The article of January 5, by Silas Nkala made for remarkably interesting reading. The sentiments expressed are true of the sentimental opinion of most of us who have made this part of the country home.
There is no doubt that there has been government neglect of the region politically and in some cases to serve the commercial interests of those that are in power. I was amazed late last year when daily I would see South African haulage trucks delivering maize to the Grain Marketing Board silos in Bulawayo. I cannot understand the logic given we do have a functional rail line running from South Africa and directly to the GMB depot. It baffles the mind to think the damage impacted on our roads by the trucks, never mind the cost of moving the maize. Whereas one truck might carry a 30-35 tonne load at most a single locomotive can pull several of these loads. But maybe this could be a highlight of how cost is not a function of decision making in some sectors.
However my aim is to highlight the need to view the revitalisation of Bulawayo; it is not about how we should approach the revival of economic activity within Bulawayo. Rather we have to find underpinning industrial activity. In this aspect therefore my thinking seizes to become about Bulawayo but about Matabeleland.
To explain what this issue is about we need to understand the background of Bulawayo as a town dating back to 1897 when the rail line to Bulawayo was opened as part of the Rhodes’s Cape-to-Cairo dream. The line became the backbone of the mining and ranching industries which flourished during that era. According to Greg Mills in Why Nations Recover, Bulawayo’s geographical location at the Botswana/Mozambique and Northwards crossroads, gave rise to a “substantial industrial” sector.
Further down the line in Rhodesia with the steel from Zisco and cotton from the Midlands region, Bulawayo became a mining equipment and the textile industry hub. The location of the Railways head office in Bulawayo added to the industrialisation where rail wagons were built with a significant steel service industry.
In short the rise of Bulawayo’s industry was born out of a need to service the mining industry, the railways, ranching and processing raw materials emanating from the farming industry such as cotton.
Come independence various factors came to cause the demise of Bulawayo. From political to poor economic decisions, the various support sectors which were the pillars of Bulawayo’s industrial sector collapsed. According to Mills there were 350 manufacturing companies in Bulawayo employing over 100 000 people in 2000 against 250 companies in 2012 with less than 50 000 employees.
Zisco and the Cold Storage Commission were mismanaged until they totally collapsed, whilst the National Railways of Zimbabwe is teetering on the verge of collapse. Rail cargo volumes fell from 20 million tonnes and 100 trains daily in 2000 to 1,7 million tonnes in 2010.
The basis for Bulawayo’s re-industrialisation is therefore no longer existent as it used to be. As Bulawayo Water Action Group Coordinator Khumbulani Maphosa correctly observed “Yes, we still need other critical industries being revived but it doesn’t mean we need to make them in the same model of 1990.”We can no longer create the same industrial model as before. If indeed this is so, this begs the question as to what industrial model Bulawayo should embark on. History has shown us we need to have pillar industries that Bulawayo can build on.
A good starting point would be mining which is still relatively strong. However, we have to be cautious as this sector is now largely served by external manufacturers of equipment and spares. Small-scale miners have also emerged and are being served by the few remaining companies but also largely with Chinese equipment.
Ranching is still a viable option given the many scattered abattoirs and butchers supplying the local market.
But there is a need for critical cornerstone industries on which Bulawayo can build on. Given the global emphasis on sustainability going forward and the need for food security, whatever industrial model we now build should be relevant to the future and also address our own needs in building a sustainable local economy.
In my view these cornerstone industries should now be:
Zambezi Water Project
Lupane Gas Project
The Lupane Gas Project has been in the headlines for several years now with no visible progress of this vital resource. The Standard of May 3, 2020 reported “it is estimated that the country has more than 40 trillion cubic feet of potentially recoverable gas in the Lupane-Lubimbi area, enough to generate millions of dollars in potential revenue and jobs for the unemployed in the district.” The Chronicle of November 17, 2016 called it “The Missing Link.
Methane gas is used in power generation and fertiliser production. It is the predominant energy source in cold climate countries like Europe, Canada and other countries. In South Africa, Sasol has evolved to produce diesel from natural gas.
Within the Bulawayo context, from methane gas exploitation we can derive a set of industrial activity that includes:
Gas for industrial and domestic use
Fertiliser and chemical industry
Because of Bulawayo’s current status it would naturally be a critical support centre and market for this industry in more sectors than those above including consumables, PPE and also, critically, employment. It would also spur the development of Lupane and aid in reviving the town of Hwange.
This industry will create employment at a scale that has not been seen in the last few decades in this part of the country. All these people will need food which brings me to the Zambezi Water Project.
Just like the Lupane gas project this project has been on the cards for a long time. In fact, it was first mooted by the colonial government. Unfortunately, it has been mooted and marketed largely as a water supply project for the City of Bulawayo.
Without a doubt, recent drought years have just highlighted the need for another water source for the city. But the agrarian aspect has not been highlighted as much.
Again, Khumbulani Maphosa was correct in his assertion that, “Government needs to devolve power and invest in the water provisions for the city to expedite the completion of the Gwayi-Shangani project which will create an active agrarian sector in Matabeleland North; this will create agro-processing and refinery industries in Bulawayo,”
In other words, this project should embrace a horticultural production project.
However, the water will not be cheap given the pumping costs.
A viable option is in an export oriented horticultural sector in Matebeleland North.
This will, besides export, also create a food supply chain within the region to feed not only the newly established gas fields but the City of Bulawayo itself and beyond.
The requirements of setting up the gas fields and the water project need steel components on a large scale. Besides, the produce needs to be moved whether it be by rail or pipe or road and this creates extra employment and demand for food and other consumables. Which is why we need functional steel works.
Not only Bulawayo but the whole country needs a steelworks. Besides the large import bill for steel largely from South Africa the lack of steel within Zimbabwe has led to a drawback in the manufacture of various machines and curtailed innovation and creativity within the manufacturing sector. It is so frustrating to spend a whole day looking for a particular section or size of steel only to end up making a plan.
It is immoral and would be prohibitively expensive for us to build the Gas Fields Extraction plants and the Zambezi water pipeline with imported steel whilst we are sitting on vast reserves of iron ore. It is vitally important to use these projects as an incentive to revive the steel works from which the whole nation will benefit.
Given the decades that have passed since the inception of these projects, the political will has evidently been well below that required in these projects. What it will take to get the powers that be to strongly push for these projects I don’t know. But these three projects will cause an upheaval and industrialise Bulawayo albeit in a new direction.
A new direction wherein the support for mining will re-emerge given the supply of steel. The agricultural processing industry will benefit from increased production from the Zambezi Water Project. A new fertiliser and chemical industry will also emerge and maybe, just maybe Bulawayo will regain its former glory.
Muvirimi Francis Mangwendeza,
MBA Leadership and Sustainability
Fellow, Zimbabwe Institute of Engineers