Open Economy: The world in the eyes of Zimbabwe

When paying attention to policy-makers, captains of industry and budding entrepreneurial start-ups, one can easily assume that as Zimbabweans, we somewhat have an intent to keep pace with the global economy.

For instance, an awareness of industrial competitiveness has become pervasive within policy-making structures such that Government has formed the National Competitiveness Committee.

It seems greater emphasis will be placed on following comparable metrics such as the ones composed within the Global Competitiveness Report.

As should be the case, Government’s enthusiasm to partake in global commerce has mirrored the sentiments of the private sector.

Consistent agenda at numerous business conferences has been to enhance productivity and efficiency with a focus on matching foreign competition, if not to beat it out altogether.

Rising imports have been a prolonged pinch on local business, and realisation has dawned that business should actively protect turf or face demise.

Perhaps no other focal point reveals greater global cognisance than the recent growth of entrepreneurial hubs and incubators. At your convenience, I would encourage you to visit a few business development programmes and workshops across the country — not just for the enterprise education on offer, but pay particular attention to the global diction in which we are tutoring business.

These are observations to be excited about.

Not too long ago, due to a handful of complexities of which some still exist, our economic perspectives in Zimbabwe lacked global discernment.

Progress slacked off accordingly.

Market share was lost.

Infrastructural standards got left behind.

Hoping that we are truly serious to make these occurrences of the past, I do sense a renewed worldly outlook brewing. If not by choice, global consciousness has definitely been pressed by necessity.

Commendable responses have been made thus far in policy, regulation and respective business models within our economy. These are the obvious factors that drive competitiveness, and it is especially encouraging that we have begun to weigh them against global benchmarks.

However, I’d like to offer a more commonly overlooked factor that gives certain economies an upper hand over others. That factor is economic culture!

We have not taken any visible strides on this matter. I dare say that our economic culture remains a weakness. Culture is just as vast as human interaction, so I cannot narrow it down to point out every instance in which we may be culturally flawed.

There is the obvious such as how frustratingly tardy Zimbabweans are. This is so engrained in us that I bet most readers are smirking in acknowledgement than stubbornly refuting this deplorable custom.

Likewise, even though we have started working on governance frameworks, corruption is yet to be a practice met with scorn and vile disdain in our society. Cultural elements like these show that Zimbabwe still has much work to do if we are to have a globally competitive economic culture.

Notwithstanding, there is opportunity to develop key cultural elements in the short term. I want to highlight two pertinent cultural elements we urgently need in Zimbabwe.

First, we must encourage curiosity and research! Curiosity is what I would call an economic seed. When planted, it grows committed research in business and education. Companies with a culture of curiosity tend to commit more research into product development and seek greater understanding of target markets.

These are issues we have been slow to comprehend in Zimbabwe. It shows in the rarity in which new products are launched that offer previously unheard of customer utility. Understanding this point will illuminate why in Zimbabwe, business is about penetrating existing markets, and seldom about creating new ones.

Likewise, our lack of curiosity to understand the consumer market shows itself in archaic marketing strategies such as sales promotions, celebrity appearances and loud commercial buses.

We have low investigative interaction between businesses and the customers; hence, our local companies easily lose out customer equity to foreign business.

In Kenya, many observers thought the mobile money company, M-Pesa, would succumb to competition from bigger multi-nationals like Vodafone. However, the local company stood its ground solely because it had the best understanding of Kenyan customers and their utility of the application.

Societies that encourage curiosity naturally demand more research and subsequent invention from institutions of higher education. Curious universities churn out findings of great economic relevance, especially in science and technology.

At last week’s Food Expo in Harare, one astute gentleman pointed out that our agrarian economy risks losing out to foreign seed companies because we have so few research output of our own.

His counsel rings true across more sectors of our economy. How can we compete when we import innovation? Again, how can we compete when we import innovation?

Second, we must foster global interaction deep within our society, not just at State level. The most competitive economies worldwide encourage highly integrated societies. In academics, study abroad or student exchange programmes are commonplace.

This creates a fusion of global perspectives within local institutions. In the adult workplace, work attachments function the same way. A few of our local companies have started trying to assimilate foreign workers. While this may seem inappropriate in a tight job market, the potential benefits outweigh those apprehensions.

Japan’s economy boomed in the 1950s to 70s. It has drastically slowed down ever since. While commonly attributed to an aging workforce, I believe this is due to poor assimilation of foreign workers and ideas. It is very hard for foreigners to get a work permit in Japan, and the few foreigners who find work there hardly stay for long.

As a result, innovation in Japan is at an all-time low, with much of the economy stunted by indigenous group-think. This is a reversal of roles with China. China has increasingly become an open economy, assimilating foreign participation and ideas. In the 1960s, Japan had a competing multi-national for every new Western giant.

Today, that space belongs to Chinese firms. The simple explanation is that China has integrated foreign ideas into its economy while Japan has stopped.

The lesson for us is that we cannot be competitive globally without integrating our ideas and acumen with those of the rest of the world.

We need more global interaction deep within our society.

Zimbabwe is having the right conversations with regards to global competitiveness. Our discourse has improved considerably.

I hope we can expand that narrative and make it inclusive of economic culture.

Here, I have set out to highlight only two elements that can be achieved in the short term. However, there is much more to discuss about how we can foster economically desirable conduct.

Let’s go for it!

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