Mizver Makeen calls on all Sri Lankans to contribute to the national economy

Compiled by Yamini Sequeira

Sri Lanka’s economy had recently been termed a ‘ticking time bomb.’ Rating agencies such as Fitch Ratings, S&P Global Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service have downgraded Sri Lanka to ‘CCC,’ which implies extremely high-risk bonds and investments.

The ratings are broadly based on the challenging foreign currency sovereign external debt repayment burden over the medium term, low foreign exchange reserves, and high and rising government debt that leads to sustainability risks.

Mizver Makeen says: “It’s time for the economic soldiers to take charge of our country. At present, our focus should be on keeping our heads above water and bringing the economy back to good health, by preserving our foreign currency as much as possible and reducing its outflow.”

“This should be our short-term goal. Once the economy is stabilised, we can move on to achieving our medium and long-term goals,” he adds.

SELF-RELIANCE Attributing the state of the economy to the present government is unfair, he notes and adds that “events have come to a head mainly due to the overdependence on external aid and loans taken by successive administrations since independence, and the situation being aggravated by COVID-19.”

Makeen asserts that institutions such as the World Bank and IMF are keen to keep developing countries dependent on imports and foreign loans. He opines: “Even when we try to stand on our own – and become a self-reliant and self-sustained nation, by minimising our imports and dependency on other countries – these agencies paint a far worse picture than what’s real.”

“During this period, many entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes adapted, and adjusted to the situation – and some came through better than before,” he explains.

And he continues: “As an entrepreneur and industrialist, I also turned challenges into opportunities for new learning and growth. Rating agencies don’t consider the strength and resilience of our people (which is our greatest strength) when they present their numbers.”

INNOVATION Evaluating the impact of COVID-19, Makeen says: “According to statistics, Sri Lanka’s poverty rate has increased to 11.7 percent during the pandemic. Even with this, I see an opportunity for the industrial sector.”

He elaborates: “It was encouraging to see many local industries developing and coming out with alternative solutions to the current situation and import restrictions. For example, hospital beds and equipment were being made locally, and many new inventions were pioneered by local inventors, creating business opportunities.”

In this context, Makeen cites the import ban on tiles, which created a major problem for the construction industry. This paved the way for the local tile sector to step up to meet the rising demand for floor tiles.

“Our tile factory is currently going through an expansion process that will enable us not only to cater to the local market but also export our goods and earn foreign exchange for the country,” Makeen reveals.

He remarks: “It’s encouraging to see that a local entrepreneur has begun manufacturing cars from its shell, adding the local value of 30 percent – and with time, promising to increase local inputs to 50 percent or even higher. There are many more inspiring stories like this about Sri Lankan entrepreneurs.”

“We can collaborate with overseas partners and brands, to develop our exports and promote local brands. India has done this with brands such as Tata Mercedes-Benz, Maruti Suzuki and more. Apart from bringing in foreign currency, this will create more employment opportunities for our youth,” Makeen asserts.

In his view, infrastructure development should continue. He says that declaring 1,500 roads open on a single day during difficult times is indeed promising since “infrastructure development of a country is at the very heart of economic progress.”

“People always want to compare our country with Singapore; or want us to become another Singapore. In my opinion, Sri Lanka should be developed as ‘authentic Sri Lanka’ rather than becoming a replica of another country. Furthermore, we have to pick the right nations to partner with to embark on projects on terms where Sri Lanka has adequate ownership rights as a country,” Makeen declares.

He elaborates: “Overseas cooperation for infrastructure development on build, operate and transfer (BOT) terms for a shorter period will benefit our country immensely.”

ENTICEMENT He says that the biggest virus that has crippled the nation is the myth that people who find jobs in the state sector are set for life. The political system of enticing the public with promises of jobs during every election campaign has made government helpless.

Commenting on the brain drain, he states: “The patriots are the ones who stay back and save the nation.”

“Running away to so-called ‘greener pastures,’ and adding value to overseas economies as a result of the knowledge gained from the free education provided by their motherland, being born without any cost in government hospitals thanks to free healthcare, enjoying the many necessities of life that were provided free in spite of this being a developing nation and then criticising the system is a joke!” he exclaims.

Makeen continues: “In a country like Singapore, nothing is free. You have to earn and pay for it. What if we also have to begin paying for amenities that the state provides free even today – such as education, healthcare, subsidised fertilisers, pensions and Samurdhi?”

Commenting on THE capital markets, he “it’s time for us to think wisely and introduce rules for these sectors to have a broader shareholding of a minimum 60-75 percent divestment in the share market and restrict overseas ownership of such ventures to a maximum of 25 percent. Foreign direct investment (FDI) is necessary for a country like ours.”

“It is criminal to live on an island and waste our foreign exchange on imported canned fish. The pandemic has made us think otherwise and is an eye-opener for every Sri Lankan,” Makeen emphasises.

Looking ahead, he muses: “There is an entrepreneur in every Sri Lankan. Entrepreneurship is not merely doing business but a state of mind that we can develop. If all Sri Lankans begin to think like entrepreneurs, we can rebuild our economy to greater heights; and this year will be favourable not only for the industrial sector but the country at large.”

The interviewee is the Managing Director of Macksons Holdings