Of Carts And Donkeys: Why it is wrong to think exports will restore and sustain Zimbabwe’s economy.

Unlike the chicken and egg riddle, in economics, there is no question that a strong domestic economy is always the basis from which strong exports are built. This is why it remains a wonder to me that every other day there is talk of how Zimbabwe’s exporters need to ramp up production and take advantage of international markets. At the same time the Minister of Trade and Industry, Mike Bimha, is telling any foreigner who will listen that Zimbabwe is open for business with a vibrant domestic market. A few weeks ago Minister Bimha reportedly went as far as to invite a South African business delegation to take advantage of the current jobs bloodbath and set up shop in Zimbabwe because local industry is practically stalled. So local producers must export whilst the domestic market is serviced by foreign firms who come in and produce? How does this work? This is the same thinking with the Look East policy that has seen Chinese firms benefiting from generous investment initiatives going back at least a decade with no reciprocation. It is now clear there was never any incentive for the Chinese to do so to begin with because Zimbabwe did not negotiate a trade deal, they simply gave the family jewels away.

What Zimbabwe needs to do is focus on deepening the local economy, a Marshall Plan, if you will. The first step is to restore trust in the government, nobody puts in a country where those who run it cannot be trusted to honour their commitments unless they themselves are not trustworthy. Next would be to restore local industrial capacity to supply the domestic market by investing in base infrastructure such as roads, rail, electricity, education, telecommunications, health and housing. This can only be done once Zimbabwe becomes a viable investment destination, a factor largely determined by the level of government’s trustworthiness. For too long Zimbabwe has tried to sell itself as primarily a source of raw materials and a conduit to the continent with the domestic economy treated as ancillary to that. The central location of Zimbabwe previously made it ideal for channeling southern and central Africa’s produce to the ports of South Africa and Mozambique and imports up north. Any benefit falling to the local economy was more of mere consequence rather than actual intent. This is Zimbabwe’s colonial legacy, it is still strong and highly evident in the trade language of today’s government. But there is hope.

It is notable that barely days after President Mugabe gave his surprisingly brief State Of The Nation Address parliament is seized with passing a raft of laws aimed at creating a more investment friendly environment. Needless to say, last week’s visit by Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote and the announcement of his intent to invest in Zimbabwe could not be coincidental. This has been borne out in various news stories of the behind the scenes negotiations culminating in last Monday’s whirlwind visit. The local broadcaster had hardly scrambled together their usual analysts and Dangote had already left Harare. Since then cabinet has approved all of Dangote’s projects, though I am not sure what that means as no plans have yet been presented to them, let alone drawn up. Meanwhile the Zimbabwe Investment Authority’s Nigel Chanakira has said they will not be found wanting when the time for issuing all necessary investment permits comes.

Whist I have many questions about what this deal means for how Zimbabwe conducts business I am cautiously optimistic. I am hoping government may just have finally painted themselves into a corner such that they have no room to mess this up as they have done countless times before. Another reason to like this deal is that it is totally about local capacity building to cater for Zimbabweans. The coal will be mined locally for domestic power generation to feed a cement plant that will primarily supply the local market. It is now to wait and see how local businesses are going to compliment these developments and thus deepen the economic multiplier effect.

This is what it means to put the domestic economy first. It is not prone to the whims of export markets and fancies of international commodity brokers. The more integrated the domestic economy, the better it will carry a country through any international crises. It is the donkey that will pull the proverbial cart and it must be fed. If such efforts can be replicated across other industrial sectors over the next ten years there is hope yet to see a Zimbabwe restored to it’s rightful economic status in our lifetime.

Zimbabwe Sees Boost In Regional Exports

Today the world woke up to the news that Zimbabwe has become a regional powerhouse in an unexpected field, load shedding. Whilst it is widely known that Zimbabwe has struggled with power generation for a number of years, it has only recently come to light that Africa’s most literate country has turned this national lemon into the proverbial lemonade.

Following a state visit to South Africa in April this year by President Mugabe, South Africa and Zimbabwe signed a variety of trade pacts. It is believed amongst these was a commitment by South Africa to increase it’s imports of load shedding from Zimbabwe by 500% phased in over 3 years to allow Zimbabwe to ramp up production. South Africa is believed to have wanted an exclusive deal but Zimbabwe resisted this siting her positions as chair of both SADC and the AU. Zimbabwe trade negotiators felt this resource must be shared with all of Africa. Unofficial sources have stated that load shedding exports to South Africa could be the economic panacea that Zimbabwe has been looking for after a similar deal with Nigeria fell through.

Zimbabwe is also a major global exporter of skilled and unskilled labour with South Africa being a major market. It is possibly the runaway success of this trade that swayed the Zuma presidency to conclude the mammoth load shedding deal.

Zimbabwe will also be ramping up exports of specialist financial services to South Africa and the greater SADC community, chief among them, currency devaluation and inflation fuelling. Early gains have already been recorded in South Africa with the ZAR now at near record levels to the currencies of western imperialist states. Inflation however, has proved to be rather stubborn and a specialist team has been seconded to Finance Minister NhlaNhla Nene from Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Finance as a matter of urgency.
Other areas where Zimbabwe has provided services to South Africa include:
Service non-delivery
Ghost worker deployment
Legislative bungling
National debt maximisation
Government Accountability reduction measures

As part of a cultural aspect Zimbabwe will also be deploying experts in historical revisionism to ensure the struggle against apartheid is forever remembered as it should be.

You’re Not From Here Are You? My migrant story.

I never meant to end up in Johannesburg but I always knew my life was not in the streets of Bulawayo. I was born with a wanderlust and for as long as I can remember being on the road has always been a source of great joy. The less planned the journey the better.

The events of the last few weeks around South Africa have touched me deeply and made me think a lot about my life, my place in this country and the world at large. Though I see myself as a global citizen, I am currently resident in a country that is in flux, leading to so many questions.

How does this affect me?

What of my family?

How will I tell our daughter why people were dying in the country of her birth whilst she was preoccupied with taking her first steps? Whilst we cut her first birthday cake last Sunday a family in Alexandra, barely ten kilometres from us, was mourning the death of a father and brother killed for being Mozambican.

I have lived in South Africa on and off since 1998 but only really returned here two years ago after a decade away. At the time I even wrote a breakup letter to the country of my birth, Zimbabwe. The only place I ever really felt at home was in Cape Town over a decade ago, this time however, I’ve come to call Johannesburg home, albeit grudgingly so. Cape Town was a great place to disappear into because one had the sense that everyone there was from somewhere else, we were all foreigners of sorts. Johannesburg, has been different, whilst I have never been a victim of outright xenophobia in my face, I have often been subtly reminded of my place here, especially online.

In response to this I guard my online conversations so as not to give life to the trolls. Whenever tweeting or writing about South Africa I am careful to never use the collective “we”. The reason being once you get under the skin of locals they will be quick to remind you, “you’re not from here though are you, so who is this we you refer to?”. This will quickly be followed by a torrent of “go back to Zimbabwe” and “ungrateful foreigner” rants. I have seen it and it’s ugly with little chance of recovery for your reputation.

I’m wary to get too deeply involved in South African discussions for fear of that comment that can instantly delegitimise me. it is always there, lurking like an axe swinging inches from one’s throat. Is that a xenophobic trait amongst South Africans? I don’t think so but I really cannot say for sure, it could be but I doubt it. I don’t know if I want to find out either, some things are best left as they are.

This detachment has left me at odds with those who advocate assimilation. Those who long ago burned their Zimbabwean documents in favour of completely embracing their new-found South Africanness. I’ve even been told to tone down my “Zimbabweaness” because I may offend the locals, difference between us is unlike some my brothers and sisters, I have no fear of being found out.

In my mind my detachment allows me a level of independence to speak, write and create in a way I would not enjoy otherwise. It still doesn’t help me figure out how I will explain this time in South Africa’s history to our daughter when she comes of age. Will we still judge each other by where we are from and what language we speak? I hope not.

Closing Zimbabwe’s Digital Divide

Recently I spent time in Harare Zimbabwe where I had been invited by  TBWA Zimbabwe to speak at the Digital Marketing Conference alongside Zimbabwe’s leading voices in digital marketing and content development cohosted by TECHZiM. One of the highlights for me was participating in a panel discussion on Bottlenecks in Digital Marketing which you can watch here.

Some of the key takeouts from the conference for me are that:

  • Zimbabwe has a wealth of digital minds across all forms of media, from broadcasting to publishing to content creation and so much more.
  • Zimbabwe’s legislators are woefully out of touch with what is happening and this needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
  • Our industrialists, the country’s economic engine, are not yet ready to adopt digital marketing and this was exemplified by their absence.

I was surprised that none of the financial services sector, miners, pharmaceuticals, agri-processors, motor industry, farmers, transport sector amongst others were in attendance. This is not bad news at all as it gives a clear indication of the amount of work those in digital media need to do to educate mainstream industry so we bring them onboard. I say “we” because this is an opportunity for all digital minds to capitalise on.

That said, there are a few long established companies that are leading the digital charge and hopefully through their efforts, others will follow. Most notable amongst these is the state-owned publisher, Zimpapers led by their Chief Technology Officer, Darlick Marandure. Just the fact that Zimpapers has a CTO is cause for pause, I don’t know of any other non-telecoms company that has such a post.

Much talk was made of how to monetise your content and whilst Youtube’s content partnerships lead Teju Ajani was extremely popular, it is the local market for digital content that I believe needs to first be harnessed. If digital content developers cannot sell their product to the local market first they then have the uphill task of competing on the international market against literally millions of competitors.

The first Zimbabwean company to pay well for online content will be the one that really defines Zimbabwe’s digital future. Who that will be one can only guess but the more such conferences that are held, the sooner this day will come. In the meantime, the quality of content coming out of Zimbabwe’s digital space keeps getting better and one can only be impressed by this considering the myriad of challenges developers face that are unique to the country.

A Different Kind Of Privilege

Lately I have read a lot in the South African media and online forums about privilege. It is not homogenous, it is varied, coming in as many permutations as there are social and professional situations. The most dominant is white privilege, hardly surprising with race in South Africa being the emotive issue it is. I have also come across pretty privilege, private school privilege, yellow-bone privilege and of-course male privilege which might actually be more of an issue than white privilege.

A recent much publicised incident at a Cape Town restaurant and hotel got me thinking about my own privilege, let’s call it black foreign national privilege or BFN. I lived, worked and studied in Cape Town from 1998 to 2003 living on campus very briefly. Within three months I moved out to live with friends and six months later I found my own place because my siblings were coming to attend university in 1999 and we needed a place for the whole family. My sister and I saw many places and soon settled on a house in Observatory but soon moved to Greenpoint before finally settling in a Three Anchor Bay apartment for the next four and a half years.

In that time I took up part-time employment waiting tables to supplement my allowance and through this met some of my closest friends to this day. I never thought much of it but people on campus were always amazed at how I got to work and live where I did. I do remember the almost uniform reaction from white interviewers, clients and estate agents when they would hear my accent.

Them: “Oh what a lovely accent, you’re not South African, where are you from?”

Me: “I’m from Zimbabwe, I’m studying for an economics degree at UCT”

Them: “Oh I see, no wonder. Zimbabweans are such lovely people.”

Not having grown up with apartheid and racism I missed the inference, “you’re not like our blacks”. This, is the BFN privilege. My accent and origins put these people at ease and i walked into and worked in places I probably would not have otherwise. In most of the places I worked I was always the only black face on the floor, be it Camps Bay, the Waterfront or the Waterfront. I admit, I milked it for all it was worth and often made as much money as my white counterparts or more on some nights. I never had trouble looking for an apartment because as soon as they heard I was a foreigner the agent assumed i must be rich otherwise I wouldn’t be looking for an apartment in that area. They would have probably fainted if they knew the truth.

Towards the end of my degree I got amazing job offers from two major financial firms but I had to turn them down to go back home. I often wonder what it is they saw in me because I had average marks but that was then. Fast forward to today. I’m older, wiser and now know the meaning of privilege. Every Zimbabwean who has ever lived in South Africa I know, knows the benefits of BFN privilege. It’s not something we ever asked for but are often happy to exploit to our ends. It gets us in places where local blacks have an issue. It gets us that seat at the table in that life-changing meeting. It gets us executive positions in previously lily-white companies ahead of local blacks. It gets us that apartment or house in that exclusive part of town. It gets us the girl or the guy leaving others to wonder, “what is it about that Zimbabwean?”. It’s a certain confidence that causes white people usually intimidated by blackness to relax and speak or behave freely, so much so they always get my name right. Call it what you like, it’s privilege.

In my time in South Africa I cannot remember being a victim of open white racist aggression or in fact racism of any kind. But that’s not to say it does not happen or that it will not ever happen. it may have been so subtle it didn’t register or it could have been totally unimportant, we Zimbabweans have a way of turning our outrage on and off at will. It’s not just a Zimbabwean thing, I know of Malawian, Zambian, Kenyan, Namibian, Ethiopian, American British and West African nationals who are beneficiaries of BNF privilege.

Now like with any other privilege, the beneficiary cannot simply turn it off, I am born with it so I must live with it and the consequences. The side glances when I walk into a room, the police officer who insists on speaking to me in a language he knows I don’t understand, the “jokes” about taking all the women and jobs her, the wisecracks about “go back to Zimbabwe”. It’s galling but it’s not xenophobia nor is it life-threatening, in time we will get to understand each other better but who knows, maybe you too enjoy some secret privilege?

Not All Who Wonder Through Their Twenties Are Lost.

They say if you can remember your twenties then they were not that much fun. Well, I remember some. Earlier tonight on twitter I saw so many twenty-somethings are going through that first heavy self-doubt phase. I used to live there. Let me tell you a story.

Though it may not feel like it, it’s perfectly normal to look at more successful people your age & wonder what you’re doing wrong.

You will wonder where & when your breakthrough’s coming from. You will torment yourself & likely go a little mad. I did, it’s allowed.

I cannot tell you what it feels like when that big break does happen because it never happened for me. Instead, I’ve had many small breaks.

At the time, each break did not seem like a big deal but one day I looked back and wondered, “how the hell did this happen?’ Then I lost it all

One of my mentors told me “it takes about five attempts before you are wealthy” by then he’d lost everything six times but made it seven times, more with each attempt.

He died one of the richest men I have ever known. I have made & lost it all four times in twenty years, yes, I started young & had a few lucky breaks.

Money is not important, it is merely a means to a certain type of life. I used to be a liker of things till I learned to live without them.

From times when I had more money than I knew what to do with to days I would wake up to two slices of bread & an egg in the fridge. I have been that guy.

What I learned is after it is all gone, only life remains. Only life is important. I have much less money and trinkets now than I did in my twenties but I am happier.

The gist of my story is, there are no single big breaks. Life is full of incremental breaks and how you handle each one sets you further on a path.

The path is challenging, confusing, exhilarating & incredibly rewarding. Thing is, whatever decision you make, you are never off the path.

Whatever choices you make now or at any other time, are YOUR choices, embrace them as such but don’t be beholden to them. It’s ok to change your mind.

i may not have found my purpose in life yet but I am ok with that. There was a time I obsessed about that but if I survived me, so can you survive yourself.

After the last time I lost it all I learned this:
Don’t ever think you’ve arrived. Because once you do, that’s when the music stops.

I hope my two cents worth helps some of you make sense of life. This is not advice, just a bit of my story so far.

Later.

Could Uber Be A Catalyst For Intra-Africa Trade?

On Thursday morning I woke to the news that Uber, an innovative app for calling a taxi used in over 200 cities, had raised $1,2 billion in funding whilst the holding company is now valued at a remarkable $40 billion. In the ensuing conversations about the mammoth valuation with a number of people I came across an interesting article about Uber’s future plans.

“CEO Travis Kalanick isn’t content for his company to remain a car-hailing app. He plans to move into urban logistics and shipping, doing everything from delivering food to transporting supplies.”

These two lines got me thinking, what could this mean for Africa? In recent years much has been said about how Africa is rising, a colloquial term for the latest wave of, depending on your point of view, international investment, colonialism, exploitation or development. What is not in dispute though is African countries lack of participation in the Africa Rising narrative whilst its benefits to ordinary people are hotly contested. One way to deepen the benefits to ordinary Africans put forward has been intra-Africa trade. A 2013 UNCTAD report on this states:

“Over the period from 2007 to 2011, the average share of intra-African exports in total merchandise exports in Africa was 11 per cent compared with 50 per cent in developing Asia, 21 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean and 70 per cent in Europe. Furthermore, available evidence indicates that the continent’s actual level of trade is also below potential, given its level of development and factor endowments.”

Whilst as Africans we have many factors going against us, not unlike other developing regions, I believe the most significant are of our own creation so can also be solved by ourselves. Trade amongst ourselves is the answer, a key component to making this a reality is access to markets and this is where the Uber link comes in. In a Top 20 Exporters of Containerized Cargo, 2009 and 2010 report Africa did not feature, let alone any individual country, however, in a Top 20 Importers of Containerized Cargo, 2009 and 2010 Western Africa ranked eleventh.

Considering that shipping is the best way to move bulk goods around the world and Africa has an extensive coastline under serviced by ports and continental shipping, it seems a no-brainer that cheap access to ships to ply these routes would drastically change intra-continental trade. In the fallout from the 2008 global recession the international shipping liner industry saw a number of players liquidated due to the fall in business. Among these were Greek and Portuguese liners that were either sold or are yet to recover. Africa on the other hand, has no merchant navy of any significance, do you see it now? No? Let me explain.

Uber is a platform whereby people can use their cars as taxis by registering with Uber and paying a commission on every fare directed to them. Now apply this to the African shipping industry and suddenly you have access to hundreds of ships ready to carry goods from Cape Town to Sharm El Sheikh. The same could apply for cranes, oil-rigs and just about anything you can move from port to port. Beyond the ports the same could apply for inland movement of goods along roads and rivers, rapidly accelerating access to markets and resources.

If a the ships are there then industry would have no reason not to produce, trade will entirely be up to the market. I am not a shipping expert so if there are any out there reading this, what are your thoughts?

Continue reading “Could Uber Be A Catalyst For Intra-Africa Trade?”