Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sher Value: Alternative Energy

Back two decades ago there was a consensus that when oil prices were consistently above US$ 30 per barrel the move towards alternate energy would be spurned on to reach a commercially viable solution. Now with oil in the mid $80 range, and in my opinion set to eventually cross the $100 mark, it is surprising that alternate energy is not the hottest topic on the scene. Indeed a lot has been done in the past two decades and perhaps now we can see a major effort forward towards solar and other alternate forms of energy emerging on the market.

In the US work is underway for a 550 megawatt solar thermal generation plant in the Mojave Desert, which will provide power to over 400,000 homes. In addition Spain, Morocco, India, Iran and others have solar power generation projects underway, which produce anywhere from 30 MW to 354 MW of power. While such power plants will not be the suppliers for huge industrial consumers they will take the place of valuable conventional power generation. Just imagine if all the homes in UAE could get their power needs from alternate energy.

We also have to consider that sooner or later the use of nuclear energy will be a cleaner and more efficient way of mass power generation in the future. Thus it is not far from conceivable that in the coming years perhaps countries like UAE and Qatar will consider nuclear power plants to replace the conventional energy generation. This will mean that the current myopic view of nuclear energy will have to change, and with the right safeguards should actually be encouraged.

It is also clear that with the current concern for the environment and global warming the impetus for alternate energy sources will gather pace. It is inevitable that we will have to consider a wide variety of generation needs, and indeed the government should consider incentives for those businesses who deploy clean, safe and efficient alternate energy systems.

The current predictions are that solar power generation will become more efficient and while today it would cost 15 cents pr Kilowatt hour it is estimated that within a couple years, and as more systems are deployed, the cost will come down to 7 cents per KWh, making solar energy very competitive with the oil and gas fired traditional power generation technologies.

We are at the point where alternate energies can be sustainable and to do this we need to create an encouraging atmosphere and this where a major effort towards legislation and financial support should be considered. This is the right way forward and nothing could be more positive than an oil producing country to also embrace the idea of solar and other alternate forms of energy. Interestingly, UAE is making a commitment to go Green and also is one of the countries listed as the most suitable for generating solar energy. Lets do something about this.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sher View: Thinkers on Iraq.

I was recently fortunate, thanks to the brilliant organization skills of my friend Pranay Gupte, to meet with some of the delegates that attended the Festival of Thinkers in Abu Dhabi. While I am not personally prone to large 'festival' type functions where presumably 'thinking' would be the order of the day, I prefer the smaller five to six people around a table conversation, I was nevertheless quite fascinated that people were, rightfully so, concerned about the Iraq war and the region. I felt genuine concern for what is happening in the region and most of all there seemed a resonance of searching for a way out of the 'mess Mr. Bush and Co' have created.

After over 34,650 violent deaths in Iraq in 2006 alone, (averaging close to 100 per day) one has to wonder what indeed are the benefits of this entire episode. But calling it an episode would be a blatant understatement, and indeed one without any remorse or feeling. Iraq is a tragedy on a scale that will haunt Arab politics and, more importantly, the social fiber for decades to come. Beyond the bombed and mutilated bodies there is a bigger price to pay for a failed state. If Saddam Hussein created the failed state of Iraq through his ruthless dictatorship, the events after the invasion of Iraq have taken the concepts of a failed state to an art form.

Iraq's embroiling mess of blood and tears and endless tragedy is also a failure of Arab Leadership, who have silently watched the piecemeal destruction not only of the Baath political apparatus but the dismantling of society to the point where life for the common Iraqi is nothing but painfully fragile. While US policymakers have recently distracted the debate to Iran and its possible nuclear ambitions, which God only knows are well founded or not, the reality is being forgotten that an unstable Iraq is in nobody's interest, and least of all Iran's. However, Iranian leadership misguided as it is also is propped up more by American pressure to remove it than by its own 'wise' policies. So long as Ahmednijedad can stand up on center stage and be seen as standing up to the US, the system within Iran cannot change him for a more moderate leadership; that is how Iran works.

I was asked often, 'how does the US solve this mess?' I do not have an answer, I have some wild guesses, but clear cut answer through the smoke of gunpowder and killings is always next to impossible. I will, in respect to the illustrious names who asked me that question venture a guess.

Iraq needs stability and it needs Arabs to provide the stability. This means that the Arab leadership should consider, with US encouragement, the creation of an Arab or Muslim peace force to go in and replace all American and their allies in Iraq. In addition a format for a large government of national reconciliation be 'nominated' by the Arab League, to stir Iraq through this transition phase. This is the only possible solution till the domestic situation can be calmed down to the point where a modicum of stability and peace comes to the war torn country. This allows the US a withdrawal from the region, allows both the Arabs and the Iranians to take a stake in the stability and peace in their own backyard and atleast sets the path for some possibilities for peace.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sher Value: Thought and Action

As the ink on these pages begins to dry out, hundreds of delegates to the Festival of Thinkers will have commenced the proceedings of the gathering, which brings together Nobel Laureates, powerful media personalities and people who have made a difference. While the Festival of Thinkers conjures the image of a hall full of people sitting in exaggerated poses, hand under chin, contemplating and pondering, the reality is that it sets a wonderful stage for bringing together people on a platform from where if nothing, understanding will emerge.

We do live in a fragile world, where issues from global warming to man made political disasters are threatening large populations of humanity. There is a greater effort being made to destroy what humanity has rather than build something for the future. It is therefore all the more important that efforts like this Festival serve not only as a platform for bringing people together for discussions, but also to move the mind set into action, into creating concrete accountable action plans for change.

Today there are hundreds of alliances and foundations for bringing change and welfare to humanity and earth, and they all are carving out a nice, positive role. What we need to consider is to move the envelope of experience further out, and think of such a platform as the Festival of Thinkers to become the aggregator of these alliances under a banner of ‘humane thought’. Such a collective will serve a huge purpose to aggregate alliances, charities and foundations to bring about structural changes in the body of society and economic and eco systems to allow for sustainable recovery. The most vital element today is coordinating the efforts of so many noble minded alliances and charities into a concerted policy of action .

Some years back I recall with the earthquake in Pakistan there were tons of agencies, charities and foundations pouring in aid, and resources to help in the earthquake devastated areas but it cannot be over looked that a large number of these relief efforts were actually duplicating themselves, causing actually a waste in the system of care. The Festival therefore allows people of a diverse range of cultures, educations and attitudes to sit together an work out an agenda of social change which will be followed up and not merely left behind on the delegates tables to be cleaned out the next day.

We live in a world where we need understanding, compassion and empathy. We need to understand why we have, mostly in the past 100 years, undone the quality of life that our future generations could have enjoyed. We have to pause at this moment and create the synergy that is needed between thought, business and compassion. Our model of tomorrow cannot be politically utilitarian; neither can it be economically and socially myopic because the results of these will be catastrophic. A Festival of Thinkers must create an idiom of thought which will force us to make a difference.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sher Value: Good Business or Bad Business?

Living in an ever shrinking world we are no longer isolated from the events that happens miles away. The famines of Africa, the effects of the Tsunami, the plight of children around the world, are all now in our face, and thanks to some TV channels, 24 hours a day. This is truly the ‘nano-second’ age and in such and age there are two options; either do something, or simply turn off the TV.

Over a decade ago, as a young CEO of a bank I was asked as to the reasons the bank supported causes like the WWF, the Arabian Leopard Trust, MSF and many others, and I recall saying if business cannot accept a social agenda for the betterment of people and earth then its not good business. I recall it was around 1992 when I had said that and most other CEO’s called to tell me I was losing the plot of running a bank. Perhaps plots are meant to be lost, perhaps we need a vision to make a difference.

Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have launched high profile drives to raise money, and more importantly, awareness, to causes that concern the human condition. While Dubai had started a program of care towards education around the world, Abu Dhabi has taken up the challenge of a broader format, and in both cases the response from the public has been over whelming. I read somewhere that the US government spends over US$ 1 billion at the Pentagon a DAY! Now factor that into health and education around the world and instead of swords we create pens and clinics, I have no doubt the world will not only be a better place but a safer place.

So then why is the message of ‘good business’ so hard to get, because simply put it is putting your profits into social good which in turn brings you more expansion as the market place becomes better and vibrant. Perhaps because the near term gain is more important, cutting down forests for a profit seems better to some then perhaps creating forests that will replace what we mow down.

Indeed man has wrecked more havoc on man himself than nature and in it bad business, has never played a glorious role other than to further its own cause. The resulting impact has been that only now the big business companies are beginning to become ‘energy companies’ rather than simply ‘oil companies’ and with oil at $80 a barrel alternate energy and clean energy becomes an item on their agenda.

Then there is the bad business of governments, where conscious is abandoned for gain, where India’s oil minister signs three oil explorations contracts with the Burmese military junta the same day the streets are filled with Buddhist monks being shot at, where the issues of climate change are pushed aside into the rubbish pile where other agendas of social change lay buried. Good business and good government are getting together to make a difference and that’s the good news.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Sher View: Burma is India's Litmus Test

India has always celebrated its successes, as indeed would many countries, both in its domestic and foreign policy, around the principles of democracy, secularism and Mathama Ghandi's principles of non violence. While India today boasts of its secular ideals, and perhaps rightly so, it has sadly betrayed Ghandi's adherence to non violence in its support for the military Junta in Myanmar (Burma). On September 23, 2007 as demonstrators were gathering in Rangoon and other cities, Indian minister for oil was in Myanmar signing three agreements on oil exploration and quite blatantly ignoring the uprising of the monks without making a single reference to the trouble on his return home.

Today India runs a trade surplus of US$400 million with Burma, largely made up through the export of military hardware and ammunition. Faced with growing influence of China with the Myanmar regime, India, ten years ago, commenced it policy of engagement with the regime in Myanmar. While China, being a non democratic country can be expected to do no better, but India? Interestingly the Indian press and public support the pro democracy movement, a fact that the Indian government continues to ignore.

India cannot go on sitting on the sidelines and ignore the role it must play in bringing about change in a country where guns and ammunition supplied by New Delhi are mowing down peace loving Buddhist monks. It is time for a change in policy and it is clear that unless China and India do not change their policy on Burma, the chances are that there is little than the world community can do to help the pro democracy movement. While changing perceptions and policy is China are next to impossible, India on the other hand as a conscious to answer for, a conscious that seems woefully lost on its own leadership.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Sher Value: The Pressure of Growth

Growing an economy and expansion are the hallmarks of a successful business model and indeed in this sense the UAE has set a wonderful example. As skyscrapers move even higher into the stratosphere, and new hotels pop up with the regularity that is almost predictable there is a perceptible pressure for services building up. While this is inevitable that service standards do suffer through an expansion phase of an economy, good planning should, generally speaking, rid one self of the complain of bad service. However, the adherence to quality is more a buzzword and it is becoming appalling to see how a lax attitude has come into some of the service sector, to the point where the customer does not matter.

A 30 day wait to get an internet connection in the Jumairah area, a 15 minute hold on the phone to make a claim, a 10 day wait to get the simplest information back from a bank, or indeed a 30 minute lapse for a cup of coffee changes the meaning of the phrase ‘instant coffee’. There is no denying that growth in the country has stretched the resource side of the market to the point where it is more than strained, but then where were the planners, the trainers, the human resource specialists all planning for the boom?

There are three distinct phases of the process; design build and operate, and it is at the latter part of his process that the model is beginning to fall off the seams. What is surprising is that this is happening at all the scales of the economic spectrum, so bad service is as common with the major telecom company, as it is with a coffee shop on Sh Zayed road. Why isn’t anyone doing something about it? Well simply put the business is already too good, so if a few customers go to bed complaining about things then so what as there are enough waiting in the sidelines. This is indeed the worse possible thinking in a situation like the one we are currently faced with.

Here are my suggestions; stop all Quality Awards immediately because companies that have already won the award have little interest in quality and the ones who have not won it really seem more caught up in making money rather than being ‘good’. Secondly it is high time that a customer care system is put in place to deal with complaints and please given them enough operators so that phone is atleast answered.

The country is on the cutting edge of the financial and service sector and needs to compete and needs to renew its pledge for service. This can only be achieved if there is a clear cut recognition that we currently have a problem of deteriorating service and attention to detail and this is hurting the image of the country. Too much has been invested into the country for a brighter future to let a bad service at one point of contact with clients to tarnish that image. Things need to be fixed and fast!!!