The federal government has centralized the approvals for investment incentives as the Ministry of Finance takes over the responsibility from various agencies.

The Ministry assumed the authority before approving a new directive drafted to enforce the new working arrangement. The revised structure limits the role of the Investment Commission to reviewing incentive requests online through a newly established digital system.

The Customs Commission and regional investment offices were also previously involved in reviewing requests for incentives, leading to accusations of gross mismanagement and corruption since the process has been scattered. Officials at the Ministry hope the change will reduce misuse by investors and abuse by federal and regional agencies. They expect the new system to strengthen monitoring and evaluation of incentive provisions, including follow up on the status of investments.

Tax holidays for priority sectors, income tax holidays, duty-free imports, exemptions for raw materials used as inputs for the manufacturing of export goods, and the provision of land at nominal lease prices are some of the incentives the government has availed to foreign and domestic investors.

The revenues the government has forgone as tax incentives could equal the country's annual budget but there is no way of knowing, according to Mulay Weldu, director of tax policy at the Ministry of Finance. He believes the centralisation of the approval process would help the government monitor the process and ensure incentives are provided to the right investor for the right purpose.

"Investment incentives have to be provided in a targeted manner," said Mulay.

Insiders have been dismayed by investors who misused duty-free privileges for imports other than what they were granted. Some were given the privileges to import for the hospitality industry but were found importing machinery for sale in the domestic market. The Ethiopian Investment Commission had received 4,300 applications for incentives last year, 80pc of which were submitted online. Over half were from the manufacturing sector, while the service and agriculture sectors followed. Almost two-thirds of the applications submitted were for the duty-free import of capital goods.

Some of the officials at the Commission voice their concerns that centralisation may not be the answer to discipline investors who misuse their privileges.

Mulatu Kibrit, head of the Investment Incentives Directorate at the Commission, has doubts about the efficacy of the new arrangement.

"The Ministry shouldn't be a regulator and an enforcer at the same time," he said.

Those in the private sector feel no different.

A domestic investor who wished to remain anonymous believes centralising the procedure could be a good start. He would like to see the final decision to be made based on directions put forth by the Office of the Prime Minister.

"No decision seems to be made horizontally," he said. "The applicants don't have information, and neither do the decision-makers."

Abinet Belay, an investment consultant with 14 years of experience with MPE Advisory Firm, says the centralisation of the incentive approval process should not be seen as an end in and of itself. The government should implement a thorough follow-up procedure, and consider areas not included in the incentive bracket.

"Those engaged in risk-prone sectors and locations should be prioritised when awarding incentives," said Abinet.