Business complicit in Zim’s economic woes

CHIEF executive officers from across the African continent have been meeting in the resort town of Victoria Falls for the last three days in a bid to find lasting solutions to the economic crisis facing the continent. Zimbabwe Independent correspondent Nkululeko Sibanda (NS) caught up with the chairperson of the CEO Africa Roundtable, Oswell Binha (OB, pictured), in Zimbabwe’s premier tourist resort to shed light on the conference as well as other issues affecting the Zimbabwean economy. Below are excerpts of the interview:

NS: What is the CEO Africa Roundtable all about?

OB: The CEO Africa Roundtable is a platform for chief executive officers both in the private and public sectors to perform a number of functions such as investment facilitation, CEO mentorship and training programmes, promotion of investment among member states, creation of markets, and certainly a platform that engages with relevant policy issues that impact directly or indirectly on investment issues in Africa.

We are differentiating ourselves from the rest because we want to make sure that Zimbabwe attracts foreign money and investment. We are also keen to ensure that Zimbabwe re-attracts lost investment from foreign markets and also establish new markets. So, in essence, we are a group that is predominantly investment related.

NS: You speak about mentorship of CEOs across Africa. What gaps are you filling through this initiative?

OB: This is an Africa platform. Africa on its own has one billion people who belong to different regions where there is different expertise and distinctive competencies. The CEOs in Zimbabwe might think they are running bigger portfolios but then you realise that a CEO in South Africa or Nigeria might actually see that same portfolio as a micro portfolio. It is our responsibility, then, to facilitate the interaction of those with smaller portfolios and those with bigger ones to create champions amongst ourselves so that we then see how these synergies can inform the growth trajectory of the African economy going forward.

NS: Looking at the 2019 conference here in Victoria Falls, what can you say are the takeaways from this engagement from an organisational perspective?

OB: 2018 was the re-launch of the roundtable. We had been out of the picture for a long time. We wanted to say to the government, as business players, we are committing to working with you as the government in finding solutions to the country’s economy. We did put up some form of message. We auctioned the president’s tie at the conference. That was symbolic in the sense that we were telling government that we are prepared to work with you as long as you are going to create a business-friendly environment. We were saying let us work together.

In the 2019 conference, we are hoping to increase the numbers of CEOs that are part of the forum. Our membership right now is at 220 to 250 members. We want to ensure that we increase that number to between 5 000 and 10 000 CEOs across Africa in the next three to five years and we still have a lot of work to do.

We want all CEOs to realise that all our sector issues are driven by the roundtable. It does not matter whether you are in Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa or Mozambique, all these countries are in the region and issues that affect them are cross-cutting and we are there to discuss and find solutions to these issues.

NS: How do Zimbabwean CEOs rate against their colleagues on the African continent?

OB: It is a very complicated comparison. Why? Because as much as running a business in terms of structures and frameworks is concerned may be similar, I think environmental matters may be different. For instance, if you look at the political environment in Botswana and a political environment in Zimbabwe, these two are different. This means that those two CEOs will react differently to a given situation in terms of strategy.

On one side, I might say the tenure of a CEO in Zimbabwe is agile because his tenure of decision-making in terms of a business plan is very short. He is actually looking at making overnight decisions and operating in very short periods such as an e-director. Someone who is in Botswana has a leeway of making a five-year plan that can be dissected in smaller segments and implemented without haste. They can religiously implement their plans from year one to year five with the same conditions.

Here in Zimbabwe, it’s not feasible. One can ask: are we going to have a new currency in the next few weeks? No one knows. How do you plan for the future when the situation is like that? What that leaves you with is a situation where you have two options: a very competent CEO who makes decisions quickly and simply or you are a very incompetent CEO who does not see the value of forward planning.

NS: The Zimbabwean economy is in a tailspin. Where do we find our CEOs and the institutions or companies they run in this crisis?

OB: I think the CEOs have a share or are complicit, let me put it that way, in the problems that we have as a country.

NS: Really? Why do you say so?

OB: I will give you two aspects to this. When there is a bad policy and too many bad policy directions, it does not matter how bad these policies have been, as long as you don’t engage with that policy and challenge it head-on and you continue to do gymnastics to then divert from the bad impact of the policy by continuously trading and employing people when it is very clear that the policy is bad, you are actually an accomplice to that bad policy.

Secondly, CEOs must engage amongst themselves take decisions that allow not only their companies to survive, but the entire economy. There is a problem with a Zimbabwean CEO.
If you are in a sector that is booming, problems faced by other CEOs in other sectors are foreign to you. We have not looked at these challenges as broader as they should when you look at proper economic management provisions.

NS: Let’s talk about your relations with the government. It is common knowledge now that government claims it is a listening government. You have been shouting yourselves hoarse on key economic proposals you think are a panacea to our problems as a country. Has government listened?

OB: Yes and no.

Yes, in the sense that since Independence this is the only government that has come out and declared that they are open for business. Their direction is business. Whether they fall or rise, they will do so on a business policy proposition. Yes, again in the context that whatever the policy proposals are there, these are business founded but the challenge is that they are undermined by politics.

Let me hasten to say that the biggest enemy we have in this country is politics. Seventy percent of problems we have are political in nature and politics has caused everything to go on silent mode.

The no part of it is that this government cannot create a functioning economic model.

NS: Can you clarify what you mean by that? Government has been arguing it is crafting policies that are pro-business, surely?

OB: When you have a government soft-talking an expenditure of $9 billion, to me that does not show economic sense, from an economist perspective. At what point do you raise a red flag and say never shall this happen again? $9 billion! $7 billion of that is just in a period of over five months.

Secondly, at what point do you look at best practice? You are an exporter. You bring in your export proceeds. Where have you had a government that says you bring in your export earnings and we will give you this raw currency? You expect me to give you 50% of my foreign earnings in foreign currency and, in return, you give me unbankable paper?
That is uneconomic.

Where on earth have you seen a government where there are thresholds and there is a law that governs management of resources, and with impunity, they go past the set thresholds and they don’t even care.

NS: You allude to the $9 billion expenditure as a problem we are faced with. Why is it that you are coming up now and crying foul? Where have you been all along as business?

OB: Look, I have said to you that business has not been a saint in all this. Part of the people that have been accomplices to all this problem are in the business sector.

Some of our colleagues have been used as conduits. There is a section of our business sector that has been enjoying and benefitting from this crisis

NS: Can we still call these people businesspeople or they are now criminals out to deprive the nation of its resources at the same time impoverishing and depriving many?

OB: If we are going to by the law, we have to check whether the law has been broken. If indeed it has, then the law must not only be seen to be taking its course, it must take its course. When you look at command agriculture, we have been told that command agriculture has been driven by the private sector. We now have a situation where government has to grapple with a $400 million debt from command agriculture which is now government debt. How did this happen?

NS: Here we are painting a gloomy picture on the situation obtaining. We are simply saying Zimbabwe is now a jungle with no rules and laws governing its affairs. How do we get out of this situation?

OB: It’s a leadership issue. We have not defined what I call the national interest basket.

NS: Who has to define that basket?

OB: Zimbabweans must decide what that basket must contain. We must find a way of converging on the national issues and say this is wholly Zimbabwean. We should be able, as politicians, the church, business, and civil society to come together and define what is wholly Zimbabwean, following which we will then then as Zimbabweans be able to chart the way forward.

NS: Do we read from the same page on what constitutes the Zimbabwean agenda?

OB: The dashboard is very complicated. We are a very divided and hurt nation. Any conversation that is put on the table suddenly turns political. We have to shake ourselves from that narrative. We have to see that politics is a choice and not a way of life.

We can disagree and disagree agreeably. This is where the problem is because politicians have put this amongst Zimbabweans as a dipstick of association to see who buys their ideas and who does not. We must start moving away from such an approach if we are to succeed as a nation.