Business processes remain cumbersome – The Namibian

GETTING company registration documents from the trade ministry continues to take too long, sometimes up to two weeks, despite a year-long promise by President Hage Geingob that the process of doing business in Namibia will be faster.

Namibia has for years, ranked lowly regarding the setting up of businesses, partly because of the long registration process which takes more than 60 days, while accessing company documents also takes longer.

The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report produced last year said Namibia dropped by four places to 108th out of 189 countries in the world.

The trade ministry is tasked with making business registration and other processes smoother.

Minister Immanuel Ngatjizeko’s portfolio also includes facilitating documents to people who want to inspect, change ownership or register a new company.

This process is being taken over by the Business and Intellectual Property Authority (Bipa) set up a few years ahead of its newly-enacted Act.

The Namibian conducted a snap survey by requesting 26 company files earlier this year to test the speed of the process, and only four companies were available.

Officials said some of the companies’ data could not be found, while the documents of others could not be traced.

Another request was made last month, but The Namibian was told to wait for another week since files are being processed manually.

It took a day or two to get company records from the ministry last year. But now the process has even become longer, with people having to wait for up to two weeks.

Bipa outsourced the contract to manage company records to a private company, the Document Warehouse, which has to manually sift through thousands of files to get documents requested by Bipa.

The absence of an online system, sources said, gives room to some officials to intentionally hide documents from the public.

Officials also alleged that there is an unholy alliance between some trade ministry staff and business people who tamper with documents to dodge scrutiny.

Some of the businesses whose documents could not be found are suspected of being involved in corruption or have a dodgy past.

The use of paper files by the trade ministry is in contrast to what countries like South Africa and the United Kingdom do.

In South Africa, there is a website where the public can subscribe and have access to information such as company ownership, former and current directors, while in the United Kingdom, the government runs a company called Companies House, a state agency which registers information on British businesses.

The public can access information such as addresses, dates of incorporation, previous company names, company accounts and annual reports from the Companies House website.

Transparency advocates have over the years insisted that information about company ownership should be public because it is not only important for business people who want to double-check the history of possible trading partners, but it also helps fight white-collar criminals and corporate crime.

The Guardian newspaper reported in 2016 that the UK’s Companies House faced commercial and political pressure last year to delete some data.

Journalists, police officers, lawyers, researchers and bank compliance officials use the Companies House’s services.

Chris Taggart, founder of the Open Corporative, a website in the UK that advocates transparency of business ownership, is quoted in that report as saying that “it is essential that the greatest publicity is given to companies so that everyone knows who they are doing business with”.

Namibia’s Anti-Corruption Commission’s director general Paulus Noa and Namibian Police inspector general Sebastian Ndeitunga recently said their officers might have experienced some problems getting company files. But since they operate under certain laws, they can get the files when needed.

An ACC investigator, who declined to be named, said the commission has a reliable official at the trade ministry who helps them with company documents during investigations. But when that official is absent, their work becomes difficult.

The investigator said there are claims that some trade ministry officials are bribed by private individuals to “steal files from archives to evade investigations, and the files just disappear”.

Geingob’s signature policy, the Harambee Prosperity Plan, highlights Bipa as one of the entities which could improve the provision of services related to company documents and registrations.

Bipa’s registration supervisor Lembey Mulike told The Namibian two months ago that they took over the functions of managing company records from the trade ministry, but they do not want to inherit a red tape process. Mulike said they are digitalising the process.

“In future, the public can request records, and get an electronic version,” she said.

There have been challenges, such as missing files, which sometimes happens when people who ask for files disappear with them.

“We have a control mechanism in place when dispensing and receiving files. However, it is a process we must fine-tune,” she added.

According to Mulike, some documents are old and were registered before 2007, and need to be saved on the online system.

Bipa’s finance and administration executive Immanuel Awene said they are also planning to stop using revenue stamps by introducing other forms of payment.

Awene said some reforms are being carried out to ease doing business in Namibia, such as phasing out the need to have an accountant in the chain of registering a business. “It is one of the areas that do not add value.”

Namibia Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive officer Tarah Shaanika said there had been informal complaints in the past about the slow process of businesses registration.

Details about the cumbersome system of doing business comes a year after President Geingob signed two laws to enhance the ease of doing business in Namibia.

The two laws are the Business and Intellectual Property Authority Act, and the Namibia Investment Promotion Act.

The trade and industrialisation ministry plans to launch Integrated Client Service Facilities next year to allow online business registration.

The project is being facilitated by the Namibia Investment Centre (NIC), in partnership with the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise.

Earlier this year, a one-stop shop business information portal was launched by the NIC and Bipa.

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