World Expo 2020 in Dubai, moved to October this year until March 2022 because of Covid-19, offers a lot of opportunities to Zimbabwe and to a select number of Zimbabwean businesses, but it will require some heavy lifting and hard work to translate those opportunities to reality.
The Zimbabwean pavilion is emphasising the opportunity leg of the Expo attractions, rather than mobility or sustainability, although these categories are not rigid and exclusive. Nations have had to pick and choose quite a lot to keep half a dozen or so faces of their country on show.
Zimbabwe has been emphasising tourism, investment opportunities and a skilled workforce. The pavilion theme is built around Great Zimbabwe, but fortunately a unique cultural icon fits into the tourism sector rather well as one of three major tourism attractions so we win both ways, showing off our heritage and inviting people to come over and see it in the original.
But the main thrust of the pavilion is the investment opportunities in Zimbabwe, and to show that Zimbabwe takes this especially seriously, we sent a high-powered team from the economic ministries and led by Vice President Constantino Chiwenga to Dubai to participate in the business meetings and seminars set up around the opening.
Presumably, the Government has properly manned the pavilion and any visitor, and especially potential investors, can be briefed by someone who knows and who can answer the questions promptly and fully.
So, basically, the Government has done its job and playing its part. What is now needed is for the business sectors to do theirs. This means ensuring that they too take the expo seriously as an opportunity, for themselves and Zimbabwe.
The tourism industry is obviously one sector. But it is impossible for almost everyone in that sector to even visit Dubai, and totally impossible to hang around for six months. This should not be a problem so long as all in the sector make sure they have decent websites with accurate, and we stress accurate, and up-to-date information.
What is really needed is for the tourism and hospitality sector to set up quality portals and directories. While they obviously compete for customers, visitors and clients, they need to co-operate on getting those plane loads of customers to fly in. Once they arrive, the competition on quality and price can start.
We have mentioned before that it is becoming increasingly difficult in Zimbabwe to find out what is available and who the potential suppliers are, and with international tourists the problem becomes even worse since they do not have local knowledge and local contacts.
The Zimbabwe Tourism Authority does have the basic licensing and quality control grading systems, which is a vital component since it tells a visitor that someone has checked out the place where they are likely to stay and has certified that it reaches a set standard, whatever that standard is.
But more is needed and here the sectors themselves, publicising an independent grading system and quality control checking to wash out the con artists, can do more together and individually.
Besides the major Expo Dubai, there are many international tourism trade fairs and exhibitions where a joint effort can and should be mounted, to get the traffic before the detailed competitive pitches are given to see where those new visitors will be willing to spend their money.
Other businesses can also piggyback on the expo to expand trade opportunities in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Dubai.
One area that has been discussed is horticulture exports to Dubai and the UAE. While the UAE these days can grow a lot, it will be using desalinated sea water for irrigation, not the cheapest way to grow vegetables, so the possibility of regular imports of high-quality produce does exist.
Usefully Emirates airline flies out of Harare six days a week, every day except Thursday, and there may well be useful regular cargo space on these planes since most cargo traffic is likely to be coming the other way.
Whoever is going to set up the trade deal will have to investigate and see what sort of special rates can be negotiated for regular traffic. The last time Zimbabwe was a major horticulture exporter, air cargo was considered absolutely essential, so much so that large Russian aircraft were chartered in the European winter to fly fresh flowers and vegetables to Europe.
The second area that the potential export manager has to investigate is the requirements. There might well be a market for airlifted produce in the UAE, remembering that with the transport costs factored in only exactly the right varieties, at exactly the right stage of ripeness, in exactly the right packing and of the highest quality are likely to be viable.
It cannot be a case of Zimbabwean farmers shipping stuff out and hoping for the best. It has to be a case of Zimbabwean farmers finding out what exactly is required and when, growing this and then making sure that all the extra work of packaging and cooling and the like is done.
Almost certainly any contract signed with a Dubai business house will include the right of rejection.
Then farmers have to be assembled. Again these farmers exist, but have to be tracked down.
With the present farm allocation policies it is likely that any Dubai deal will need to be supplied by several farmers, all fairly close to Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, like no more than an hour’s drive away.
This implies that the set up here will need a manager or co-ordinator who can combine the daily deliveries into the orders that have been made, pack the container, get the paperwork done very quickly and have the container on the plane, which after all only spends an hour at the airport, enough time to load containers, but without a minute to spare on any wasted seconds.
Zimbabwe used to have a reasonably flourishing horticultural export business. Land reform, basically the sanctions by individual businesses as well as Governments, wrecked most of it. With the compensation deals now signed with the farmers who lost land, those who cancelled deals are likely to be interested in setting these up again. There will be minimal consumer resistance to buying Zimbabwean flowers and vegetables.
One major problem, now as it was then, will be the transport. Zimbabwe now longer has a cargo fleet. This is one good reason to get a lot of the basic business systems in place using a Gulf market since there are regular flights from Harare and there is likely to be some cargo space. As other airlines return to Harare then more opportunities open.
Since most of our exports are bulk products that have to be shipped by truck, rail and ship, yet imports will include things like critical spare parts and other high-value low-bulk goods, there is likely to be always some cargo space for outbound flights, so each airline will need to be approached to see what is possible at what cost.
Once the transport is arranged it comes back to finding a market and finding the farmers who can grow what that market wants.
Zimbabwe is re-entering the global markets, thanks to the Government efforts and policies to open and reopen ties with everyone. But businesses always have to remember that a political leader or a civil servant can only
go so far to create trade and investment.
In the end it is the private sector itself that has to use those politically-opened doors to meet customers and then find out exactly what those customers want, how much they are prepared to pay, and then have the right products and the right price.