New Era journalist Alvine Kapitako recently sat with the former Ambassador of Finland to Namibia and Angola, Anne Saloranta (AS), whose term ended yesterday. The interview touched on a multiplicity of issues but mostly on the cooperation between Namibia and Finland. Below are excerpts of that interview.
NE: We know that you worked in Namibia shortly after independence and then came back as an ambassador years later. Please describe your stay in Namibia.
AS: “I have had a very pleasant stay. I always say that for me and my husband, Namibia is our second home. We are very fortunate to have a home in the very north of the globe and then another one in the very south, so we have truly enjoyed ourselves and already in the 1990s of course not knowing that someday we will come back and in those days, many years ago, we used to come to the Finnish residence. I did not have a clue that 15 years later we would come back and be occupants of this house.”
NE: Share with us on your notable achievements as Ambassador of Finland to Namibia.
AS: “I paused and thought about that question. What has happened during the last six years has been remarkable in terms of relationships between our two countries. As I mentioned, when I came (on the diplomatic mission) I came as head of mission but at chargé d’affaires level. The level of the embassy of Finland was downgraded back in 2000 because of some issues with the ambassador at the time. And the upgrade didn’t take place until during my tenure. So when the former president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, visited Finland (on a state visit, November 2013) that was the time when my president made the announcement that Finland was going to upgrade and reinstate the ambassador level through the Finnish embassy here and representation in Namibia. And, since our appointments are all transparent even as ambassadors we have to apply for the positions so it’s a normal application process. So, I of course applied for that position as I was already here and then luckily I was appointed. So, to see that happen was a very nice reward for me and my team in the embassy.”
NE: What are Finland’s main interests in Namibia?
AS: “We are increasingly focusing on private sector development, business, trade and investment relations and there also we have made considerable progress. There have been some Finnish business interactions. There is a very keen interest for Finnish companies to invest in the area of renewable energy in terms of solar or greens or biomass and investing in energy producing plants. Actually, the three key business sector achievements are the Mirabilis, the marine research vessel that Namibia secured from Finland some years back in 2011-2012 and it’s a research vessel that is focusing on the Atlantic, going up and down the coast and it has researchers from all over the world and that was one of our highlights in terms of our trade balance. And the second one is the Tsumeb sulphuric acid plant that was inaugurated last year. I was very fortunate to be here when the launch was held and the groundbreaking ceremony was in 2013. A Finnish company Outotec provided the technology. Our technology in Finland is clean tech, meaning environmental friendly and sustainable technology and Dundee Precious Metals purchased the technology from Finland. And, in addition to many other sub-projects, the initial cost of the project was 135 million euros but then there were other additional projects so I don’t know what the final price was. The third one was a very pleasant surprise to me when my husband and I were in Walvis Bay in June to attend the inauguration of the Diamond SS Nujoma vessel and there I learnt that the engine for that state-of-the-art vessel came from a Finnish company.”
NE: What are some of the major Finnish companies operating here and how have their presence contributed towards the development of Namibia?
AS: “Most Finnish companies (multinationals) are represented by South African agents or by their offices in South Africa, so we seldom hear about the big interactions that are taking place. Sometimes I read about them in Finnish papers – they don’t contact us, they don’t work via us and unfortunately also when you look at the trade balance between Namibia and Finland it doesn’t show there, it shows the trade balance between Finland and South Africa unfortunately. So, there we would really do something about it. But we have managed to bring Finnish business delegations to Namibia, especially in the fields of renewable energy and agro-technology, and health technology. And, recently, we had people interested in companies in importing and exporting foodstuff. So, those are just the few areas but a lot is taking place and also when Minister Calle Schlettwein, when he was trade minister, visited Finland with a delegation of 30 companies from Namibia that was very special. What we did to attract the companies and to make it worth their while was that we got a Finnish consultant to teach them how to do business in Finland, to upgrade their business profiles not just for Finland but for other countries and when they are doing business internationally.
I remember the minister and management of the companies saying never had they been given an opportunity beforehand to enhance their capacities, learn about the country they are going to, learn about the business culture there and have their own business profiles upgraded. That was unique and something that we offered in return – that we somehow also wanted to show appreciation that they went to Finland. A lot of good partnerships and business interactions have taken place but more at SME (small and medium enterprises) level.
Another project that has taken place during my term is the Southern Africa Innovation Support programme, a regional programme with its headquarters in Namibia. The first phase of that innovation programme was from 2011 to the end of 2015 and hosted by the innovation village of the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The second phase was launched in June and is a four-year programme with the budget of 8.7 million euros.
It’s one of the biggest programmes that the Finnish government is currently funding and it’s a regional programme with its headquarters here in Windhoek like I said, and the management team is working from here, but then the other countries that are part of the regional programme include Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa. In terms of innovation and the partnerships, it has been wonderful to see how much progress we have made in that regard and now with the new phase the project is increasingly on the private sector in bringing businesses and having them sponsor students and other innovators. Again, creating employment eventually. Of course, the first phase was more about creating awareness on what is innovation, etc. And, now in the second phase bringing in the private sector and then universities. I’m leaving now so I’m not here to follow the progress because we only launched it now but we are quite excited about it. And, there are many partners involved in this initiative.
All our Finnish companies are very strong on social responsibility. That concept is part and parcel of our business culture and business strategy. They have been assisting the communities by renovating schools. The Finnish companies’ presence is also felt in and around Tsumeb in the case of Outotec. And then I spoke of the investment interest in terms of renewable energy, so the Finnish companies have been successful in terms of entering into partnerships with Namibian counterparts and they would of course build energy plants and create employment locally.
What is special about the Finnish concept is that when we are offering our solutions and our products in any field we always come with a training and follow-up plan like for the Mirabilis marine research vessel, the purchase came with a very comprehensive training and education initiative. The crew of the ship at all levels were doing follow-up courses and then also Finland came to do the training here in Namibia and its just special.
I’ve been hosting Finnish companies at my residence so that they have had an opportunity to showcase their expertise and products to the Namibian audience and with each and every one of them there has always been this additional training concept.
Also, Finnish companies are interested in doing pilots here in Namibia meaning they are testing their well-known successful products and most of the time at no cost to their Namibian clients. It benefits the company also to get that experience and exposure from different parts of the world. But the reason why they always choose Namibia is obvious. That has to do with the very long partnership between our two countries. My trade consular marketed Namibia in Finland in such a way that Namibia could be the hub of Finnish companies.”
NE: What is the worth of Finland’s investment in Namibia.
AS: “That is very difficult to say, if we look at the partnerships for the past 27 years since Namibia’s independence. When Namibia gained its independence it was the biggest recipient of development assistance for the first years and now that Namibia has graduated and is now the middle-income country our instruments are different now. So, it’s very difficult for me to say, one would have to go back to those years and talk about the infrastructure projects such as the building of hospitals, schools and so on and nowadays it’s more on capacity building. We have an annual budget of one million euros just for NGOs and unfortunately due to budget cuts in Finland, as elsewhere, we had to cut down on our budget. For this year it’s only half a million euros. Overall for the 27 years I cannot give you a figure and nowadays our funding for development cooperation is decreasing. But what I see is the Finnish and Namibian partners, especially those at academic level, have found excellent concepts for funding proposals so that they get funding from outside sources such as the European Union, international think tanks and private foundations. The funding doesn’t come from the Finnish government but it is thanks to the fruitful partnerships between the two countries.”
NE: What is the likelihood of continuation of the work and contributions you have done from your successor? Is there a policy of continuation or does each ambassador have their own areas that they feel should be focused on?
AS: “The focus is more on trade, business and investment. It is something that the Finnish partnerships are increasingly aiming at, so I don’t see any change in that regard and I am confident that the embassy would continue to focus on trade. What I can see and envisage my successor to be focusing on also is to bring in the neighbouring countries’ partnerships, especially Angola, now that we have Angola from here. The interest was very clear from the highest political level in Angola to build partnerships between our three countries. Namibia and Angola being neighbouring countries already and then having the Finnish expertise and Finnish technology in particular. I think the focus will be more and increasingly also on regional cooperation, now that we have Angola.”
NE: What made your work or stay difficult or perhaps what were the challenges that you encountered?
AS: “To me challenges are always opportunities, so I don’t take them as obstacles. But I think the challenge is that there aren’t enough hours in a day to do all that I would like to do and that my embassy would also like to achieve. Quite often, I have been very fortunate in terms of receiving invitations for speaking engagements, attending events and hosting events and the challenge for me was to divide my time and to prioritise what event I will attend and where I will be going.
NE: Considering that Namibia is close to your heart how will you continue to advocate cordial relationships and the interests of both Finland and Namibia when you return home?
AS: “I will always be promoting Namibia and advocating for Namibia and the Namibian issues whenever I have an opportunity. That is something I already started when I was here in the 90’s.
The last week of August is always our annual ambassadors’ meeting in Helsinki, meaning that all our ambassadors from all over the world come together for this seminar for training purposes and touching base with one another. I will be accompanying my Finnish ambassador colleagues serving in sub-Saharan Africa on a road show in Finland. We are going to be promoting our respective countries and of course I will be promoting business for Namibia. Until the very last minute of the 31st of August I will be promoting Namibia as ambassador. I have a very good friendship with Ambassador Bonny Haufiku, Namibia’s Ambassador to Finland and we are going to be touching base frequently on what is happening between our two countries. I would not do otherwise but promote Namibia.”
NE: From your observations, what are some of the things that can hinder cordial relationships between countries?
AS: “Of course that would never ever be the case between our two countries because we are brothers and sisters. But when we look at what is happening globally now, it could be political differences, differences in approach, security threats, environmental hazards and when one cannot find common ground. Also, misunderstandings in terms of political interference, when one country is interfering with the sovereignty of another as we can see happening in the world at present. There has to be mutual respect and even though we may not always see eye to eye on political issues one has to respect and understand the sovereignty of each and every country and that decisions are made in a democratic manner … and we (Nordic countries) are very strong on good governance, rule of law and democracy and we would be very happy to follow the progress taking place in Namibia. And Namibia being exemplary in many ways not just in Africa but beyond.”
And finally. What is your next assignment?
AS: “I have been appointed as Finland’s ambassador at large in charge of international recruitment and I will be reporting directly to our three ministers. In our foreign ministry we have three different ministers, one for foreign affairs, one for development policy and one for Nordic affairs.”