Colombo seeks new funding sources in shift away from ally Beijing

Updated 16 July 2015
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Colombo seeks new funding sources in shift away from ally Beijing

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka is seeking cheaper funding sources to replace billions of dollars in debt from Chinese banks, government officials said, as the six-month-old government distances itself from Beijing weeks before a general election.
The government is seeking to consolidate its power in the Aug. 17 vote after reformer Maithripala Sirisena was elected president in January. The pro-China leader he ousted — Mahinda Rajapaksa — is staging a comeback bid.
Sirisena had suspended most Chinese-backed infrastructure projects started under Rajapaksa, who has denied allegations of corruption and overpricing in contract awards.
Sirisena’s reformist coalition is in talks to replace about 70 percent of the more than $5 billion in debt from Chinese lenders with loans at cheaper interest rates and longer durations from other sources, two finance ministry officials involved in the negotiations said. The move follows failed government efforts to negotiate more favorable terms with the Chinese banks, and the finance ministry is looking at options including borrowing from lenders in Japan, the United States or Europe, a top government official said.
“Money is there at a cheaper rate and for a longer tenure,” he said.
Sri Lanka has sought to pursue a more global foreign policy since the new government was formed, breaking with the previous pursuit of close ties with China.
Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake has been exploring ways his nation could borrow at lower rates after concluding from a trip to Japan this month that loans could be obtained for between 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent, a senior finance ministry official said.
Sri Lanka’s government has 16 ongoing Chinese-backed infrastructure projects which depend on $4 billion in borrowing from the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank) and the rates of interest are between 2.5 percent and 9 percent, finance ministry data shows.
Chinese officials have said the rates of interest are only 2 percent. But the data shows there are extra fees that add to cost the servicing the loan.


Buber picks up the taxi challenge on the streets of Kabul

Updated 17 November 2018
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Buber picks up the taxi challenge on the streets of Kabul

  • Popular ride-hailing services such as Uber and Careem declined to run on Afghanistan’s chaotic and unmapped roads
  • Buber will be officially launched in Kabul in January 2019

KABUL: Booking a ride that picks you up from your doorstep has been a dream for many Afghans for a long time. The dream is now coming true. After the popular ride-hailing services such as Uber and Careem declined to run on Afghanistan’s chaotic and unmapped roads, a private national firm came up with a local solution: Buber.
Currently on its test run, the service will be officially launched in Kabul in January 2019.
Basharmal Dawlatzai, a Buber driver, says the initiative in a congested city where violence and criminal activities have been part of daily life for years, is a relief for both clients and drivers.
“It is very convenient for both sides, the customer does not need to walk to a street, wait for taxi in cold or hot weather and bargain with a taxi he or she does not know,” Dawlatzai told Arab News. “We go to their homes and drop them at their favored destination, which saves both sides time and hassle.”
He has been with Buber for two months and has taken around employees of Afghanistan’s Holding Group (AHG) that owns Buber, which in Dari means “Take me”.
AHG’s headquarters near the ancient Darul-Aman palace is tucked away behind blast walls with a sprawling compound that enjoys far better security measures than many state institutions which are the targets of routine attacks by militants in Afghanistan.
The security precautions at AHG include a series of body searches by armed guards as well as scanners and the layers of checks that make it look as if the compound is in top-secret location.
There is a different world and mood inside, and for a moment you may think that this is not Afghanistan, given the pace of its work and manner of efficiency. Groups of young sleek men and women are busy typing away on computers or discussing their regular daily activities.
AHG hopes to gallop and make Afghanistan catch up with the revolution in the field of technology that has spread across the globe in recent years.
Staff at AHG say that since its launch in 2009 the company has provided professional business services to more than 700 organizations across Afghanistan. Its clients range from small companies, non-profits and corporations to development institutions and government customers. It offers a range of services that include legal and human resources support and assistance with licensing, visas, payroll, taxation, audit and procurement.
Now, AHG is working on its new innovation, Afghanistan Technology Services (ATS), which covers Hisab (accounting) and Buber, online taxi ordering similar to Uber.
The Hisab application allows customers to pay online power and water bills and order goods for home delivery, as well as paying for Buber.
The online car ordering has been operating in Afghanistan for several years, but business is tailing off for the other two firms, which according to officials had not managed to develop an advanced application.
“Technology is taking over each and every thing across the world, we do not want to be behind those guys and we would like to reach somewhere and rebuild Afghanistan. This is our mission, to rebuild Afghanistan,” said Zaheeruddin Naeabkhail, Buber’s senior manager.
Until its launch in January Buber is on a test run to make sure that the application works smoothly. It has enlisted 500 vehicles, with Kabul being the immediate target, and with the intention to expand to other major cities later.
Not many will be able to afford the Buber service: Smart phone owners and literate people are its target.
Even the drivers will have to be literate.
In a country where there is no fixed rate for taxis and customers usually bargain, Buber will have fixed prices and can come to a customer’s desired address for pick up.
In a country riven by violence and crimes, such as abductions, Buber can offer peace of mind to clients as it has a tracking mechanism which clients can share with anyone they want to for their safety, AHG officials said.
“The problem for now in the market is the security concern. We have this facility for the user as well as the driver that allows them to be able to track users through our GPS,” Naeabkhail said.
Drivers will be registered with full details for security measures and they can help the police with information if anything happens to a client between pickup and drop-off.
The application can be a great help for the customer to avoid congested areas and routes where there is protest or there has been an attack, officials said, adding this will save time for the client and money for the driver, as well as reducing pollution.
“This application is very challenging application, nobody else has it, it is not easy for others to build it easily. Afghans have developed the application themselves,” Naeabkhail said.
Roadblocks created by officials, some embassies, foreign troops and factional leaders are the key challenges and Buber hopes to address that with the help of Google, he said.
“The main challenge that we face is the map, because Afghanistan is not mapped very well. We would like the support of Google if they are willing to help us … it is like general support for the public at large and also for any company that comes later and invests.”