Opening statement at the 2nd National MSME conference & Trade Fair
ITC Executive Director opening statement at the 2nd National MSME conference & Trade Fair.
Delivered on 29 April 2014 - Monrovia, Liberia
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Ladies and Gentlemen:
Let me start by thanking you for the hospitality offered to us by Liberia and to offer my sincere condolences to you, the Government and the people of Liberia for the recent demise of former interim President Charles Bryant.
If we turn to today’s “National MSME Conference and Trade Fair”, it is clearly and simply about one thing: celebrating and supporting Liberian small entrepreneurs. When they succeed, Liberian people prosper. The entrepreneurs who are showcasing their products at the Trade Fair have a lot to be proud of. They have, and continue to, overcome a myriad of practical challenges that small businesses in Liberia face daily. We know these problems well – from low capital to limited skills to challenges in access to markets. To these inspiring Liberians I say “well done.” The International Trade Centre, as the only UN agency working directly with and for SMEs internationalization is pleased to be a hosting partner to this Conference and Trade Fair.
Beyond the businesses represented here today, we know that there are many thousands more of you operating in both the formal and informal sector. Almost two years ago, the Liberia Business Registry counted over 11,000 Liberian businesses, many of which would be considered SMEs. 11,000 is a hugely important statistic, because when you think about what is important to everyday Liberian citizens – jobs for the youth; a peaceful society anchored in economic stability; and women economic empowerment – “SMEs” come to mind. This is because its SMEs which have been generating this kind of positive development impact in Liberia.
SMEs are the biggest source of untapped growth potential and, by 2030, will be generating the bulk of the close to 470 million new jobs that will be required by employment- ready men and women. This is why it is excellent that the discussions on the UN post-2015 development agenda are increasingly recognising the importance of ensuring an economic growth component. The evidence clearly points to SMEs being at the heart of this growth discourse. In Liberia alone, SMEs account for over 80% of economic activity and employs over 90% of the workforce.
At ITC, we recognize the importance of SMEs and entrepreneurship as drivers of economic growth and poverty reduction. Accordingly, our interventions in Liberia are geared towards unlocking the productivity, marketability, competitiveness and job-creating potential in-country, in order to help Liberian businesses to internationalize their operations beyond Lofa, Bong and Nimba and even beyond Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cotê d’Ivoire.
At ITC, we know that for SMEs to succeed, they need the proper business environment and support and services that allow them to attract financing, human capital, networks and markets. The world has moved towards trading in tasks along value chains across borders. These chains are important avenues for SMEs to add greater value to their product, to diversify and to innovate. They offer opportunities for new producers, including women and youth, as well as for least developed countries such as Liberia.
Within the last few years, the ITC has worked closely with Liberia to ensure good trade policies supportive of stronger, more competitive micro, small and medium business. This is what Liberia’s first-ever National Export Strategy and the Liberia National Trade Policy, which we are launching today, are about.
The National Export Strategy is a compass for greater competitiveness in 5 priority sectors. There are many sectors in which Liberian businesses have a real chance to develop, grow and, in time, export. What the National Export Strategy highlights is that the Liberian people have a competitive advantage in trading in cocoa, fish and crustaceans, oil palm, rubber and cassava.
The Strategy also recognizes that the road to success is not an easy one – many issues need addressing by a series of initiatives and actors that all move in the same direction. With this roadmap, we can expect to see Liberian businesses in these 5 sectors to grow; add greater value to input in Liberia; move up the value chain; and internationalize in step with consumer trends and demands. Of course, these are not the only sectors where Liberia will excel in the future – we are already working on two other sectors: furniture and tourism.
On the other side of the same coin, there is the National Trade Policy which provides guidance to Liberian policymakers on which policies and policy structures are most appropriate to support trade and which policy decisions will best align with the requirements for ECOWAS membership and WTO Accession. Membership in regional and multilateral blocs, such as ECOWAS and WTO, can help create increased markets for Liberian goods and services; allow Liberia to be involved and at the table as regional and global policies are developed; and allow Liberia to promote its needs and priorities for trade-related capacity building.
When one considers the nature and significance of being a part of the global economy, there is no better place for Liberia to anchor its economic vision and choices – WTO membership will allow you to drive your economy in a context that will provide predictability and transparency to Liberian businesses and which will generate confidence among foreign investors.
I would like to leave you with two key messages – whether you work in the public or private sector or whether you represent a Liberian or a foreign agency:
Firstly, Liberia is definitely on the right track and it must keep the momentum going for the sake of its SMEs, for the sake of its economy and for the sake of its people. Liberia has come a long way in rebuilding its economy after the conflict that ravaged the country.
The two strategies we are launching today are another step in the right direction – one that must be followed up with action. Action will require determination and focus on implementation by Liberia. It will also require equally determined and focused support by Liberia’s development partners to the roadmap of competitiveness enshrined in the National Export Strategy. This strategic vision covers the critical nuts and bolts areas of business which remain a daily challenge for Liberian SMEs, namely trade facilitation and logistics; quality management; and access to finance.
Secondly, a practical strategy on how to provide direct assistance to SMEs is indispensable; the same can be said for appropriate policy frameworks and policy responses to business. Here, my message to you would be to provide all the required support possible towards realizing Liberia’s Accession to the WTO as it will be critical to creating opportunities to better diversify and build productive capacities within a global rules based structure.
Liberia applied for WTO membership in 2007 and ever since has been working towards this objective. The National Trade Policy, which pulls together a range of policies and strategies under one umbrella policy for trade, is a clear signal that WTO Accession is very much a priority for Liberia and remains well within sight of achievement.
The ITC we will be pleased to provide you with support, including in the areas of WTO Accession, trade facilitation, quality management and marketing. Today is a day to take stock of these accomplishments and to look ahead at how we can concretely get Liberian SMEs to become more competitive so that more citizens – whether they live in Montserrado or Maryland – can benefit from increased and more productive business activities.