What Just Happened Africa?

Last week the President of the United States embarked on what some media appointed Africa analysts called an, or is it a historical, visit to our beloved Africa. This is not to say that since his appointment President Obama has not been to our fair, sometimes scary continent, according to the dominant (read Western) press, he has, but those were whistle stops between Europe and the Middle East so we’ll pretend they don’t count. No-one, well not that I’ve noticed, even seems to remember that he spoke in front of that ex-leader Hosni Mubarak’s parliament during his first term but then again, it is generally understood in these parts that to say you are in Africa only counts if you are south of the Sahara no?

Never having been north of the Malawian border-post closest to Zimbabwe I ask you to forgive my possible southern African bias in my analysis.

Last Friday I waited eagerly for the first tweet on my timeline announcing the arrival of Air Force One at the, ummm, now shall we say well known Waterkloof Air Force Base which I’ve been told is north of South Africa’s capital Pretoria. Somehow I got distracted and woke up on Saturday morning to nothing but second by second updates of the movements of America’s first family, most of them dubious. Despite my wife’s best intentions we found ourselves watching President Obama speak at the University of Johannesburg to the youth of Africa. I’ll admit I’ve been a fan of President Obama since he was first nominated as the democratic candidate in 2008 simply because of how much he achieved in such a short period of time since entering American politics but that’s a story for another blog. 

On Saturday afternoon I tuned in curious to hear what he had to say but somewhat expecting to hear the now usual lecture to Africa of how we can and should do for ourselves if we just get ourselves together. I ‘ll admit, it’s been a while since I was so wrong. President Obama spoke to so many things I relate to regarding the development of Africa that I started wondering if the NSA hadn’t passed on my tweets and Facebook posts to POTUS. Most notably:

1. Africa needs to start trading with Africa.

2. Africans need to seriously consider all investment proposals from all comers including and especially from the United States.

3. Africa needs electricity.

Since Saturday afternoon, southern African time, much has been said about President Obama’s speech, depressingly, mostly negative. Much of it has centred around how the US is late to the table and China has effectively locked up the best deals and made good on it’s promises. To an extent this has some bearing. Earlier this year China held it’s fifth China-Africa summit, President Obama announced the US’s first equivalent summit will happen next year in Washington and he is yet to send out invitations to our beloved leaders. However, what has gotten the most attention has been the $7 Billion Africa energy fund which is actually a $16 Billion fund after you throw in the $9 Billion private sector commitment already secured. This initiative is expected to double sub-Saharan Africa’s energy capacity over the next seven years. Considering that it takes South Africa, Africa’s most developed economy, about seven years to build a 4800 megawatt (MW) coal fired power plant, this is a very, very big deal. 

The skeptics and China fans were quick to write countless reams about why this won’t work. They talk of the timing of this initiative, saying President Obama is hoping to secure his legacy with one last big African deal like his two predecessors. I have a different perspective.

What if, just work with me here, the Obama administration has intentionally waited things out regarding Africa, watching the Chinese do what they do? Lest we forget, the Americans invented economic modelling, who in their right mind can assume that they missed the African renaissance? It’s simply not plausible. Consider first America’s experiences in Africa during the Clinton and Bush years, being run out of Somalia, the failure to act on the Rwanda genocide, the Kenya and Tanzania US embassy bombings. it only makes sense for them to have taken the time to seriously look at their relations with Africa and come up up with an economic plan they could pitch as mutually beneficial and I believe this is it. 

On Saturday afternoon President Obama spoke of how the US is willing to help make trade within the continent easier, he said something like, “why is it easier for Uganda to export to Europe than it is to transport those same goods to somewhere else in Africa?”. I’ve been asking the same of Southern African states for years. Whilst not much more was said on this I believe if the US pitches this properly, China will quickly become just another suitor to Africa’s development.

Think about it, by some estimates it is possible that Africa may already have more people than the Indian sub-Continent or even China, the world’s second biggest economy. One simply has to go into the wonderful world of Google to find that the United Nations projects that whilst developed regions’ populations are in decline, Africa’s population will double within the next 37 years making it the most populous single land mass in addition to having the highest known and estimated concentrations of yet to be exploited on or off-shore minerals, oil and gas. Managed properly, these resources could guarantee that Africa becomes one of the world’s leading economies within the next 30 years or less. If I am able to collate this from freely accessible news feeds and a keen interest in the continent, what more the most equipped government in the world?

I’m inclined to believe that whilst China has been espousing its policy of investment without sovereign interference, the US have been developing their “partnership with Africa” policy which they are now launching. This comes only a few months after BRICS nations announced their intention to create a development bank focused on Africa which will go live in five years. Unfortunately the President of the continent’s leading financial institution, the African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, has questioned the establishment of a BRICS bank whilst underfunded African financial institutions exist. On multiple occasions this year, Mr. Kaberuka has challenged African governments to fund the AfDB and focus on the continent’s infrastructure needs but this has only received lip service to the best of my knowledge, possibly a gap the US has identified.

In the meantime the Brits are not sitting still either. Just a few days ago, Afua Hirsch, the west Africa correspondent for a British paper, The Guardian, wrote about how the British government is considering establishing a development bank so as to better allocate resources to developing countries in the form of repayable loans rather than the current development aid model which has had, at best mixed results. This is supposed to relieve the British taxpayer but lets face it, loans come with interest and interest means profit for the lender so in a time of waning developed economies, anything that looks like it can make a buck is probably worth a look. Despite the fact that I have never been a fan of BRICS for Africa, even a devoted advocate will acknowledge that by the time their bank launches the world, especially Africa, will be a highly competitive place. Whoever is President of South Africa by then may have some tough questions to answer.

With all this attention on Africa, I’m willing to put my money on the US having a master-plan that will ensure that China remains, at best, the world’s second biggest economy and a BRICS bank nice dinner conversation for diplomats . Somebody poked the bear and the bear is putting EVERYBODY on notice. 


When Technology Exceeds Human (in)Ability.

 I originally wrote this on March 02 2012

So yesterday I go into the Econet- my cellphone service provider- shop at Ascot Shopping Centre to find out how far they are with launching Blackberry Internet Service on the network, only to come face to face with the definition of incompetence.

First, some background info. After months of being laughed at by friends and family about my two cent Nokia 2700 I was finally convinced last month to get a “descent phone” by a very cunning lady who introduced me to the Blackberry Bold. Needless to say, it took a few embarrassing days to get used to but her patience and my perseverance prevailed and I was won over. So one bright Bulawayo morning feeling, so tech-savvy, I triumphantly swagger into an Econet store and ask they install WhatsApp, Fb and Twitter on my Bb smartphone, because it’s not just a phone you see, its a Blackberry. The assistant looked at my Bb and sheepishly mumbled he couldn’t install anything on it for some reason I couldn’t understand, so I left rather confused and feeling not so tech-savvy. After more perseverance I got myself socially networked and decided to find out what the real Bb-Econet problem was, a bad idea. After a month of calls to the  Broadband customer care-line and getting increasingly frustrated- twice I was told to get another phone instead of a Blackberry- I trekked to Ascot yesterday.


The kindly customer-care lady, bless her heart, had little idea of what I was on about and suggested I complete the customer complaints book. The irony of one of the country’s most technologically advanced firms using good ol’ pen n’ paper did not escape me. I tell you, I took liberties with that pen and ripped the chaps a new one. After sufficiently venting, I handed back the book, left the shop and didn’t think I’d hear anything from “the world’s leading telecoms provider”, wrong again.

I got a call at about 4p.m. from some guy about my complaint who explained Econet’s position regarding BIS, pretty much the hog-wash the call-centre people had tried to sell me for the last month, unfortunately for him I wasn’t in the mood and relished the opportunity to rip him and his employer to shreds for a good fifteen minutes because I knew, this being a cellphone company,  the last thing he could do was hang up no matter what I said. By the end of it, all poor Lovemore could say was “I understand Sir and I will pass your complaint on to the relevant department”. Its really not his fault but this is the job he chose and unfortunately, sometimes messengers do get shot. I told Lovemore if I didn’t hear from him in seven days I’d call him.

Turns out Econet has applied to the Posts and Telecoms Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, POTRAZ, for a license to offer Blackberry Internet Services (BIS) on their network and this is still pending. My problem is they knew this more than two months ago and have chosen not to inform their clients or staff yet they spend huge amounts on self-promotion. I asked what was Econet’s plan if POTRAZ declined their application and I was told they have none.  That’s not all folks, for over two years Econet has been installing Opera Mini mobile browser on subscribers’ smartphones including Blackberry. After discovering that this browser can crash subscribers’ smartphones they decided to stop installing it so as to limit their liability. To date they have not informed subscribers neither do they offer an alternative browser. If you go into their stores you are now told ‘install at your own risk’. I ask you

  • Should they not inform subscribers of this potential disaster?
  • Why are they not doing anything to remedy the situation?
  • What is the extent of their liability to subscribers who’s phones crash?
  • Are they not obligated by law to at least perform or offer services as advertised?

 This is an example of the need for real consumer protection legislation in Zimbabwe where we have ineffective industry regulatory bodies that are funded by the same firms they are supposed to regulate. We need to start having this conversation.

Since then I’ve stopped using Econet due to poor service, BIS is still not available in Zimbabwe and I’ve recently switched to an iPhone.

Zimbabwe’s diaspora question and it’s economic colonisation.

I originally wrote this in late 2012 and though it hasn’t been updated is more relevant today than ever.

A little spoken about part of our history is that the story of the Zimbabwean Diaspora is as old as the country itself. Members of our first government, including the chief architect of our first constitution the late Edson Zvobgo, spent much time abroad. Members of my family studied for years abroad returning home after 1981. Diasporans were a big part of the establishment of the society that we came to know as Zimbabwe especially in healthcare, education and policy formulation. The country welcomed back her educated sons and daughters and the rest is, well, history.

In 2000 we saw the beginning of the culmination of a number of bad governance decisions which led to the first significant wave of Zimbabweans leaving the country for elsewhere. Without verifiable statistics, it is still not known how many Zimbabweans have since emigrated or the nature of the migration trends. What is verifiable though, is that the relationship between Zimbabweans at home and abroad has, at times, been strained in large part due to the economic effects of what has come to be known as “Zimbabwe’s Lost Decade” from 2000 to 2010. During that period many Diasporans sent remittances home to relatives saving many, many lives. Today numerous families continue to receive remittances from abroad, allowing them a better quality of life. Diasporans also invested in the economy through building homes and establishing businesses. Given all this, I believe that some perspective is needed, we must differentiate between family obligations and suggestions of unacknowledged economic patriotism.

Jump to today and read posts on sites such as swradioafrica.com, newsdzezimbabwe.co.uk, thezimbabwean.co.uk and nehandaradio.com you can be forgiven for concluding Zimbabwe and it’s government, are solely reliant on diaspora remittances. Recently an article, typical of such reporting, by Tanonoka Joseph Wande appeared on SW Radio Africa’s site entitled “Zimbabwe must give better recognition to those in Diaspora”. I take issue with this position because whilst it is indisputable that remittances have saved lives for over a decade, it is not unreasonable to assume that the bulk of this money has gone into consumptive expenditure such as food, accommodation, health, clothing and transport. Who would not help their family if they were in a position to do so? Taking care of ones’ family by sending money home is no different from anyone in Norton, Harare, Bulawayo or Filabusi earning a paycheck to do the same. The suggestion that diaspora remittances and the remitters are more Zimbabwean, deserving greater recognition than those at home is simply ridiculous. Today’s Diasporans take care of their families just as everyone else does every single day, is the fact that those relatives are alive and well not recognition enough for their efforts? What is this sense of entitlement and what exactly is it that they feel entitled to? I have a theory that goes back a few years.

In 2006 Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono was at the height of his powers, people even referred to him as our de-facto Prime Minister, a reference he never publicly objected to. In an effort to mobilise foreign currency the Reserve Bank (RBZ) established its subsidiary Homelink targeting Zimbabweans living abroad. Homelink’s mandate was to offer investments, money transfer services, and mortgages to diasporans wanting to build back home, Governor Gono even went as far as to say Diasporans were the country’s greatest export as they earned Zimbabwe foreign currency and the more young people who went abroad the better. Meanwhile, home-based Zimbabweans were not afforded such opportunities and for the majority, holding foreign currency was a serious criminal offence. I wrote to the Governor advising that this preferential treatment of Diasporans could lead to issues with those at home who were bearing the brunt of the economic collapse fuelled by government profligacy and short-sighted, often punitive, government policies, a situation akin to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, if you will. I never got a reply and as fate would have it, I was to be proven right.

Gono’s policy of Diaspora appeasement found a face in Professor Arthur Mutambabara when the latter became the leader of the splinter MDC party, a Diasporan came home to lead a political party and went on to become Deputy Prime Minister shortly thereafter. This policy found further political support in the government established under the Global Political Agreement (GPA) of 2008 with all kinds of promises being made to woo Diasporans back home, however, when these promises went unfulfilled the Diaspora was not shy in calling out the politicians involved resulting in some embarrassing incidents. Now we are inundated with constant calls for “the right conditions so we can come home”.

Diasporans often say “if things were right” they would be on the next flight or bus home, question is, what are these “right things” and who do they expect to make them so? I’m inclined to believe these are insincere statements made by people who maybe feel embarrassed that they are better off than those they left behind yet know they are at a loss to do anything about it. The majority of Diasporans have become comfortable in their adopted countries and I say good for them, however, whilst many go about their daily lives there are those who have taken on the mantle to save Zimbabwe from itself. This effort has been predominantly political in nature with little, if any, economic aspects. There is a disconnect between Diasporans and those at home when it comes to how to overcome our many challenges, especially, which challenge to deal with, how and when. Diaspora activists seem to not realise that whilst they may have overcome their own economic challenges, they are at different levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the many at home who struggle daily for food, accommodation, education, health and work. If Diasporans, as a collective, were serious about participating in the economy, they would have already done much more, it’s not as if they haven’t had over a decade to prepare. Granted there are those who are making efforts to do business at home but without coordinated private sector employment and capacity creation, their efforts will not  result in much of a change.

In my interactions with Zimbabweans who have succeeded abroad, many have little economic interest in Zimbabwe beyond providing for their families still here. They talk of entry-level investments to establish a presence so that when “things come right” they will be able to respond quickly, really? Ask them why or when this will be and they list every possible reason why they can’t invest or raise their children here. Oddly enough, the country and it’s investment climate is good enough for their relatives to live in and also good enough for Chinese, Russian and South African investors as it is. Is it any surprise then that China and South Africa are Zimbabwe’s top investors enjoying numerous incentives whilst we go on ad infinitum about how educated and talented our people are at home and abroad? With all our worldly cleverness why are we yet to see adequate liquidity in our banks to support our private sector? Successful and prosperous Zimbabweans are to be found in probably every functional economy on the planet  yet our own economy lurches from one dismal year to the next.

We have fallen for the myth that our national salvation lies in the Chiyadzwa and Marange diamond fields being mined by the Chinese, South Africans,Russians and faceless locals with little benefit to the nation. Another myth we are fed is that everyone can be a farmer or an entrepreneur or part of an indiginization consortium so they can enjoy the economic fruits of our sovereignty.  With formal unemployment estimated at over 80% it is pure fantasy that the latter measure will work, where will the demand come from? We will promote our exports to the East you say? What happens the day they decide to go shopping elsewhere? Over 70% of South Africa’s highest earners are in executive employment, the same is true of established first world economies, logic would follow that Zimbabwe should focus on sustainable employment creation if it hopes to create wealth,this is where I would expect the Diaspora to come in. What sense is there in having 4000 black tobacco farmers replace 400 whites producing the same volumes and exporting unprocessed leaf to the East? Since 2000 there are now three cigarette manufacturers from one yet most of the leaf is still exported unprocessed. In mining chrome miners lobby government to allow them to export raw chrome as they have failed to build refineries yet a Chinese firm is now in the process of building a number of them around the country. According to the Daily News of 15 October 2012 the country holds 12% of the world’s chromite reserves and accounts for 1,2% of world production down from 5% in 2000. Those Diasporans skilled in mining who can protect and develop this national asset have been found lacking.

Zimbabwe has been reduced to a base agriculture and mining economy with little processing, refining and manufacturing activity or capacity. The services, notably banking, and retail sectors enjoyed a growth spurt after dollarisation in 2009 but this has proved to be unsustainable with more players but no growth in the customer base. This has resulted in cannibalism amongst the retailers and drastic restructuring amongst the banks. There has also been increased participation of foreign players in both sectors,

  • South Africa’s Pickn’Pay now owns 49% of TM Supermarkets and is currently rebranding their major stores,
  • MBCA bank is majority owned by Nedbank South Africa, Premier Bank was bought out and rebranded by a Nigerian bank whilst NMB and Kingdom banks have sold equity to foreigners.

Once more Diasporans are found lacking and again I wonder, what “right things” are they waiting for?

Zimbabweans need to rekindle that spirit of the 1980’s that brought our many talents together except this time, with the benefit of experience gained over the last thirty three years. We need to divest ourselves as a people of the sense of entitlement that has handicapped us the last thirteen years. We believe we are entitled to jobs, electricity, clean water, good schools for our children, good roads, clean air and all that life has to offer, however, belief needs deeds or it remains only an idea. If those in a position to make this happen remain on the sidelines they will wake up one day to find that Zimbabwe’s economy has been completely colonised and they will be strangers in their own land, Diasporans who withhold their money, skills and other resources in protest at a percieved lack of recognition are ill-advised.

Harare property boom or bubble?

Earler today I read an article by Mail & Guardian journalist Jason Moyo about the high end property boom in Harare. This got me thinking, who exactly is Moyo writing for, because from my knowledge of the Zimbabwean economy and its unforgiving ways, the article seemed rather one-sided. What I found strange, amongst other things, was how the fund managers interviewed say they struggle to get information to clients in New York, this you have to take that with more than just a bucket of salt. The fact is the information is there, everywhere but they just can’t package it in a way traditional investors would understand, because they themselves don’t understand what’s going on. Zimbabwe has unique problems and opportunities that defy convention so a fund manager or stockbroker are possibly ill-placed to give a view of what’s actually happening on the ground. Their profession is also synonymous with every stock market crash and property bubble since the first crash and bubble so I tend to take what they say with skepticism. You’re better off talking to property agents, buyers and actual developers. A boom you say? I’d call it a bubble because it is not backed by clear economic and infrastructural fundamentals. As Moyo states in his title, this is being driven by the “Zim diaspora” who, aside from being originally from Zimbabwe are no different from other short term investors (read opportunists) looking for highly profitable areas to park their money. This housing “boom” is not backed by any sustainable upswing in economic activity but on the premise that this upswing is just around the corner. To paraphrase from a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill Volume 1, recovery is not a straight path, it is a forest. Diasporans will not save Zimbabwe, if they were going to, they would have done so already, they are investors first, with patriotism not exactly a major priority.
Zimbabwe is currently not making any new millionaires, officially anyway, as growth has been pedestrian the last two years after the initial hype of dollarization and the Global Political Aagreement GPA. Without tangible growth, where are the occupants of the plush new mansions going to come from? These developers are making investment decisions as they already own primary and secondary homes, possibly farms even. Once the buying spree doesn’t kick off as promised, expect a sell-off of note. Another thing is Harare is notorious for its poor water infrastructure, especially in Borrowdale, so how are the developers getting around this? Poor service delivery has added to the costs of residential developments in Borrowdale particularly and Harare in general for many years and has steadily gotten worse. Though this work is currently ongoing, it will take some years still to rectify this situation compounded by the unrelenting urban migration into the Sunshine City.
So a boom? I don’t think so, it will be interesting to see how large this bubble grows before it bursts and who it will take with. I sincerely hope it will deflate before then but if it doesn’t, thankfully this is funded mostly by off-shore money and the burst will have little effect on the national economy as the amount of local resources being allocated to this is minimal.

Here is a link to the Mail & Guardian article: http://mg.co.za/article/2013-04-19-zim-diaspora-drives-property-boom

What if Zimbabwe didn’t import second-hand Asian and European vehicles?

Botswana recently followed South Africa’s lead and banned the operation on its roads of vehicles older than five years imported from Europe and the UK. This has put Zimbabwean importers of these vehicles under pressure as they are now forced to either drive the vehicles through Namibia or put them on some sort of transport. Predictably the “sector” is up in arms.
Earlier this week a local car assembly and distribution company Quest Motors announced they are on the verge of closing their doors due to lack of business, spiraling costs and competition from importers of European and Asian vehicles. Willowvale Mazda Motor Industries the only other Zimbabwean vehicle assembler, has effectively stopped production of its sole vehicle, the Mazda BT-50 from once having three assembly lines working simultaneously. I Zimbabwe we talk a lot about our sovereignty, economic freedom and the entrepreneurial spirit, often with almost religious fervor. How then does this tie in with killing our local businesses in the name of self-enrichment and saving a buck? If we are serious about rebuilding our economy should we not then be lobbying our government to make locally assembled vehicles and financing more accessible? Instead of crying sabotage when the government tried to limit the importation of Left Hand Drive (LHD) trucks and cars, should we not instead have challenged them to make equivalent and safer vehicles available?
It makes simple sense to me that if our revenue authority, ZIMRA, charged fair duty on the importation of new motor vehicles instead of the current +100%, we would have many more quality vehicles on our roads leading to a lesser drain on financial resources and a lower death toll on our roads. We would also have more sustainable job creation in the motor industry and related sectors, allowing the ZIMRA to recover what they lose in duties from the many additional sources of income created. Not everyone and their uncle has to be a vehicle importer or trader, let’s look to other businesses that can contribute to growing a real economy. —

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