By Conrad Mwanza
If we looked at countries’ natural endowments as a measure of their potential for economic development, very few in Africa would stand toe to toe with Zimbabwe. For ours is one of those rare countries that boast a wide range of mineral deposits and natural potential.
Zimbabwe hosts the second largest platinum group metals as well as the largest high grade chromite resource base in the world on the Great Dyke. A notable global producer of lithium and chrysotile asbestos, the country is also possessed with significant deposits of gold and diamonds.
Add to that the millions of hectares of arable and grazing land, which has historically ensured successful mixed farming and may yet see the country’s commercial agricultural sector bounce back to its former glory.
But with a literacy rate that has consistently topped all of Africa, and a massive pool of skilled human resources across all sectors, it goes without saying that Zimbabwe’s biggest resource is its people. These are the potential drivers of the country’s economic development, if fully harnessed and deployed towards production, innovation and service delivery.
However, over the past two decades especially, we’ve not been spared the exodus of skilled professionals and many others who trekked off to more developed economies in response to globalisation’s pull, as well as the push of national economic hardships and political insecurity. Indeed, unofficial estimates claim the country may have lost as much as 60% of its qualified professionals, while up to three million Zimbabweans are believed to have left the country.
In the UK where I live, estimates put the total population of the Zimbabwean community at 400,000 – that’s about four times the size of a micro-state like The Seychelles. The sheer determination of my compatriots to carve out a space for themselves in their adopted home and get their pound of flesh was the single most inspiring factor that led me to found the Zimbabwe Achievers Awards in 2011.
The awards body was to serve as both a celebration of those small, significant steps of success that Zimbabweans were making as they worked their way up the UK’s socio-economic ladder, as well as inspiration and motivation towards even greater achievements.
In the seven years of our existence, we’ve gone from celebrating small community businesses to awarding professional architects delivering multi-million dollar projects across Africa. We’ve recognised cutting edge tech-start-ups worth millions, freight services serving global markets, and healthcare companies servicing huge government contracts.
Collectively as the Zimbabwean diaspora, we’ve consistently remitted billions of dollars back home over the years and compelled the government to pay attention to our net contribution to the economy of our home country. Dollarisation has helped cut off the forex black market, ensuring that all remittances go through the official channels. However, remittances are only a fraction of the diaspora’s capacity to contribute towards national socio-economic development.
To illustrate the limits of remittances to achieve broader community transformation, a case study from Bangladesh is worth referring to. About 95% of all British-Bengalis trace their origins to Sylhet division in north-east Bangladesh. The region receives around US $1billion in remittances every year from expatriate Bengalis in the UK alone and should, in theory, be the wealthiest and healthiest part of the country.
However, as The Guardian reported, “Sylhet has worse literacy and school enrolment rates than all other regions, child malnutrition rates are well over the WHO emergency threshold of 15%, fertility rates are the highest in the country and expectant mothers are more likely to die during child birth in Sylhet than any other part of Bangladesh.”
And the reason for this discrepancy between the high volumes of remittances and the overall state of the community is that remittances are transferred to individual households rather than to charity or community development. As the Zimbabwean diaspora, we also find ourselves locked in this phase of financial contribution and have yet to fully inhabit our economic potential by broadening our investment beyond the family to achieve wider developmental impact.
At the Zimbabwe Achievers Awards, we have spread out from our UK base to all major diaspora centres – South Africa, USA, and Australia. Through this community vehicle, we’ve networked with both individual professional Zimbabweans doing great things in their careers as well as entrepreneurs, businesses, social enterprises and philanthropic organisations.
Throughout the networks we’ve built, the one pulsating passion that courses through all of us is a deep-seated desire to contribute towards Zimbabwe’s socio-economic development and make a difference. We’ve formed partnerships with corporates based in Zimbabwe that are at the forefront of kickstarting the country’s brain gain by employing experienced Diaspora professionals and bringing them back home.
This is a trend that we fully support and as we believe that Zimbabwe’s critical professional skills are indispensable in the reconstruction of the country after decades of economic lethargy and the loss of much needed human resources. Innovative human resources companies need to step up and start engaging the diaspora labour market to harness key skills and bring them back home, as has happened elsewhere across the world.
In China, for instance, huge numbers of professionals who left their country to study and work, have returned. These so-called “sea turtles” have brought back desirable skills, invaluable networks of international business contacts and innovative ideas to energise the economy.
India, too, has enjoyed a significant brain gain in recent years, with scientists returning home to take advantage of the relative strength of the Indian economy and growing opportunities there. By 2013, according to the scientific journal publishers Elsevier, India had become a net importer of productive scientific talent.
But that does not just happen – home governments need to communicate clearly that expatriates are wanted and needed back home. Policymakers need to understand the diaspora and incentivise its involvement in the country’s development.
Emotional ties alone do not cut it – governments can actively do away with obstacles and create opportunities for diasporas to engage in economic development. Governments must be on their front foot if they are to harvest real benefits from their diaspora.
Even more importantly, the role of the diaspora as investors is very much under-appreciated within our own Zimbabwean context. One of the most prominent examples of diasporas investing in their home country is that of the Chinese. Between 1985 and 2000, the Chinese diaspora accounted for 70 per cent of China’s foreign direct investment, which helped fuel the country’s rapid economic growth over this period.
There is need for the Zimbabwean diaspora itself, the corporate sector back home as well as the government, to work collaboratively to facilitate diaspora investment. Apart from sending money to families, many in the diaspora do not have the information they need to make decisions about investment, nor do they know what investment opportunities are available.
There is need for mutual encouragement to organise better to facilitate this investment. It is very feasible for health professionals in the UK, for instance, working with government facilitation, to invest in a state of the art hospital that can provide world class medical care and save the country millions in dollars that are spent towards health tourism to India, South Africa, Singapore and other popular destinations.
Likewise, a lot of the infrastructural projects in Zimbabwe can also harness the investment and participation of diaspora-based engineers, many of whom are members of diaspora chapters of the Zimbabwe Institute of Engineers. Many other types of diaspora investment, such as collective investment in community projects through hometown associations, can be fully explored and practical steps towards facilitating them taken.
Clearly, there is a lot of unexplored potential in the Zimbabwean diaspora, and a strong relationship needs to be fostered between the diaspora and the government as well as the corporate and charity/philanthropic sectors. To this end, ZAA International will be hosting a Zimbabwe Economy Forum in Dubai from 21-24 September this year to explore these and other key issues concerning our national economy.
One of the projects I hope to launch at the forum together with partners like Vavaki Architects is a holiday housing complex in the great Victoria Falls that Zimbabweans in the diaspora can buy into. This falls firmly within the greater vision to see a Victoria Falls that will be a leisure and tourist hub of the region, complete with state of the art facilities to complement its world heritage natural offering.
- Conrad Mwanza is the Founder of the Zimbabwe Achievers Awards and can be contacted via [email protected]