In every nation of the world, government contracts granted to private companies account for a significant portion of the jobs created and the income earned within the private sector.
In the United States, for example, four out of every 10 people performing government work are employees of private firms that are working federal, state or local contracts. The number of contractors handling government jobs was three million companies in 1996. By 2017, that figure had swelled to 4.1 million.
In the African nation of Zambia, the situation is similar although exact numbers are a bit more difficult to parse. However, like the U.S. and other nations, private companies that get government work often invite controversy. Even so, few would deny, if only begrudgingly, that private-public partnerships are frequently the best way to get things done.
In Zambia, a provision known as the Subcontracting Policy of 2015 has played a key role in shaping government contracts. Under the policy, foreign bidders are required to subcontract a percentage of the total value of an agreement that exceeds certain prescribed thresholds to private industry providers.
To take just one example, the Zambian Road Development Agency has a sub-contracting policy that requires 20% of the value of contacts awarded to foreign companies to be sub-contracted to Zambian-owned businesses.
One such Zambian-owned private enterprise is the SAVENDA Group, a company born and bred in Zambia. It was launched in 1997 by Clever Mpoha, a man who grew up poor in a remote village and rose to become one of Africa’s leading business developers. He built SAVENDA Group from nearly nothing, starting with just a $1,000 cash and a keen aptitude for business.
Today, SAVENDA Group is a diversified firm that is perhaps best known as a supply management and logistics provider. It made its first big gains by developing reliable supply management services for copper mining companies. The extraction industry has long been a principal driving force in the Zambian economy.
As SAVENDA grew, it diversified into many other areas, such as building construction, road construction, medical supplies, commercial office accommodation, agriculture, cybersecurity, ICT, telecoms and much more.
With this array of capabilities, it was only natural that the Zambian government sought bids from SAVENDA Group on numerous projects that served the people.
Unfortunately, there has long been the perception among many that government contracts invariable involve corruption. It’s a favourite sideline game for various media outlets, bloggers and sundry online platforms to incessantly beat the “corruption drum” when any private firm wins a government contract, no matter how transparent or above board the arrangement may be.
As an experienced contractor, Clever Mpoha has found himself a frequent target of criticism based on the many government tenders SAVENDA Group has won in open bidding processes. But Mpoha accepts the situation as something that comes with the territory.
“The assumption is that businesses that get contracts from the government do so corruptly is wrong. While some businesses may be involved in corrupt deals, that is in no way a blanket statement that can be applied to all companies … most people don’t understand that government is just another player in the market like any organization. They have needs for their own public administration and management.”
Since launching in 1997, Mpoha said Zambia has had different presidents, numerous changes in leadership and shifts in ruling parties of various persuasion and philosophies. Through it all, SAVENDA “has been there” to accept contracts and complete important government infrastructure projects that serve Zambians.
Clever Mpoha said it makes no sense for any legitimate private operator to reject a government contract simply out of fear that critics will suggest corruption no matter how straightforward and necessary the project may be.
Mpoha’s advice to young entrepreneurs:
“You should seek to do business with any legitimate organization. That includes the government. There is nothing wrong with doing business with the government. It is not corrupt to do business with the government.”
But can a businessman divorce himself from politics? In terms of running a business, Clever Mpoha answers this way:
“At SAVENDA, we are on the political side of money. Since the beginning, our goal has always been business and not politics. Many people have asked me if I would consider joining active politics, and I have always declined these kinds of offers. I am a businessman, not a politician.”
However, in terms of being a private citizen, Mpoha said businesspeople should be engaged in politics like any other citizen of Zambia, all of whom enjoy the privilege of voting and choosing their leaders in a democratic system.
At the same time, Mpoha urges his fellow Zambians to resist division and political strife. He said:
“Don’t’ be misled by political statements from people who want to use divisions among us for their own selfish agendas. Zambians are good people. If you have traveled extensively as I have, you will appreciate that Zambia has 72 types of goodness. Ours is a beautiful country filled with wonderful people.”