By Dumisani O. Nkomo
This week Bulawayo will celebrate its 125th annivesary amidst pleas and cries for the city to be restored to its former glory as the industrial hub of the country in the 60s and 70s. I would like to argue that the Bulawayo of the 60s and 70s cannot be recreated. Rather, we need to rebuild and rethink the economic and development trajectory of the city within the ambit of a 25-year turnaround plan. The heavy industries cannot be revived in the manner in which they were over 40 to 50 years ago. The dictates of global competitiveness, the shrinking of traditional drivers of industrial growth and rapid technological advances require that the city repositions itself outside of and beyond the old economic foundations of the city. As of 2020 Bulawayo must develop a 25-year plan that will turn around the city and make it one of the most competitive cities in sub-Saharan Africa, if not Africa.
The city must leverage on its competitive advantages and not attempt to compete in areas of weakness. It must be noted that was a strength probably 25-30 years ago may not be a strength in 2025 or 2045. There must, therefore, be heavy investment in research and scientific projection to facilitate the city’s growth trajectory based on current and potential social and economic strengths. Significantly, whilst the city was the hub of meat processing and the beef industry 35-50 years ago, this standing has been eroded by the following:
- The effects of drought due to climate change and the region’s positioning in natural region four and five which has resulted in gradual, systematic decimation of the livestock population, in particular cattle.
- Decimation of pastures and water bodies
- The effects of the government’s chaotic land reform programme, which resulted in uncontrolled movement of cattle to other regions. Currently Bulawayo’s feeder provinces of Matabeleland South and North have lost their competitiveness as leading ranching provinces.
- The national herd has been reduced from around six million in 1996 to around 5,3 million.
All these factors, therefore, mean Bulawayo and its surrounding provinces have to reposition themselves economically. This can be through rebuilding the cattle industry [a process which could take five to 10 years at least assuming that all required support systems, resources including capital, appropriate technology and natural conditions are in place ] or focussing on entirely new productive sectors.
Current strengths and comparative advantages
1. Bulawayo is strategically positioned in southern Africa as a gateway to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and to a lesser extent Namibia.
2. Bulawayo is strategically positioned as the largest city nearest to the busiest border post in Southern Africa, Beitbridge border post.
3. The city has enormous current and potential advantages in tourism with its proximity to one of the world’s wonders, the majestic Victoria Falls.
4. To the south is Rhodes Matopos Game Park which has been designated as a Unesco world heritage site.
5. The natural history museum is the best of its kind in southern Africa and one of the largest four such museums in Africa. The city thus has tremendous potential in being cardinal and central to a thriving tourism industry.
6. The city’s old Victorian type buildings and wide streets, which have been viewed as backward and antiquated by some, present a huge opportunity in remodelling the city as a city of aesthetic greatness epitomised by Victorian architecture. The city cannot or may not compete with Johannesburg, Nairobi or other large cities with impressive sky scrapers but it can distinguish itself tourism wise, artistically and culturally through these old buildings which can also be used as a springboard for building the film industry serving as allocation for local and international productions
7. The artistic and cultural heritage, reservoir of talent position Bulawayo as a creative industry hub for Zimbabwe and indeed the southern African region.
8. The old heavy industries with huge factories cannot be revived as the equipment is antiquated and competition from the east has made such a preposition almost preposterous. However, these old factories can be used as storehouses, film locations, indoor fisheries etc. The city’s strategic geographical position in southern Africa makes it ideal as a warehousing zone for goods which are en route to Botswana, South Africa and possibly Zambia.
9. The geographical positioning of the city is ideal in a broader regional road, rail network as well as aviation nerve centre.
10. The city may also need to explore its potential as an ICT hub. Nkosilathi Mazibisa argues that this could be a game-changer for the city in years to come .
Clearly, some, if not all these competitive advantages are identified as the basis of a thriving local economy, Bulawayo can be great again but not on the basis of nostalgic cravings for industries of the past but rather building on potential drivers of the economy in new sectors.
Importantly the presence of the National University of Science and Technology in the city is key. The university must inform growth in new sectors in the economy based on scientific innovations and advances in technology. Techno Park [a Nust vehicle] is key in this respect. The film industry is not a welfare sector, but a potential money spinner and with the right enabling policies, deregulation, budgetary support from a devolved provincial and local government can be a major game-changer. The abundant acting and production talent and potential of the city, the Victorian film locations are an appetizing prospect. Imagine the whole of railway avenue and Raylton, which has become a ghost town thriving as a film location for Victorian films. Film can be a major “export in 15 -20 years’ time given proper envisioning, planning, management, enabling policies and support systems such as bilateral agreements for equipment and technical support with bigger film producing countries such as South Africa. Availability of capital for filmmakers and incentives for international film companies to produce films in Zimbabwe are key.
The entire swathe of creative industries from dance, visual art to film have huge potential to drive growth in Bulawayo. In countries such as the United States, the film industry contributes significantly to the GDP rating closely to other sectors such as aviation.
Agro – industries
If and when the Zambezi Water Project is impended it will drive major economic development in the greenbelt that lies along the corridor of agro-industrial activities which may include sugar production and other high value crops. Towns such as Lupane will grow exponentially and Bulawayo will benefit not only from the availability of water, but from downstream and upstream economic activities.
There is huge demand for goat meat internationally, especially in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Angola and Uganda. Possibly there could be a drive to ensure the arid and drought prone provinces of Matabeleland South and North refocus their attention to this increasingly growing sector. Abattoirs could be in places such as Maphisa, Plumtree, Gwanda and Inyathi whilst Bulawayo could be a processing centre and gate away for exports of goat meat and goat products.
Bulawayo must not allow current debilitating economic conditions and prohibitive political environment to limit our collective capacity to project and plan for future generations beyond the next election. Bulawayo can become a competitive metropolis in 25 years time with careful envisioning, planning and execution.
Dumisani O Nkomo Nkomo is the CEO of Habakkuk Trust