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A Vehement Verma Vents

The perfidious relationship among the sponsors of the now defunct Pula Steel in Selibe Phikwe was for once put on full display by one of the key figures in the choreographed project, Deepak Verma at the Hilton Hotel in Gaborone this week. Willowy in his unpacking of the drama that led to the folding of a promising project, Verma shared how they as promoters bundled and buried Pula Steel to the detriment of Selibe Phikwe and Botswana.

In the process it was over P150 million of tax payers’ money down the drain and what remains is battle of egos – soon to be beamed at the courts. At this point, Pula Steel equipment is up for auction; and the Vermas are planning on launching a spirited court bid to force the liquidator to allow them to buy the white elephant that is supposed to be Pula Steel. Deepak Verma is accusing Nigel Dickson Warren of refusing to accept their offer to buy Pula Steel.  

Emphatic in downplaying his education credentials and fervent in his mocking of CEDA Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Thabo Thamane as a questionable graduate of London School of Economics, Deepak Verma portrays himself as a shrewd businessman who managed to siphon P14 million from a BCL/Pula Steel deal and bought himself profitable apartments in South Africa and a project similar to Pula Steel in Zimbabwe. He says he is making R2.5 million a month on his apartments because everything he touches turns gold.

Pula Steel went into judicial management on Feb 24th 2017, according to Deepak Verma, they made an offer to Nigel Warren Dixon to buy the shares on 23rd June 2017, this offer was revised when Nigel did not accept their initial offer and tried to broker within shareholders by way of advising them that he was waiting for all shareholders value to match the allocated shares. Verma posits that according to their shareholders’ agreement whoever had offered the liquidator the maximum must be offered the project, “but he opted to broker the deal so that every ones value is the same.”

In plain language the Vermas wanted to buy Pula Steel for P361 000. This is a company that was assembled in 2010, 80% owned by the Verma family and 20% belonging to Wealth Creation, an arm owned by the former BEDIA CEO, Brian Mosenene and Mpho Balopi, who was an ordinary citizen by then. Mosenene had known the Vermas by virtue of his BEDIA escapades in India and he introduced them to Mpho Balopi. “Mosenene had told us that he is interested in becoming a businessman and he motivated our interest in partnering with him,” explained Deepak Verma.

Pula Steel was to become an 80 tonne per day capacity plant that consumes 2400 tonnes raw material every month. According to Deepak Verma, at this point things got serious and they had to up the ante hence deciding that they needed P44 million for the project to take off. This is where CEDA, Botswana Development Corporation (BDC), Vermas and Wealth Generation came into one pot for mixing. P13 million was to come from promoters as debt and CEDA was to inject P7 million as equity and have a 35% interest in the business. Lesego Selotate was CEDA’s deputy CEO at the time the deal was being stitched and was the focal person.

Interestingly, BDC was non-committal at the stage and decided to put an executive to do some due diligence and the said executive never filed comments on the project and BDC did not put the P10 million they had pledged. Wealth Generation was expected to pop out P4.5 million into the reconfigured project.

Amid the capital call there was a nagging obstacle, the promters were failing to get land for the project despite the machinery having arrived. Five interlocking plots were identified and they were to be consolidated and allocated to Pula Steel, but in Deepak Verma’s words, “our file got stuck at some office at the Square Mart building and this delayed the project and a lot was changing in the market.”

But after protracted negotiations, Government finally offered Pula Steel land next to the five consolidated plots, “the project had already lost 12 months at this stage”, and “mind you during this period the company had a CEO in Brian Mosenene of Wealth Creation who was already getting a salary; there was also a Florence Mokalake who was working as an HR person and she was being paid but with no production,” said Deepak Verma. At this point CEDA was beginning to take control of things, the Vermas feeling sidelined despite their claimed knowledge of the business and its operations.

Deepak Verma was instructive in pointing out that “any delay in timelines are the first steps to derailment of any promising project.” He claims that the Vermas are the only directors who did not take salaries from Pula Steel for a period of six months. He said he was running a textile business on the side. This was the bleeding period for Pula Steel, money was moving out with nothing coming in.

HOW BCL GOT INVOLVED WITH PULA STEEL

“We reached out to BCL because the induction furnace of Pula Steel needs water for cooling. We wanted the water they were pumping out and throwing into the dam. We only wanted the water and not the steel scrap. It must noted that at the time BCP was prospecting for iron ore in Shoshong, Mahalapye, and Barolong farms.” According to Deepak Verma, after pitching their proposal for water with BCL, the mine’s hierarchy conceived an idea that maybe they should have a stake in Pula Steel to increase the value of their company.

The Vermas who now had a 52% stake in Pula Steel at this point interested CEDA, a 35% shareholding partner, with BCL’s proposal. BCL demanded 55% share in the company of Pula Steel. The mining giant at the time notified the promoters of Pula Steel that it was controlling 6% of GDP in the country hence they are bring influence more so that their executives serve in various boards such those of Botswana Power Corporation (BPC). The partners were to sell some of their shares to bring in BCL and CEDA made it clear that they will not go below 26%.

After negotiations, Mitchin and Kelly helped the partners close the deal with BCL, giving away 50.5% of the company to the mining giant in Selibe Phikwe in 2014. Mitchin and Kelly are still involved in Pula Steel’s liquidation process today. The Verma Family received P14 million from the deal; Wealth Generation got about P3.5 million  and the other P3.5 million was paid to CEDA, “We were told not to talk to the media about the deal,” divulged the irritated Deepak Verma.

After BCL came in, the capacity of the project was increased and there was need to build a power substation of 5.5 MW and the cost of transfer of power to the substation was initially estimated at P5.5 million and the money was to be paid at a rate of P60 000 per month for five years but after some period the deal changed, BPC now demanded P21 million for the substation with an upfront payment.

Deepak Verma said this was another setback for the project, an escalation in costs that was unforeseen. BCL demanded the increase in capacity and they were in control, he said. In 2014 BCL brought in a new CEO for Pula Steel. This was the time when CEDA refused to participate in these decisions hence did not partake in capital call and their share was diluted to 6%.

At this point in the address Deepak Verma took a detour and started lashing at Thabo Thamane, the CEO of CEDA. “CEDA has invested P13 million and is now a creditor, he is at the mercy of the liquidator. He did not mortgage for the loan – he could have mortgaged the property or land. I have decided that I am putting together an induction furnace and this time I am not taking a partner. I am not relocating, I have been here 20 years and I am staying,” he said.

At the time of near collapse of Pula Steel, the Vermas had 26%, Wealth Generation 4%, CEDA 6% and the rest was held by BCL. The company could not control its costs. There were labour disputes, several allegations of racism and unfair treatment of employees among other things. The company was certainly going under. In addition there were poor decisions made on behalf of the company, such as spending more on consultants instead of the company doing the jobs direct. The final nail on the coffin was the collapse of BCL which meant Pula Steel became obvious collateral albeit its own frailties.

POLITICIANS HAD A SAY

All along Selebi Phikwe, Keorapetse had reported Pula Steel to the Directorate of Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) with a number of cases to be investigated. The MP has always questioned the wisdom for coming up with Pula Steel when the biggest steel manufacturing companies in the world were crying foul about the market. 



The then assistant Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration, Phillip Dikgang Makgalemele had informed parliament that 18 cases were classified for investigation, nine were closed due to lack of evidence while eight were still under investigation. Details of the said corruption reports were not shared. Pula Steel was borne of a diversification strategy by BCL code named Polaris II which sought to diversify the operations of BCL from just mining and smelting.

Pula Steel which was a subsidiary of BCL Limited which has now been placed under final liquidation following its closure last year October is currently under judicial management.

The steel manufacturing company was placed under judicial management by the High Court to suspend all orders by creditors to attach the company’s property for auction.

At the time Pula Steel’s Judicial Manager, Vijay Kalyanaraman of Grand Thornton who was appointed by the High Court said at that time that Pula Steel is not yet insolvent despite liabilities but it would need cash injection by shareholders for production to continue. The Judicial Manager has applied for Pula Steel to be replaced under liquidation as shareholders have failed to inject the necessary cash to allow for recommencement of production.

Pula Steel was the first integrated steel plant in Botswana using scrap metal to produce steel billets, an intermediary steel product. Built at a cost of P130 million in 2015. The company, majority owned by BCL Mine and with shareholding from CEDA and founders, the Verma family, was placed in liquidation last October, owing creditors an estimated P100 million.

The Vermas are vociferous on their Pula Steel takeover bid. Deepak Verma says he can create 1000 jobs if offered the company. He is of the view that Batswana should desist from always blaming foreign investors when projects do not go according to plan. He says it is very important to critically look at the facts and all parties involved. “Certainly you cannot blame the Vermas for Pula Steel collapse, we know the business but were overshadowed.”

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Botswana’s development agenda in jeopardy

21st September 2020
Botswana’s-development-agenda-in-jeopardy--water-construction

Stanbic Bank Botswana Quarterly Economic Review indicates that Botswana will fail to meet some of its Vision 2036 targets, particularly unemployment reduction and reaching high-income status.

The report says this is mainly due to the slow economic growth that the country is currently experiencing. This Quarterly Economic Review focuses on the 2020 Budget Speech.

The first paper reviews the entire budget with its key observations being that this budget is prepared as prescribed by the Public Finance Management Act; the priorities it seeks to address are drawn from Vision 2036 and the eleventh

The 2020 budget Speech, which was the maiden speech by the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Dr. Thapelo Matsheka, and the first after the 2019 general elections, was delivered to Parliament on the 4th of February 2020.

It has been well received by the labour unions, business community, and the public at large as well as international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

It mainly derived its support from key facets including, emphasis on changing the business-as-usual approach to development; outlining the transformation agenda; fiscal reform that minimizes the negative impact on economic development and human welfare, competiveness and the decision to implement the 2019 negotiated and agreed public sector.

The budget’s progress review shows that economic growth was consistent with the NDP 11 projections, with growth of around 4 percent. At this growth rate, the country would neither ascend to a high-income status nor reduce unemployment towards the Vision 2036 target of a single digit.

Simple calculations of this review confirm that the economy will need to grow the Vision 2036’s target of 6 percent over the next 16 years for per capita income to increase from around USD 8,000.00 to above USD 12,000.00 in current prices.

Further, the population is anticipated to grow by only 2 percent per annum.

For this reason, the focal areas for the forthcoming FY’s budget include measures to increase economic growth towards an average of 6 percent per annum.

Economic diversification is reportedly progressing fairly well. The report says, the share of the non-mining private sector in value added has risen to 66 percent in 2018 from to 63 percent in 2015.

The sectoral pattern of growth showed that the performance of services sector (particularly transport & communications, trade, hotels & restaurants, and finance & business services) has been the silver lining and that of mining sector was subdued whilst the utility sector disappointed.

The drive towards the service sector of the economy, especially to low-productivity activities (tourism, public administration, wholesaling and retailing) does not bode well for the country’s development aspirations.

In the previous versions of this Quarterly Review, it was noted that there is need for the rethinking of economic diversification. Since the country’s domestic market is small, it is inevitable that economic diversification not only focus on broadening the product mix, but also the composition of exports and markets.

This understanding of economic diversification has not been embraced by this year’s budget. Consequently, Botswana’s exports are still overwhelmingly diamonds, which means that the rest of economic sectors are still highly dependent on foreign-exchange earnings from diamonds. Thus, “the transformation programme requires a review of the country’s entire ecosystem”.

The budget review of the economic context also depicts that an economy with positive medium-term prospects, with growth expected to recover to 4.4 percent in 2020 from the expected growth of 36 percent in 2019 largely due to faster growth of services sectors and, thereafter, to slow-down to 4 percent in 2021.

These projected growth rates are comparable to those of the IMF staff’s baseline scenario of 4.2 percent in 2020 and 4 percent in 2021. Thus, the business-as-usual scenario produces growth rates that are still too low to achieve Botswana’s development objectives and create enough jobs to absorb the new entrants into the labour market.

Trade tensions between the two major markets for diamond exports, viz., the United States of America and China, is one of the factors that are cited as contributing to, indeed, undermining not only the domestic growth, but also the fiscal position.

Another notable downside risk to both global and domestic growth is outbreak of the coronavirus in China around January 2020. This has been declared as a global health emergency. In an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus pneumonia, the Chinese authorities have ordered city lockdowns and extended holidays, of course, at the expense of near- term economic growth, according to the new Stanbic Bank Botswana report.

According to Nomura Holdings Inc., fewer migrant workers returned for work than in previous years and business activities have been slow to pick up. The havoc wreaked by the virus on the world’s second largest economy is likely to spill over to the global economy. In fact, it has resulted in a glut in crude oil and, thereby placed oil markets into a contango, i.e., a market structure where near-term prices trade at a discount to future contracts.

It also presents significant risks one of Botswana’s main drivers of economic growth, diversification and foreign exchange earnings. According to the Financial Times (February 13, 2020), Chinese tourists spent $130 billion overseas in 2018. Regardless of whether the growth materializes, the projected domestic growth rate would not transform the economy to a high-income one.

Progress towards reduction of unemployment, to a target of single digit, and poverty and achieving inclusive growth has also been relatively slow, the Stanbic Bank Botswana Review says.

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OP leases Orapa House

21st September 2020
Orapa House

Ministry of Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration (MOPAGPA) has through the Office of the President (OP) proposed to avail Orapa House for use by private training institutions as well as research institutions involved in the area of technology development.

For a very long time the monumental building located in the heart of the city has been a white elephant, despite government purchasing it for nearly P80 million from De Beers in 2012.

However, government has now identified a productive use for the iconic building. “The overall vision is for the building to be transformed into a hub for digital technology research and development to be carried-out by institutions, such as; Limkokwing University, BIUST, BITRI and other relevant stakeholders.”

The decision was taken as government traverse a new path of transforming the economy from a mineral led economy to a knowledge based economy through the promotion of research and innovation. However, the facility will need major maintenance to be carried-out in order to meet the requirements of the proposed change in use.

“The work will include provision of laboratories, work stations, production areas and seminar rooms; audio visual centre, high speed internet connectivity, exhibition areas and offices,” reads the proposal note for the development.

These developments will be done through the refurbishment and maintenance of the main building, workshop, and ablution block, gate house, parking area, grounds, and access control and security service.

“There will be minimal modifications to the structure as it stands. The project is estimated to cost approximately P50, 000, 000,” says the report. In this regard, it is said, the initial scope of the OP facility will be modified to accommodate the envisaged digital technology research and development hub.

With funds needed to improve the building, OP has requested that; “the 2020/21 annual budget provision for Orapa House will need to be increased by P37,500,000 from P2,500,000 to P40,000,000 to kick start the maintenance works.” Funds will be sourced from the projects that have been delayed due to Covid-19 protocols during the 2020/21 financial year.

The building has been a thorny issue for government for years. Initially, OP was expected to move there but the move never materialised. At one point it was a question of whether the Office of the President and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development were planning to override a decision by Parliament which rejected the proposal to buy Orapa House under the belief that government may be buying its own property. The building was to be bought at a negotiated cost of P79 million.

Again in 2012, Government had wanted to buy Orapa House for a negotiated P79m but the Finance and Estimates Committee of Parliament had rejected the request because of the inconsistencies realised in the supporting documents of the proposed procurement. The valuation of the building was put at P74 million.

The Ministry of Lands and Housing had initially offered De Beers P73, 000,000 as the purchase price. However, De Beers countered with P85, 000,000. On negotiation and converging of the minds, the selling price was finally agreed at P79, 000,000.

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Sad state of Brigades: dumped and ignored!

21st September 2020
Brigades

Auditor General, Pulane Letebele, has expressed discontentment at the worrying and deteriorating state of brigades in the country.

In an audit inspection which was carried out at Tshwaragano Brigade in Gabane, a number of observations showed weaknesses and shortcomings in the conduct of the financial affairs of the institution.

According to Letebele’s report, former students of the brigade had been engaged to carry out maintenance works on the school premises, comprising of painting, tiling, plumbing and electrical works, which covered the period from July 2017 to June 2018.

Although the agreed maintenance period had elapsed, the works had not been completed because of unavailability of funds and this situation had persisted up till the time of inspection in November 2019.

Auditor General says arrangements should have been made in time for funds to be available to complete these relatively minor works even before the works commenced.

Various contractors had been engaged for clearing the bush and for the supply of concrete stones, pit and river sand and hiring equipment for digging the trench towards the construction of an auto mechanics workshop, the report said.

It stated that the cost of services and supplies provided totalled P117 949.80. However, despite the services and the supplies having been paid for, the construction works had not commenced for a long period afterwards, resulting in the trench filling back in.

The audit inquiries had not elicited satisfactory responses as both the institution and the Ministry had not accepted the responsibility for the project, although orders for the provision for the supplies had been made. For their part, the Ministry had stated that they had sub warranted funds for the purchase of porta cabins.

Letebele indicated that it is therefore confusing that a project which is critical to the functioning of an institution such as this one would commence without a well-defined plan.

Furthermore, the accounting and maintenance of records for the supplies items were not of the standard prescribed by the Supplies Regulations and Procedures in that the supplies ledger cards, the main accounting records for Government assets, were not properly maintained for the recording of receipts and issues.

This had resulted in significant discrepancies between physical and ledger balances, while in other instances the supplies items had not been recorded at all.

The report says 24 of the 91 new computers found in the computer laboratory at Kumakwane ABC campus were not recorded anywhere, as were the other computers in the storeroom which could not be counted due to the disorderly storage conditions.

The institution had entered into a contract agreement with a security company for the provision of security services at Tshwaragano Brigade, ABC and Horticulture campuses at Kumakwane for a 2-year period which ended in June 2018, WeekendPost learnt.

After the contract expired in June 2018, an extension was granted till the 30th September 2018. Since then, there has been no security service coverage for the institution to-date. According to Auditor General, in the face of prevailing crimes, it is of paramount importance that government properties be protected by provision of security services at all times.

At Tlokweng Brigade, it was noted that the kitchen staff were working under difficult conditions as the kitchen facilities and equipment, such as the cold room, tilting pot, food warmers and solar power for hot water were dysfunctional. The kitchen roof was leaking and men’s restrooms was not working. All these need to be brought to a reasonable and functional state of repair.

The kitchen staff should use a purpose-designed Rations Ledger for the recording of receipts and issues of foodstuffs to reflect the usage of those items. As far back as 2014 the Department of Buildings and Engineering Services had found that the house occupied by the bursar was uninhabitable on account of structural defects, the report said.

A site visit during the audit had established that the house was indeed unfit for occupation as there were cracks on the walls, power switches were not working and the roof was leaking. On a sadder note, there were a number of finished items of clothing, such as dresses, shirts, and jackets from students’ practical exercises from the Fashion Design Textiles Workshop.

Auditor General shared her take on this, saying: “I have not been able to ascertain the policy on the disposal of products from these practicals. A trace of 103 green acid-proof overalls which had been purchased in August 2018 had indicated that there was no record of these items having been recorded or issued, nor were they available in stock. I was not able to obtain any explanation for this situation.”

Kgatleng brigade was also audited and inspected by Auditor General who observed that the brigade has 26 institutional houses at Bokaa, both old campus and new campus. Some of these houses are very old and dilapidated, with two declared uninhabitable. The condition of the houses is a clear indication of lack of care and maintenance of these properties.

At the time of the audit, there was no contractor engaged for the provision of security guard services at the new campus, after expiry of the previous one in July 2019.  It is hoped that steps would be taken to safeguard the security of the premises and government properties against any acts of hooliganism.

In August 2019, there was a break-in at the electrical and at the plumbing maintenance workshops and a number of high value items, such as drilling machines, bolt cutters, spanners and cables, were stolen. The break-in and theft were reported to the police.

“However, at the time of writing this report I was not aware of the outcome of the police investigation, nor of any loss report submitted in terms of the Supplies Regulations and Procedures,” Letebele said.

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