ZIMBABWEAN academic and human resources specialist Elizabeth Mamukwa (EM) recently published her book, Integral Knowledge Creation and Innovation, Empowering Knowledge Communities. The book chronicles several issues affecting human development in Zimbabwe and taps the author’s experiences as a human resources practitioner in many leading firms, as well as the reservoir of knowledge gained during Zimbabwe’s hyperinflationary crisis, when annual inflation reached 500 billion percent. Our business editor Shame Makoshori (SM) this week caught up with Mamukwa to discuss many issues about the book. Here is how their discussion turned out:
SM: Congratulations for publishing your book Dr Mamukwa. Please tell us about yourself.
EM:I am a human resources specialist turned academic. I teach in the Master of Business Administration (MBA) programme.
SM: What led you to write this book?
EM: I made some stunning discoveries when I carried out research for my PhD degree. I just wanted to share this information with the world, particularly hoping that it would be found useful in making the world a better place. I also hope that people who read it may see opportunities to create knowledge for themselves, and for the upliftment of their communities.
SM: As a human resources director in Zimbabwe, that is at Turnall Holdings Limited and other firms, what did you see and how does this book respond to those observations?
EM: I have seen a number of things in my career. I will list just a few. For instance, some managers think they know everything. Unfortunately, they do not (no one does!). It would help to consult others, particularly those that have been in organisations and in specific jobs for longer. Employees, unless prompted, will not necessarily volunteer information, and this is to the organisations’ detriment. Organisations try to be exclusive about information, and miss opportunities to have collective oversight of information, which may lead to the improvement of processes at the very least, and in some cases the creation of new knowledge.
SM: Tell us about knowledge creation. This sounds like a fairly complex topic to the ordinary person. How important it is for economies like Zimbabwe and Africa.
EM: Knowledge creation and innovation sometimes happens when there are some burning issues to be addressed. For instance, Dr Benjamin Franklin invented the catheter because his brother John was suffering from bladder stones. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which helped to drive the industrial revolution. There are many other similar examples. In Zimbabwe and Africa, the focus should be on social innovations to improve people’s lives. About 70% of rural farmers are women. How can we make life easier for them in terms of coming up with innovations that make farming easier and less arduous? This also applies to the situation of women and youths in greater Africa.
SM: You write that harnessing knowledge ‘became the bane of my life as a human resources director… in a hyperinflationary economy’. You were referring to Zimbabwe in this case. Tell us your experience.
EM: While working in a manufacturing company, sometimes machinery would break down and production would be limited for days on end. My observation was that the managers and the young artisans would run around trying to resolve issues. They would however hardly involve the older guys who had been in the company for many years. What they saw was limited literacy, but not the massive knowledge repositories that these older guys were. This is where knowledge normally resides, – in experienced people. This is usually a very good starting point. My mission became to “marry” the old and the young on the knowledge creation journey. The old would bring history and experience while the young would bring new concepts and technology. This was a match made in heaven.
SM: Did you succeed with this strategy?
EM: What threw a spanner in the works was the loss of skills to the diaspora. This called for respecting and intelligently utilising whatever skill was left in the organisation. As a company we had to dig deep for solutions under difficult situations. At one time we had to negotiate with a former employee working in Botswana to come and train a team of technicians to try and bridge a skills gap. It helped, and it also highlighted the need to document knowledge and protects knowledge repositories.
SM: Your book compares the Great Depression and the hyperinflationary crisis in Zimbabwe. Tell us about this.
EM: I am not an economist, but the similarities that I saw include the “collapse of financial confidence”, the run up of stock markets which collapsed once we started using the American currency, to name just two such similarities.
SM: You mention that Zimbabwe made the same mistakes as those made in the Great Depression. What are these mistakes?
EM: In my view such similarities included serious reduction in production, leading to high levels of unemployment. America also ended up cancelling some utility bills to assist the unemployed family members. There were “squatter camps” too, like we experienced here.
SM: Do you think that the current economic volatilities in Zimbabwe represent another case of repeating the Great Depression mistakes, and those of the hyperinflationary era?
EM: Initially that was my fear, but things seem to have changed. The question that you ask when you meet a friend now is “what do you do?” rather than “where do you work”. People have woken up to the fact that you do not have to have a formal job to be productive. A high percentage of Zimbabweans are self-employed and living fairly decent lives. I dwell in my book on the Calabash of Knowledge Creation, a model for transferring knowledge from one person to the next, and improving knowledge as well as coming out with new knowledge. If given a chance, such a model, and others that other Zimbabwean scholars are coming up with, will help our people to maximise learning processes, think outside the box and come up with their own useful innovations.
SM: If so, using examples in your book, why do you think this is happening, and what should be done to avoid falling into the same trap?
EM: First of all, as Zimbabweans we have learnt from the past. Also, the education system that has been overhauled over time has awakened young people to personal productivity. I dwell in my book on the Harare Institute of Technology, which is churning out technopreneurs. Students are trained not to look for jobs but to provide jobs to others. When they graduate, some of them have been assisted by the university to set up their own companies. This is certainly helping these young people not to fall into the same trap of the past.
SM: In relation to Knowledge Creation and Innovation, how is the present administration faring? And what will be the implications on the economy?
EM: I see an administration that is encouraging knowledge creation and innovation. A couple of weeks ago His Excellency the President (Emmerson Mnangagwa) sounded very excited talking about some innovations that had been produced by the Harare Institute of Technology, including a fuel monitoring system. Harare Institute of Technology (HIT) is a state university, and the government is obviously contributing to it in a big way. My sense is that, if such initiatives could be expanded and replicated, we will soon see a new Zimbabwe where there is much more activity in industry and commerce. I believe that we could be on the way to serious recovery.
SM: Knowledge is never static. How can governments handle this transiency to remain relevant, in terms of industries, economies and also education?
EM: I believe that the role of governments is to create enabling environments and encourage citizenry to follow their dreams with regard to creativity and productivity. People have different talents and passions, and if allowed to blossom, amazing things can happen in our country and continent. Education will continue to play a critical role in changing mindsets and giving citizens the confidence to discover and follow their dreams.
SM: Zimbabwe has just completed a transition in its curriculum. How relent is this to present industrial needs?
EM: I like that the new curriculum is stretching the young ones. I also like the new focus in agriculture. We all dream of Zimbabwe regaining its position as the bread basket of Southern Africa. We need to instil the right passions and attitudes in the young ones so that some of them grow into commercial farmers.
SM: Is brain drain a good thing? Why?
EM: Brain drain is not good. Having said that, I am a great believer in cultural exchange. I believe we benefit by having some of our young people travelling and learning from other economies. I strongly believe in the merging of indigenous and exogenous knowledge to come up with endogenous knowledge. After all, we live in a global village now.
SM: Your thoughts on the future of this economy, using your book as a prescription.
EM: With what is happening at universities such as the Harare Institute of Technology, I believe the future has promise. We just need to be committed to sharing knowledge and giving space to people creating new knowledge.