan their work around limiting the numbers on their respective floors through shifts to curb the further spread of the virus and to adhere to the regulations of Covid-19. I must really commend the mining sector in Erongo, which despite the drop in commodity pricing and the Covid-19 pandemic, kept their workforces intact, and similarly the fishing Industry has done the same. The redundancies of the workforce in the fishing industry were primarily because of two factors. One of the factors is that some existing companies didn’t get a quota, as a result of the expiry of their rights after 20 years, and secondly some of the existing companies received reduced quotas.
Another aspect worth mentioning when it comes to the fishing sector, is the re-employment of the retrenched workers of the strike of 2015, the retrenched workers of Namsov and the fishermen camping at the Kuisebmond stadium.
We are progressing very well in implementing the Namibian government’s special programme to allocate additional quotas to identified companies to employ the affected workers. On that I must extend my appreciation to those companies that already took in some of the fishermen.
LH: What are the opportunities that need to be tapped into in Erongo region, in order to boost economic growth?
AN: In terms of tourism we need to do aggressive marketing and ensure that our airport in Walvis Bay lands direct flights from the tourism source countries of Europe, America and Asia.
We need to engage the industry to come up with a strategy which will involve our embassies in other countries such as Germany, Asia, France, Belgium, Scandinavia, the United States of America and Canada to assist with marketing. We also need to market and produce packages for local travelling. We have seen that the lack of marketing locally caused the slump in the industry during Covid-19.
We could have used the time for local travelling.
Our local authorities in the region also need to develop plans to support the tourism industry, which can be in the form of premises or other amenities that makes it possible for the artist in the street to sell their products, that the lady in the township starts her local cultural restaurant or coffee shop, that the young man from the township becomes a step-on guide to tourists and benefits from the tourism spin-offs. If we are really serious about local economic development then local authorities should start to have functional public private dialogues to strengthen local business and cut out red tape.
We also need to do something on the blue economy. I think it is a very good concept but how does it translate to the SMEs, the fisherman that makes a daily living out of the ocean? We really need to investigate how the blue economy can create opportunities for SMEs and the ordinary citizen.
We also need to diversify from farming of large stock, as some of the areas are drought-prone in the region, and look at drought-resilient activities such as crop production, aquaculture and value addition to semi-precious stones. The issue of crop production/green economy along the coast should also not be ruled out. We have enough seawater; we need to have engagements on how we productively utilise that water. The setting up of dry ports in Usakos, Karibib and Omaruru will also benefit the local economies of those towns.
On the other hand, with regard to uranium mining, the prospects for the future looks good, and we anticipate to have price increases around 2023, which will be good to the regional economy.
The gold mining prospects look good and I must really compliment the mines that have been open during these challenging times for their resilience.
Another prospective mining opportunity is marble mining – this has now taken off very well in the areas of Karibib and Omaruru.
It is just my hope that we establish value addition activities around these mines to make sure that we do not export employment opportunities when we export the marble in raw form. The Uis mine is also up and running and this spells also very good for the people around Uis and it might in the future change the status of Uis from a village to a town. We also need to tap into the manufacturing industry as there are lot of opportunities within that sector. We can achieve all these if we all pull together in the same direction.
LH: Even after 31 years, proper housing is still a challenge for the region, how much of the housing burden has your office taken on?
AN: I agree with you – we still have a housing backlog in our region, which is evident in the number of backyard shacks and informal settlements in Walvis Bay and other towns in our region.
The Namibian government is very resolute and committed to redress this situation and my office also identified this as a key issue. You will remember that during the Covid-19 crisis in our region and the subsequent unfortunate fire which ravaged the former Twaloloka, now Otweya, in July last year, the Namibian government through Cabinet introduced the decongestion strategy of the informal settlements and backyard shacks. My office therefore started to engage local authorities in the region to set aside land for the construction of housing to decongest. Together with our line ministry (Ministry of Urban and Rural Development), the Walvis Bay municipality and stakeholders such as the Ministry of Works and Transport and the Shack Dwellers Federation, we have started to oversee the servicing of land and the construction of 121 houses in Otweya. These houses are scheduled to be completed by the end of April 2021.
I must say that after a lengthy planning this exercise has started culminating in me constructing one house from floor to roof height in one day, through my office’s Think Big Erongo Community service initiative. My office has also engaged the industry partners especially the fishing and mining sectors, which have committed themselves to invest in housing for their respective employees as part of the overall decongestion strategy. We are now at the level of engaging the different local authorities in the region, to provide land. Local authorities in Swakopmund, Karibib, Henties Bay, Omaruru and Usakos are also busy implementing the decongestion strategy, but not at the level of Otweya, which was declared a disaster risk area with full government support, but within their own means.
LH: How can residents of the mighty Erongo region make productive contributions to the rest of the country?
AN: Our experiences coupled with the active participation of stakeholders, particularly during our Covid-19 experience, is just but one example of how the Erongo region can contribute to how the rest of the country can prepare their responses and the setting up of an institution such as the emergency operational centre, which is very pragmatic in planning and executing plans. In this regard we have developed a tool kit which we shared with all other 13 regional governorse and this is the approach we will undertake going forward in development planning and regional and local economic development planning.
Some residents of our region continue to play critical roles in the boards of state-owned enterprises, in government ministries, in the private sector and in the sporting and educational spheres. Since taking over as governor I have been very pragmatic and results-orientated, as a result I have launched the Erongo Think Big initiative, which is to encourage voluntarism in order to ensure community involvement and participation in all development programmes in the region – I sincerely hope that Think Big Erongo will be a catalyst for future community and development initiatives in the region which can be emulated throughout the country.
Whilst the idea is still in its infancy, we believe that if it takes off, it can be emulated in other regions of the country, to ensure accelerated and quality service delivery and community development.