Business Weekly Last Word
Zimbabwean industry is starting to become more innovative but generally has a long way to go before it approaches even the levels it reached before hyperinflation and dollarisation, let alone the sort of levels it should be operating at.
In some ways import substitution by putting in the final processing or packing in Zimbabwe, while useful and helpful, is very limited. More and more effort needs to be used in securing local supply chains of raw materials, and then start looking at creating and marketing desirable products from raw materials that are available but are not being fully used. From there it may well be possible to crate export products using our raw materials and start reversing the culture that tends to regard Zimbabwe as second rate.
Among the leaders in what is needed is Delta, our biggest manufacturer. Almost all its raw materials are sourced locally, with two critical grains — barley for malting for clear beer and sorghum for opaque beer — being grown under contract with the carefully-selected farmers growing the precise varieties at the required quality. Just about the only import required is hops, and even here Delta made efforts to see if these could be grown in Zimbabwe although was finally defeated by the climate.
While Delta’s clear beer brands are largely part of a global set-up, and so exports are not really possible, the company made strenuous efforts to export its opaque beer, very definitely a Zimbabwean brand, to Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique but found the taste did not travel in viable quantities. But the culture of looking for export markets was the right one.
One area of innovation that does need imagination and effort is in our basic grains. Zimbabweans eat a lot of maize, which is the basic staple, and are fond of bread, which requires a high percentage of imported expensive wheat. Yet until just under a century ago maize was not the staple, being more of a vegetable roasted green, and the basic sadza was made from sorghums. Despite the inconvenience, with sorghum needing double processing and a lot more time and effort, the advantages of a pure indigenous African grain that will produce some sort of crop even in a drought were decisive, especially when generations of women growers had built up seed stocks of varieties that had acceptable or better taste.
Regrettably the convenience of maize as modern grinding technology became widespread, the research efforts into this commercial crop both internationally and locally, and the marketing that was done transferred loyalties. And to be fair to farmers, if you do get some sort of maize crop you will with modern varieties get a higher yield than with sorghum. So sorghums tend to be grown in the lower-rainfall areas largely for animal feed and emergency food with, regrettably, a growing loss of knowledge of what varieties have good taste and a loss of a sorghum culture.
Efforts were made in the 1980s and 1990s to reverse this trend with serious research into sorghum to find higher yielding varieties that passed the taste test and development of suitable technology, that could be used from village level to factory to produce a flour. But there was little commercial take-off and to this day in the commercial food business sorghum flour tends to be sold as a niche product in small packs in middle-income supermarkets rather than as a mass market food. Even the malted sorghum flour, that was once a popular breakfast food among immigrant communities in Southern Africa, has basically vanished.
Yet the drought this year, and the need to import a lot of maize, must concentrate minds. We get these sort of serious droughts at least twice a decade now and they are likely to become more frequent with global warming. This would, if there was an acceptable mass product and a culture shift, tend to suggest that Zimbabweans should extend the range of the diet to the sort of food their great-grandmothers once cooked. Such shifts, if you look at supermarket trolleys, have taken place with pasta growing in popularity at a fast rate and rice becoming a near staple in many households.
But until some adventurous industrialist able to assemble contract farmers in sufficient numbers and ready to select the varieties that have a good chance of being accepted can take the crop to a new level, we are not likely to get far.
But Zimbabwean industrialists could go further. It is worth remembering that Dr John Harvey Kellogg and his kid brother Will Keith Kellogg were experimenting with bland vegetarian foods in the 1890s in a clinic in a town smaller than Marondera today when they figured out a way of crating flakes of grain, eventually choosing maize. Dr John was not over commercial and restricted sales to patients while Will Keith not only went commercial but earned his brother’s undying animosity by adding sugar for taste and figuring out a marketing strategy that changed the breakfast tables of millions. But when you think about it corn flakes could have been invented in any small town and we do not know what else could be invented.
How much research do our industrialists indulge in? Do we just try to make fakes of other products or are we ready to innovate?
One curious area where perhaps we could think more is in luxury exports and niche foods. There are some indigenous fruits and grains that could be raw materials for the speciality markets in richer cities. And there are other products where local markets at least could be supplied.
One area is alcoholic drinks. We need to remember that scotch whiskey was once sneered at as produced by poor farmers wanting something to drink; bourbon whisky was developed by backwoods American farmers wanting to store maize surpluses; sherries and ports started off as rough wines being shipped to England when embargoes stopped imports of French booze and they needed stabilising for the voyage. There are many other examples. So has anyone wondered if kachasu could be converted into a taxed desirable product? Could Zimbabwe produce quality rums without a single cent of imports in the Lowveld? Has anyone thought about the interesting research into using indigenous fruits and herbs to create the next big liquor?
And returning to Delta. It produces half a dozen clear beers, but just one opaque beer despite the large number of varieties of sorghums available for experiment to create a range of products, one of which might just be the elusive export product.