African Business' Jennie Street talks with the Minister for Trade and Industry, Ali Said Abdella.
African Business: What are Eritrea's main exports?
Ali Said Abdella: Salt, fish, leather products, sesame seeds, and flowers. We are not now exporting bottles as the machinery is being renovated.
AB: Where do most of your exports go to?
ASA: More exports (64.1% in 1996) go to Ethiopia as we used to be one country, but we are now trying to diversify into COMESA countries and to Europe and the Middle East.
AB: You have recently signed bilateral trade agreements with several countries. Could you tell me about them?
ASA: We have signed with Egypt, Italy and Turkey, and are in process with Djibouti. We have always had a strong trade relationship with Italy, and most of our now publicly-owned factories were set up by the Italians. Turkey is a new area, we can import in particular construction materials and consultants, as well as textiles advice. With Djibouti we need each other as we have a close border link, and Djibouti imports many live animals from Eritrea.
AB: What about recent Saudi interest in investing in Eritrea?
ASA: A businessman, Prince Al Waleed, has visited and sent his consultants to look at hotels and tourism, and we also asked him about agricultural development. There is some trade with Saudi companies and they will be building some factories here -- for plastics, cables etc. There are opportunities in shrimp farming as our coast is so long, and we are neighbours.
AB: What are the plans for free zones or export-processing zones?
ASA: Export zones are very important. We are studying this issue, and can see models in China and Dubai. Yemen is also considering a free trade zone in Aden, so we are learning from others. We are in a strategic position. We want to implement such a policy within the next four to five years.
AB: What has been the response to the privatisation of the 39 public enterprises you have put up for sale?
ASA: We have sold eight, and eight others are under negotiation. It takes time and a lot of work to prepare for privatisation, but we are moving. We are selling even the most profitable companies, not just the scrap. We are talking with Eritreans, Norwegians, Italians, British. We are still in negotiation with COMESA, but we don't want to deal with middle men.
AB: Which are the biggest industries in Eritrea?
ASA: The textile industry employs the most people -- 4,000. But Asmara brewery is the most profitable (gross...