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NRZ collapse was avoidable: Mabena

Former National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) chairman Alvord Mabena believes the collapse of the parastatal is closely linked to the decimation of the country’s industrial base.

Former National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) chairman Alvord Mabena (Picture by The Standard)
Former National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) chairman Alvord Mabena (Picture by The Standard)

Mabena (AM), who served the NRZ as an engineer, general manager, chief executive officer and chairman, told Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube (TN) on the platform In Conversation with Trevor that Zimbabwe’s economic problems were due to lack of a vision.

He spoke about his vision, motivation and how he navigated his way up the ladder at the NRZ.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

TN: So let us start at the National Railways of Zimbabwe Alvord, where you spent 17 years.

First of all, you were the first black general manager of the National Railways of Zimbabwe. Then you became the CEO and then you became chairman of the board. Walkthrough with us if you may, Alvord, in terms of what were the highlights for you? Spending that 17 years at the National Railways of Zimbabwe.

AM: Well, I can either start at being a general manager, or being an engineer on the workshop floor.

When I finally became a general manager, I had actually spent quite some time on the workshop floor Trevor, as a mechanical engineer, going through all the roles and positions in mechanical engineering until I got to a higher level where I started to grow laterally by way of not just engineering, but managing the board operations of NRZ including traffic, accounts, finance and human capital, until I got to the apex of the management of NRZ.

Before I got to the position of general manager, I actually did not apply for that position.

I was doing my job as an engineer until I became the first black chief mechanical engineer.

And we got to a time when the government at the time was looking for an indigenous general manager.

The government formed what they called a taskforce to interview all the managers at the NRZ.

Starting from the senior most, to the lower levels of management, where I was. I had not aspired to be a general manager.

But then when I was interviewed by that taskforce I told them and delivered what I knew of mechanical engineering and what I knew of railway operations as I saw it, then and in the future.

Ahead of me there were many other officers who were aspiring for that position, who were actually much senior, next to that position of general manager.

But as it turns out for some reason I must have impressed the taskforce, that is where they identified me as I was, that I had the potential to become a general manager.

Understandably so, mainly Trevor because during that time the government had gone through a stage where there were very rapid black promotions.

In many cases people were promoted beyond their capacity.

I think the government of the day realised that many people, who were occupying many senior positions were actually operating beyond their capacity.

And yet where I was I had actually gone through the ranks, I wasn’t one put on the fast lane so to speak.

So when they identified me that I had the potential they offered me that position of being the general manager designate.

So I accepted the position, which was over the head of some officials who were senior to me.

So I was put through a special programme, of an executive management programme for a year as general manager designate.

That is when I went to Penn State University for executive management programmes.

I went to the University of Derby and through other European railways as well, to appreciate how they ran their railways.

That was all in preparation for me ultimately taking over as NRZ general manager.

After my 12 months of executive management training, that is when I came back to take over the post substantively as the new general manager of NRZ.

TN: Wow. Wow. Talk to me now, help us understand as briefly as you may Alvord, how NRZ was structured?

My understanding is there was engineering, there was passenger services, there was the goods trains.

Could you just unpack that as briefly as possible? And the mainstay of NRZ as a business as it were?

AM: Yah. Now we are talking business. In this part of the world as far as the citizens of this country are concerned, each time you talked about NRZ, everybody understood NRZ as a passenger carrying business.

And yet that wasn’t the case, the core of NRZ was actually in freight.

That was about 85% of NRZ business, freight. And that was the profitable side of it, that was carrying the economy of this country.

That was dealing directly with all sectors of the economy.

And yet the passenger services was just 15% of the rail business, which was also loss making.

There was no way we could make it profitable in this country because the very nature of our economy is such that, the citizens ability to pay is very much lower.

They cannot pay the full cost of providing a passenger service.

In many countries the passenger services are simply provided as a means to an end, and are subsidised by their respective governments.

So really to run a passenger service is just a social service, which should normally be subsidised by the government.

And yet the main profitable business was on the freight, which was 85% of our business.

That is why in the end Trevor, I ended up dealing with just about all the heavy movers of industry and business you can think of in the country because the major sectors of the economy were dependant on the rail.

Whether you are talking of mining or agriculture or manufacturing. They were all very much dependent on the rail.

TN: Can we drill down Alvord on that particular one? Are you in a position to give us for instance, how much mining, agriculture and percentage, contributed to the freight side of the business? I know it has been a long time.

AM: I think on the main major sector that contributed the NRZ was agriculture, and I will explain why, because it also had the value chain.

Agriculture in the sense of moving things like tobacco and maize because there was a lot of production then, and tobacco was the main commodity for export.

It was the major foreign currency earner. I would say it was about 80% of our business.

It was also supported by the energy sector as well, moving coal to supply the agricultural sector, moving coal to supply power stations.

So those were the heavy industries that carried the economy of the day.

We are also taking about mining. Talking about manufacturing.

Together those were more than 60% of the business.

And just about every industry in the country was in one of those sectors in one form or another.

The railways existed to provide a service to those industries.

One important thing to know is railways was not working in isolation.

Its efficiency, its capacity was determined by the size of our economy.

And we had to create a rail capacity sufficient to move all the commodities produced or required by all the sectors of the economy.

We were very careful not to over supply capacity, because that was a cost.

Otherwise your rail transport service will be more expensive than it should be.

That is why we had very much a good handshake with industry.

They had to tell us what their production capacities were and projections were, for the next two to five years and we would also go back as NRZ and invest sufficiently enough to create that capacity to move those traffic levels as promised by the economy.

That is how we worked.

TN: What were your major cost centres as the NRZ as you recollect? Your inputs and requirements to run the business efficiently?

AM: Yes. You see rail business is very capital intensive. So we had to make sure we had sufficient locomotive power.

We had to make sure we had enough wagons, because those were the ones that carried the traffic.

And we had to make sure those were of the best designs in terms of international best practice.

And in some cases we had to purpose design wagons for a specific type of commodity.

An example, was the coal that was consumed by Zisco then.

We had to design special wagons specifically for use, and only by Zisco.

And those were wagons that were used on what we called merry-go-round.

They were so special because you had to lay them at Hwange on-the-run.

There was no stopping. And those were extra heavy trains with specially designed locomotives. They would off-load at Zisco on the run. So it was a round-robin.

TN: That is impressive as you are telling me right there! That is amazing stuff. Does it still happen Alvord?

AM: It’s so painful to even think about it Trevor, because the railways almost got dysfunctional. you can imagine all that investment cannot be used anywhere else, because those wagons were specifically designed for Zisco. They are stabled now. They cannot be used for anything.

TN: Let’s get there on that issue Alvord, because it is hugely important.

You have just said right now that NRZ was at the heart of the economy, it touched all aspects of the economy.

That is not the situation right now. What goes through your mind Alvord when you see the NRZ in the state that it is in right now?

AM: It is a sorry state. There is no reason why we should find ourselves in this situation. It could have been avoided. It can be avoided.

The main and major reason why there was a complete collapse was purely because of lack of vision and lack of investment.

We failed to invest for the future. That is the bottom line.

And as I said, the railways existed to carry the economy of this country, to serve industry, and all those industries are no more.

So the railways no matter what you want to do with them now, they cannot run on their own without industry to serve.

So it was lack of holistic long range, economic vision if you like because no matter how efficient we were to make the railways, it could not do anything on its own without any efficient economy or efficient industry to serve.

So we failed to promote our own industries.

We failed to have a vision for our own economy. And that it is where we are today. But these things are not impossible. The Standard