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Hopewell Chin’ono: Special Economic Zone status and imaginative thinking will transform Kariba overnight

By Hopewell Chin’ono

Today I am imagining the sea and oceans but because we have none of that in Zimbabwe, I will settle for what we have, Lake Kariba and what we can do with it.

Hopewell Chin'ono
Hopewell Chin’ono

We all love Lake Kariba because it was a place of that once in a lifetime weekend trip for students from both poor and wealthy backgrounds.

For once we could all access the same facilities as school students and admire the beauty that our country has to offer, just for that weekend.

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Most people that I have spoken to about Kariba would have been there once, through those primary school trips.

Whenever I have criticized the political leadership of our country, the senior civil servants and their business surrogates, it is because of the glaring cowboy mistakes they continue to make and tragic lack of imagination that remains on show.

In 2012, a friend who has a holiday home at Mica Point in Kariba just before the Kariba Border Post, invited me for a weekend outing with her family.

Kariba Dam Wall
Kariba Dam Wall

Like I always do, I spent a bit of time driving around this little and yet beautiful town with her housekeeper who was showing me the place.

I always look for opportunities when I go to a place that I haven’t been to for a while.

I fell in love with Kariba and decided that I would buy a property there which would act as a holiday home on one hand, and an investment property on the other hand, a home I can let out to holiday makers when I am not using it.

I bounced off my idea to Beatrice Mtetwa and her partner, the late Professor Sam Moyo over Sunday lunch at their home.

As usual with the Prof and his inquisitive sharp mind, he asked me why such an investment would be worthwhile when I could take the money to Victoria Falls and yield much more.

The discussion then went into what should happen to Kariba to make it an attractive destination for capital, tourism, fishing industry and a town and probably city to own a home.

I imagined what could be done to Kariba to enhance its market value beyond the current dead economy that it is.

If Zimbabwe was a business, Kariba would be classified as a dead asset, but unlike the proverbial dead asset, Kariba has prospective value.

So a year later, someone I know and had developed a warm relationship with called me, he wanted to discuss about Special Economic Zones (SEZ).

Honestly, it is an idea I had only read about in foreign newspapers without paying any meaningful attention to it until that call.

I have a huge circle of useful people around me, folks in business, international finance, academia, law and the developmental world.

I have learnt a lot by having these useful folks around me and by spending a lot of time engaged with what they professionally do.

You should also do the same, keep people of value around you, folks that you learn from each time you have a chat with them whether over the phone or over a drink.

So I started digging deeper to find out more about this concept, I wanted to know about who had used it before and how it had worked for them and more importantly, why it wasn’t being used in Zimbabwe.

A Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is a duty-free zone or enclave that is deemed to be a foreign territory for the purposes of trade operations, duties and tariffs.

In other words, a Special Economic Zone is a geographical region that has economic laws different from its own country’s typical economic laws.

I wondered why Zimbabwe couldn’t turn Kariba into a Special Economic Zone that would massively create a “seafood” industry where the taxes are attractive to the investors.

I think that a Special Economic Zones is a fantastic idea for Kariba.

Kariba could become the supplier of protein to Africa by growing, harvesting, processing, and exporting Kapenta fish.

Investors will be given a time frame to build factories and pay NO domestic taxes because they are investing in a specific industry for the future whilst creating jobs and building infrastructure.

Equipment would be brought into the country at a very low or even zero customs duty tariffs.

I also asked myself why the government can’t designate Kariba as a Las Vegas or Monaco type of city where we could have gambling taking place underpinned by the Lake Kariba tourism industry.

We could do this by again by cutting taxes, as this would stimulate the local economy and enhancing the expansion and modernization of the tourism industry in Kariba.

Mauritius has no natural resources to talk of except for the sea and the man made financial services sector, that is why the holding company of the Econet Group is registered in Mauritius and not Zimbabwe.

You see, when investors build hotels, roads, factories, homes and other related infrastructure, those investments remain there and become part of the local economy.

This is what Kariba really needs as it would also attract the local tourist to visit a vibrant tourism hub like Kariba and spend whilst there.

No tourist wants to go to a dead place regardless of how beautiful it is, the experience of visiting a tourist resort and the many people around you enhance the holiday experience.

In its present state, there is NO reason why you would want to visit Kariba more than once a year unless you are a fisherman with a boat.

Kariba also has the potential of being a hub for boat and ferry building, a place where Zimbabweans and those within the region can come and buy boats that they will leave anchored on the lake creating a marine economy for the locals.

We could also have calendar boat races that attract people from far and beyond, event that can be made part of holiday packages for tourists coming to Kariba.

We need imaginative thinkers at the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, people who can take creative ideas to the Minister of Finance instead of simply drawing foreign exchange allocations that are then misused.

I have met so many young Zimbabweans who possess these skills and are ready to implement these ideas, but until we allow them to do so and accept that the world is evolving and with it, ideas evolve too, we will remain where we are.

We need an economy that is built through ideas and skills exchanges, and an understanding that the world of yesterday has moved on, a Kariba of yesterday has no meaning today unless we add value to it, and with that evolvement we need a changed mindset.

This sort of expansion on a place like Kariba will bring things like a better airport paid for by the investment activities, Zimbabweans would then want to build homes in Kariba because they will have a better value, that is how cities and economies grow the world over.

Once the economic growth has reached a self-sustaining momentum and level, government can then slowly remove the tax breaks that are no longer needed and leave those that should remain in place in order to help the local economy thrive.

Investors do not come to places that don’t offer anything unique to their investment portfolio, in its current state, Kariba offers nothing special besides being the biggest man made lake.

Dubai was a desert not so long ago, they struggled until the emergence of oil and ideas from their young citizenry.

In 20 years they have transformed their desert emirate into a world-class holiday resort with health tourism attached to it.

They are futuristic in their thinking and so should we as well, the Arab countries send their young to European and American universities and attract them back home to develop their countries with the new ideas.

My very own classmate whilst studying for my Master of Arts degree in International Journalism at City University in London, Caroline Faraj from Jordan, is the Vice President of Arabic Services at CNN.

Our Zimbabwean western trained professionals are not coming back home to Zimbabwe because we are not offering them the opportunity to apply their skills unless they know someone.

There isn’t an enticing environment for them to come back home to because of corruption, nepotism, civil-service gross incompetence and naked tribalism.

We have created a hard hat area for any well meaning professional, compatriot and patriot to come back to, it is plain unattractive.

We are doing everything possible to fail and remain where we were in the 1980s, if ever you doubted that, Kariba in its present state is your unequivocal answer.

Life is about visualizing the future and walking that path and vision into fulfilment, not endless promises like the Chitungwiza Railway line, which has been promised to every generation since I was old enough to read.

Kariba has all the required aspects for a place ready to be tapped into and allowed to boom.

If you factor in wildlife (there are lions and elephants in Kariba town), “marine” life at Lake Kariba, fishing industry, boating and ferries, holiday homes, general tourism and gambling….what would make us fail to visualize this and make the dream an economic reality?

Zimbabwe is failing to farm and produce trout fish, something that used to be readily available on our dinner tables.

That industry has been killed by greedy and gross incompetency. We need to view the world in global lenses and understand that out there, without ideas and skills you wont be able to compete and succeed economically.

Whilst we are thinking about what the business world can do for and to Kariba and its economy, the University of Zimbabwe and Harare Polytechnic colleges can move their Electrical Engineering Schools to Kariba, where the students will be inspired by the Kariba Hydroelectric Power Station.

Some of these bright electrical engineering students will probably remain in Kariba if we allow more ideas to flourish and help expand Kariba South Hydro-electric plant to grow.

Why would a country fail to resuscitate a place endowed with so much attractive elements when South Africans can make a huge deal out of Messina, which has nothing but shops selling to Zimbabweans and a border post with rude immigration officers?

Are we really open for business folks or we are being rude to the future economic growth prospects of our beautiful and yet broken country?

Hopewell Chin’ono is an award winning Zimbabwean international Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker. He is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow and a CNN African Journalist of the year.

He is also a Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Africa leadership Institute.
Hopewell has a new documentary film looking at mental illness in Zimbabwe called State of Mind, which was launched to critical acclaim.

State of Mind has been nominated for a top award in Kenya. You can watch the documentary trailer below. Hopewell can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter @daddyhope