Bulawayo at 125 – Repositioning Bulawayo for the future

Opinion: Dumisani Nkomo

This week, Bulawayo will celebrate its 125th annivesary amid pleas and cries for the city to be restored to its former glory days as the industrial hub of the country as it was in the sixties and seventies.

I would like to argue, as I have consistently done, that the Bulawayo of the 60s and 70s cannot be re-created. Rather, we need to re-build and re-think the economic and development trajectory of the city within the ambit of a 25-year turnaround plan. The heavy industries developed in the 60”s and 70’s cannot, to all intents and purposes, be revived in the manner in which they were over 40 to 50 years ago.

The dictates of global competitiveness, the shrinking of the traditional drivers of industrial growth and rapid technological advances require that the city re-positions itself outside of and beyond the old economic foundations of the city. A 25-year plan is required to re-position the city and place it on a rapid path to growth and sustainable development. Twenty five years is the period within which an entire generation reaches maturity and I would like to suggest that as at 2020, Bulawayo should develop a 25-year-plan that will turn around the city and make it one of the most competitive in sub Saharan Africa, if not in Africa.

Competitive advantage

The city must leverage on its competitive advantage and not attempt to compete in areas of weakness. It must be noted that what was a strength some 25 to 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 the current and potential social and economic strengths. Significantly, while the city was the hub of meat processing and the beef industry 35 to 50 years ago, this status quo has been eroded by the following developments:

The effects of drought due to climate change and the region’s positioning in natural region four and five, which has resulted in the gradual and systematic decimation of the livestock population and in particular cattle.

Decimation of pastures and water bodies

Diseases

The effects of the government’s chaotic land reform programme, which resulted in the uncontrolled movement of cattle to other regions. Currently, Bulawayo’s feeder provinces, Matabeleland South and North, have lost their competitiveness as leading ranching provinces.

 The national herd has gone down from around six million in 1996 to around 5,3 million.

All these factors, therefore, imply that Bulawayo and its surrounding provinces of Matabeleland North and South have to re-position themselves economically. This can be through either re-building the cattle industry [a process which could take five to 10 years, at least, assuming that all the required support systems and resources, including capital, appropriate technology and natural conditions are in place.

Current strengths and comparative advantages

Bulawayo is strategically positioned in southern Africa as a gateway to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and to a lesser extent, Namibia.

Bulawayo is strategically positioned as the largest city nearest to the busiest border post in southern Africa, the Beitbridge Border Post.

The city has enormous current and potential advantages in tourism due to its proximity to one of the world’s wonders, the majestic Victoria Falls.

To the south is the Rhodes Matopos Game Park, which has been designated as a Unesco world heritage site.

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.

The city’s old Victorian-type buildings and wide streets, which have been viewed as backward and antiquated, present a huge opportunity in re-modelling the city as a city of aesthetic greatness, epitomised by Victorian architecture. The city cannot or may not compete with Johannesburg, Nairobi or other such large cities with impressive skyscrapers, but it can distinguish itself in respect of its tourism potential as well as artistically and culturally through these old buildings, which can also be used as a springboard for building the film industry.

The artistic and cultural heritage, reservoir of talent position Bulawayo as a creative industry hub for Zimbabwe and, indeed, the southern African region.

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 and indoor fisheries, among others. The city’s strategic geographical position in southern Africa makes it ideal as a warehousing zone for goods which are enroute to Botswana, South Africa and possibly Zambia.

The geographical positioning of the city is ideal in a broader regional road, rail network as well as aviation nerve centre.

The city may also need to explore its potential as an information, communication and technology hub. A good friend of mine, Nkosilathi Mazibisa, argues that this could be a game changer for the city in years to come. Clearly to some, if not all, these competitive advantages, are a 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 through building potential drivers of the economy in new sectors of growth and development.

Importantly, the presence of the National University of Science and Technology in the city is key. The university is a key player in informing growth in the new sectors of the economy. The growth will mostly be 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, it can be a major game changer. With the abundant acting and production talent and potential of the city, its Victorian film locations are an appetising prospect. Imagine, the whole of the railway avenue and Raylton, which has become a ghost town, can be turned into a thriving film location for Victorian films. The climate, location and competitive labour costs are major incentives for the production of international films, even though the country’s film infrastructure is poor. Film can be a major “export in fifteen to twenty years, 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 film makers and incentives for international film companies to produce films in Zimbabwe are key. Bulawayo can become part of an incredible film value chain and geo-virtual corridor with an economic impact of gigantic proportions

Creative industries

The entire swathe of creative industries from dance, visual art to film have a huge potential to drive growth in Bulawayo. In countries such as the United States, the film industry contributes significantly to the gross domestic product, rating closely to other sectors such as aviation. India’s Bollywood and Nigeria’s Nollywood have taken the world by storm, generating millions of dollars and employing thousands of people through downstream and upstream industries. Bulawayo is positioned to be the film capital of Zimbabwe and within 25 years, can become a major film location for local and international film production.

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 agroindustrial activities, which may include sugarcane 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 also from downstream and upstream economic activities.

Goat Production

There is a 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 re-focus their attention to this increasingly growing sector. Abattoirs could be in places such as Maphisa, Plumtree, Gwanda and Inyathi, while Bulawayo could be a processing centre and gateway for goat meat and other goat products. More research is needed in exploring the economic potential of this sector, but definitely, there is a shift to goat production and if efforts were made in the next five years to ensure that smallholder farmers increase the sizes of their herds from the current 15 to 20, to at least a hundred per household, this could drive the industry so that it becomes a major player in this rapidly growing sector.

The city of kings has the potential and capacity to be one of the fastest growing cities in sub-Saharan Africa and, indeed, in Africa by 2045. This is five election cycles away and if truth be told, Zimbabwe itself will have a new political leadership and breed of global citizens who will not be content with the pace of development, including the technological advancement and competitiveness of the current Bulawayo city. Let us project into the future and re-imagine a new Bulawayo. Where there is no vision, people perish. The twenty-five year turnaround plan can be broken down into implementable, gradualistic five-year plans and those five-year plans into annual economic development plans.

Bulawayo must not allow the current debilitating economic conditions and prohibitive political environment to limit its collective capacity to project and plan for future generations. Bulawayo can become a competitive metropolis in 25 years, time with careful envisioning, planning and execution .

Dumisani Nkomo is the chief executive of Habakkuk Trust. He writes in his personal capacity.

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