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.
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:
Ghost worker deployment
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.
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?