EDITORIAL COMMENT : Expansion of industry into rural areas viable

The Herald

With small-holder agriculture now being fixed and the Government putting in the required institutional back-up to make the successful business approach permanent, the industrial sector now needs to start thinking how this revolution affects them.

President Mnangagwa touched on this last week in Gokwe South where he was attending the commemorations for Culture Week, but he took the opportunity to continue stressing how he sees Zimbabwe developing.

He was suggesting very strongly that industry, and especially those industries that process raw materials grown by farmers, should look at building their processing and finishing facilities “out there”, turning small market towns into proper towns with an industrial base near the source of supply.

As with so much of Zimbabwe’s economy, the weird colonial land-holding patterns and what amounted to an apartheid system that was designed to let the “native reserves” rot with development coming, maybe, later or more precisely much later if at all.

Even the overwhelming majority of people in the large-scale farming areas were kept poor and backward. The idea was a permanent labour force on the farms, not a large group of skilled workers with secondary and tertiary technical education.

The land-holding patterns, with only 10 000 or so families owning vast swathes of Zimbabwe, coupled with an education system that denied the majority the right to being trained as skilled workers, meant that industry had to be concentrated in the main cities where at least there was basic infrastructure and where the small pool of skilled workers lived.

Even that small group of large plantation owners could not really support a local industrial base; there were too few. So the raw materials they produced were trucked or, in a few cases railed, to the bigger cities.

Things are different now with the dramatic expansion of the education system, despite the limitations of that expansion with technical subjects largely ignored, in the 1980s and the land reform of the early 2000s.

The limitations of both those programmes are now being fixed, with the new stress on education being designed to produce technically-literate school leavers and the land reform being under the Second Republic converted from an opportunity for people to “have a piece of land” to the creation of a large group of commercially-orientated farmers running agricultural businesses.

The communal lands are now longer seen as a dumping ground for people moved off large farms, but rather than areas where the farming revolution is being pushed hard.

No one is suggesting that factories be closed in the big cities and rebuilt elsewhere. But what is being suggested is that as industry expands rapidly, as it must, many of the new factories and the new houses needed for the factory workers are built near where the required raw materials are being produced.

This makes sense for a large number of reasons. For a start it is cheaper to truck the partly or fully processed products to the cities and the markets, selling off the “waste” which is normally fairly good stockfeed to the local farming communities.

Secondly most town boards in the small centres, and most rural district councils will obviously be a lot more interested and accommodating when dealing with an industrialist wanting to build a factory and houses in their area.

At the very least industrial land is likely to be a lot cheaper in a small centre than in Harare and the rates significantly lower.

Secondly, starting with an almost clean slate when it comes to town planning, and coupling that with the small size of most centres, it will be easy to ensure that the new suburbs where the workers will live can be a short stroll from the factories, instead of a double bus ride away that chews up more than two hours a day in commuting at large expense.

Government has a major housing programme in place. That programme can easily be adjusted to ensure that a batch of 5 000 new houses are built in a new industrialising town, given the commitment from industry, rather than 25km from Harare, with everyone saving money.

Thirdly the required infrastructure can be put in place at far less expense. It is far cheaper to pipe water a couple of kilometres than the distances needed in Harare, and waste removal and sewage disposal again be close. This is important when it comes to stretching Government budgets to get more bang for the buck.

And of course labour problems are significantly reduced when most people are drawn from the local community with all that entails.

But a major benefit is being next to the raw materials. The Grain Marketing Board, for example, has most of its depots and silo complexes near where the grain is grown. So regular supplies are assured with low transport costs if you are a miller or oil seed processor.

Already we have seen some of the advantages that have come from decentralisation of part of the tobacco industry as a result of the Covid-19 health regulations.

With farmers selling their tobacco close to home, they are also willing to spend their money close to home and the smart businesses are taking advantage of that, especially as the farmers have more money when their transport costs are so much lower.

A swathe of small towns across the tobacco areas are starting to boom, and that is already starting to be translated into the sort of facilities that factory owners will need when they expand into these areas.

Provincial capitals already have the technically-orientated universities, but once a smaller town reaches a critical mass then facilities for a fair amount of technical training become very viable.

The President was not suggesting that industry subsidised the rural areas.

But the Government’s pro-business and devolution agendas do mean that it should be possible to co-operate to ensure that such development makes sound business sense.

The Herald