Oxford Business Group / First Capital Holdings round table discussion : Winning formula in the ‘age of disruption’ | Sunday Observer

Oxford Business Group / First Capital Holdings round table discussion : Winning formula in the ‘age of disruption’

The Colombo port should have a whole system working together with an international trading centre and an international distribution centre.
The Colombo port should have a whole system working together with an international trading centre and an international distribution centre.

Sri Lanka has a great chance to enhance competitiveness and spur its economic growth in the age of disruption, provided government creates the right policy and regulatory framework, several corporate leaders told a round table discussion last week.

They highlighted positive attributes such as IT and human resource skills, successful apparel, tea, and IT export initiatives, geographical location, a resilient society and strengthened democracy.

However, they pointed out, it is imperative for the government to ensure policy consistency, upgrade the regulatory framework and provide easy access to capital in order to create a competitive and innovative business environment and make the growth rate greater. The discussion organised by the Oxford Business Group (OBG) and First Capital Holdings focused on the theme ‘How can Sri Lanka enhance competitiveness in the age of disruption?’ The panel comprised First Capital Holdings CEO, Dilshan Wirasekera, Stax Inc. Managing Director Ruwindhu Peiris, Colombo International Container Terminals CEO Jack Huang, and Dialog Axiata Chief of Digital and Commerce Nushad Perera and OBG Regional Editor for Asia Patrick Cooke moderated proceedings.

Dilshan Wirasekera who spoke on how high debt levels and interest rates make conditions difficult for investors and businesses, focused his growth formula on two major factors. First he said, Sri Lanka’s business community should think a little bigger now. As savvy business leaders, they should take chances and face the challenge head on over the next decade. “We should no longer think of protectionism. We only think of a 22 million people market that we have to protect from the outside world. But there is a whole world out there to look at – businesses definitely need to take that chance. In terms of Free Trade Agreements (FTA) – I am fully supportive of FTAs – I think to create opportunities businesses should compete outside the country. We have great examples – apparel and IT for instance. Even the banking and finance sector is now doing far better offshore than what they can do here. Therefore, I think we should make the best of it, than only looking at the Sri Lankan market.”

The business community should look at FTAs with a positive outlook. “We have FTAs with India, Pakistan, Singapore and preferential trade agreements planned with several other countries.”

With the GSP Plus from the European Union and the planned FTA with China, Sri Lanka would be the only country with preferential access to the huge markets in India, China and Europe. “No other country has access to such large markets. We should go out to capture those markets. Some of our exporters have done well in certain countries with specific products – had they confined themselves to the local market only, they would never have reached that success,” he added.

Wirasekera said that confining growth to the Western province is a major concern.

“We’ve done a lot as far as innovation, start up facilities and SMEs are concerned. However, our worry is most of these things are happening in the Western province. I would like to see that movement to go beyond Western Province to the provinces and support SMEs.”

Talking about the Colombo Port as a trading hub, Jack Huang said, Colombo still lacks facilities which support a port to be a major hub. “Ports should have a whole system working together such as an international trading centre and an international distribution centre along with other support services. You have to have the whole system because a port cannot run on its own to be a hub.” He added Sri Lankan authorities should look at transforming Colombo port into an international trading and distribution hub. It should not continue to be a transshipment hub alone. At present Sri Lankan ports get cargo from India, Bangladesh and the Far East and that’s the only major business happening in the port. There’s no international trading due to lack of capacity.” Ports can contribute much to economic growth. However, In Sri Lanka many people are still unaware that both Colombo and Hambantota Ports are free ports which are beneficial for exporters, importers and investors.

Answering a question on Chinese business influence on Sri Lanka, Huang said, “Yes, China is a big trading partner of Sri Lanka and China is also a major trading partner of many other countries. Chinese investments are a good opportunity for Sri Lanka and for any other country looking at business opportunities. For instance the Colombo Port City is open for any country or trading partner to invest in.”

China looks at good investments; that investment can go into any country. “We are very happy to work with Sri Lanka or any other country as far as investment and businesses are concerned.”

Drawing attention to misconceptions about China and Hambantota port, he said, “People were worried about Hambantota being used as a Chinese military base. After four years, it was only US and Japanese warships which anchored in Hambantota.”

Explaining further on Sri Lanka’s opportunities he added, Sri Lanka has vast potential to develop its agriculture sector and grow paddy and become self sufficient in rice, without importing it. “There’s a great potential for Sri Lanka to develop fruit and vegetable exports sector,” he added. “I have seen vast unutilized lands in Sri Lanka on my travel which can be put to use with a purpose.”

Nushad Perera drew attention to the digital age which is here to stay, and so are the disruptions it is causing across different industries and sectors. However, his concern was the regulatory framework. He called upon the government and the regulator to understand not only the complexity and criticality of disruptive technologies but also to see their potential benefits. Explaining further he said, “our people are agile and the country has gone through many disastrous experiences from the tsunami to the more recent political drama with two prime ministers heading the country.” Perera noted that despite such challenges the country has the ability to bounce back, which is a positive attribute that points to a brighter future, if the regulators perform well, keeping up with trends. “Small islands can compete with big nations. We are a nation which has the ability to bounce back – we’ve bounced back from the tsunami, the two prime ministers saga and now 24/4. I am not condoning the 24/4 incident. But it shows we are agile.”

Ruwindu Pieris said the political fiasco of 2018 was a moment when Sri Lanka showed its strength of democracy. “This gave confidence to the investor. It shows that Sri Lanka has a society that demands democracy. I take it positively and see we have a great potential for growth despite of the political situation,” he said.

Pieris added that he sees a lot of opportunities for the Lankans to go global; “We have seen companies like Spa Ceylon, Virtusa have done extremely well in the global markets.”

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