By Tafi Mhaka
I had never grasped how precious innovation and time and informal trade skills and financial skills could be until Joshua raised a family on the small income he earned from fixing watches in downtown Harare. It was not the most fabulous job around but it sure paid the bills.
He had a small and commonplace stall where he kept an array of tools that he used to repair all kinds of watches. The stall and the two square metres around him represented his economic world and his life and Cameroon Street represented his marketplace. He had multitudes of clients. So Joshua would stand by the stall all day long and repair all kinds of watches.
His regular customers were the men and women who walked from Mbare to the CBD every day and low-paid labourers who worked for the plethora of furniture shops in the area. Many knew him by name and often greeted him as they passed by. His other customer base embodied budget-conscious shoppers who frequented the downtown area in search of cheap beds and tables.
Right near Joshua stood another vendor: Henry. He fixed shoes for a living, so we called him Mashooz. Freshly retrenched by a local retailer he had decided to set up shop in Cameroon Street. And like Joshua: he had a dingy stall and a few trade tools.
Within the vicinity of the stall, worked Alice. Now she sold cooked cow hooves. So the crew called her Mbuya Mazondo. Sharp tongued and prone to using unprintable words, Mbuya Mazondo was one of a kind. She had to be: her clients were customarily drunks who often ate food on credit and took forever to pay. These were the vendors I befriended before the Black Friday crash in 1997.
Way back when the economy was supposedly excellent masses of disadvantaged communities lived on the margins of mainstream life and survived on jobs that were neither legal nor illegal in the strictest sense. Henry had no licence to mend shoes on the roadside and Mbuya Mazondo never bothered to obtain a licence for her food business from the Harare City Council. But every one loved her freshly cooked mazondo and understood that she had no choice but to work rough for a Zimbabwe dollar.
And life has hardly changed since then. You do not have to be a witch doctor from Muzarabani or a pastor from Gwanda to work out that Zanu-PF has not only laboured to stay abreast with fresh developments in technology, but it has failed to deliver an environment conducive to 21st century innovation for the entrepreneurial-minded souls in our midst.
Use the Google application on your smartphone or tablet to search for the latest entertainment news or summon a local taxi using the Uber application and you will appreciate that the state has not only struggled to create a world-class economy, filled with excellent jobs, affordable small business finance, technology-driven convenience, surplus foreign currency reserves and high net worth businesses, but it has failed to construct a fully commercial economy.
The successes of Google and Uber in America and across the globe typify the substantial efficiency of liberal capitalism and unchained democracy. While the devaluation and sluggishness of our once-viable economy validate the inefficiencies of self-styled socialism and scientific ineptitude within the cabinet and top echelons of the state.
When Google was formed in 1988, Zimbabwe still had its own currency. In the 19 years that have passed since then the company founded by two Stanford University students – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – has become the world’s second most valuable brand – with a net worth of $US82.5 billion and market capitalisation estimated to be approximately $579.5 billion. Meanwhile, the Zimbabwean GDP for 2016 was US$16.29 Billion. Yes, that is right – sadly.
While Google has evolved into a major multinational company, with 57 000 workers, a sequence of uninspired and ill-advised economic policies propagated by clueless Zanu-PF administrations have made millions jobless and dragged the nation from one economic disaster to another. The allocation of social and cash benefits to 1970s war veterans in 1997 and the fast track land resettlement programme in 2000 could have been handled better.
But the government allowed violence to cause economic insecurity and destroy cash flush industries right when a fast depreciating economy required investor friendly and confidence-inspiring actions. Yet it is not just the above-mentioned factors that have the sealed the catastrophes of successive Zanu-PF-led governments: a constant incapacity to support the economic progression of state-controlled companies has dealt the economy a crushing blow.
The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) might have become a profitable commercial enterprise and influential African broadcaster had the state promoted autonomous growth within parastatals. So countless achievements enjoyed by local presenters in South Africa could be indicative of where the ZBC could be right now: the late Alyce Chavunduka was the first black newsreader to read English news bulletins on SABC 1.
She also hosted her own radio programme called The Alyce Chavunduka Show and featured on Gauteng-based stations Talk Radio 702 and 94.7 Highveld Stereo. Following that Tich Mataz became one of the most popular radio and TV personalities ever to rock the airwaves in South Africa in the 1990s. And former Radio 3 DJ Simon Parkinson had a successful stint on radio and retired as station manager at 94.7 FM Highveld Stereo. Similarly, George Munetsi hosts one of the most popular day time shows on South African radio, Georgie in the afternoon, on Rosebank-based Afropolitan station Khaya FM.
So you must wonder why such a host of talented presenters left home for South Africa. Zimbabwe has everything local and foreign investors could wish for in terms of skills but little by way of calculated innovations in engineering and communications. It is quite telling that Kwesé TV, a multi-platform entertainment facility with a diverse content portfolio including sports, movies, music, reality, drama, comedy, series, documentaries, kids, lifestyle, faith and news, will compete against South African digital satellite TV service DSTV and not the ZBC.
An entire continent can look forward to price-smashing competitiveness between the Econet-owned Kwesé TV and the Multichoice-owned DSTV developing, while a long-established media company that had a 36-year head start to the latest technology-driven venture from serial entrepreneur Strive Masiyiwa, the ZBC, struggles to achieve commercial credibility in a fast changing multimedia landscape that is excellent for cutting-edge establishments.
Uber has transformed the traditional taxi industry across the globe in spite of legal challenges and frequent scandals, blunders and PR disasters. The San Francisco-based company, which has created 12 000 jobs and ‘employs’ 160 000 drivers globally, has generated billions of dollars in income since its creation. So while Zimbabwe considers the control of social media freedoms and Internet spaces through help from China and North Korea – two tyrannical nations, the USA continues to facilitate the growth of trendy multibillion-dollar platforms like Instagram, Google and Facebook. All of these technology giants started as small and unsophisticated businesses though.
Nonetheless – instead of copying the moneymaking schemes endorsed in the USA and promoting the growth of small businesses through helping industrious vendors and entrepreneurs in urban cities across Zimbabwe – as there is a probability that a few will develop into extremely successful establishments later on, the government plans to crush small business entities through a second Operation Murambatsvina-style phase of dubious law enforcement. Is that not a futile and self-defeating non-economic exercise for a struggling African nation?
According to Entrepreneur Magazine there are between 25 million and 27 million small businesses in the U.S. that account for 60 to 80 percent of all U.S. jobs. Since Uber was established as UberCab, by Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick in 2009, Zimbabwe has lost US$15 billion in revenues from diamond mining alone, unemployment has rocketed to 90%, around 72% of citizens live in poverty, and Auditor-General Mildred Chiri recently reported that government departments had doled out US$567 537 792 in unaccountable loans to state officials.
Ominously, all of the state-owned companies that the said officials oversee on a daily basis have been decimated by depraved governance policies, insufficient revenue collection streams, weak debt recovery systems, high employment costs and deficient procurement of goods and services and that has led to millions of dollars in irregular losses. Uber though, is now valued at roughly $69 billion by New York-based finance company Bloomberg.
And while Google and Facebook break fresh ground each day the state has hit a fresh economic low with the establishment of the Ministry of Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation. Social media and news platforms and bloggers and vloggers will not threaten the future safety of Zimbabwe but maladministration, half-baked economic practices, lacklustre leadership and endless failure to accommodate apolitical capitalists like Strive Masiyiwa will.
Amai Mazondo sold mazondo for quite a long time and then stopped. Henry left his spot on Cameroon Street and found work elsewhere. And Joshua, who fell ill and died, bequeathed the stall to his little brother. With the right financial support and business advisory services and abundant socio-political determination these street vendors could have achieved bigger things in life and helped create lots of jobs.