Monday, 10 March 2014
Zimbabwe v South Africa
Back in 1980 many believed that Zimbabwe was in better position than South Africa to succeed. Today, although they’re still geographic neighbours, and have many similar ‘sub-Saharan’ problems, they could not be further apart. Yet years of a repressive regime has not stopped Zimbabwean education from being the best in Africa… and maybe IT finally offers the democratic solution people need?
Zimbabwe has had a chequered history. Robert Mugabe’s latest election triumph was dogged with the customary controversy. Many believe “Zimbabwe's economy [is] still stuck in a rut.” Whilst Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa’s predictions of 6.4% economic growth in 2014 (up from 3.4%) are certainly not shared by everyone.
By contrast, the GDP of South Africa is $7,508 per capital, (World Bank 2009 – 13) ten times that of Zimbabwe ($714 per capita) and it has the largest economy on the continent. Yet the Rand itself is also going through difficulties. And earlier this week interest rates were hiked in a move which Gill Marcus, South Africa’s Reserve Bank Governor described to the BBC as the global financial crisis entering a "new phase" and "creating new challenges for emerging market economies".
Perhaps the very fact that Zimbabwe has been behind for so long could be a benefit? “We went through ten years where nothing was taking place,” Burayayi Brian Mukudzavhu Director and Co-Founder of Axis Solutions tells IDG Connect. “But now we’re coming from zero, so the opportunities are immense. That is what makes Zimbabwe unique.”
Zimbabwe vs. South Africa
“It’s not easy to compare Zimbabwe with South Africa,” explains Adrian Schofield, Manager of Applied Research at Joburg Centre for Software Engineering at Wits University. “In some respects, we are the same; [there is] disparity between rich and poor, urban and rural. [But] South Africa has better communications infrastructure overall (broadband network, mobile coverage, links to submarine cable systems), both have access and affordability issues.”
“[However] Zimbabwe has a quarter of South Africa’s population and a fraction of its GDP – and a very different political/government style,” he continues.
This could not be more true: Zimbabwe has Mugabe, a man vilified by all. South Africa on the other hand had global legend, Mandela. A man so loved in his own country and beyond that his death caused protracted mourning, the world over.
South Africa and Zimbabwe are next door to each other though. They both get a slice of the Limpopo River (made so famous by Rudyard Kipling). And even their two very different leaders have had their parallels: “both were born in an era when white power prevailed throughout Africa, Mandela in 1918, Mugabe in 1924,” wrote Martin Meredith who has written a biography of each.
“Both were products of the Christian mission school system, Mandela of the Methodist variety, Mugabe of the Catholic. Both attended the same university, Fort Hare in South Africa,” he continued in the Guardian. “Both emerged as members of the small African professional elite, Mandela a lawyer, Mugabe a teacher. Both were drawn into the struggle against white minority rule, Mandela in South Africa, Mugabe in neighboring Rhodesia. Both advocated violence to bring down white-run regimes. Both endured long terms of imprisonment, Mandela, 27 years, Mugabe, 11 years."
There is no denying that two radically different leadership styles - albeit born out of similar circumstances - have shaped two very different nations. Yet this only shows how quickly things can change over time. As Greg Myre summarised for NPR: “[If you were] gazing into the future from the vantage point of 1980, it would have been reasonable to predict that Zimbabwe had better prospects than South Africa.”
Today, of course, Zimbabwe is most definitely subsumed under its bigger neighbour. “Larger [IT] projects are out of South Africa, small projects are the ones that are done by Zimbabwean companies,” explains Mukudzavhu. “The majority in terms of volume are done by Zimbabwean companies, but in terms of revenue they are done out of South Africa.”
“[But] I believe Zimbabwe is going to get more self-sufficient. The IT market in Zimbabwe is growing and one of the major drivers for that is connectivity and mobile. The other thing is a pretty youthful population. [And] the sea cable has also boosted connectivity quite a lot here.”
Simple Technology & Farming
Image credit: Ullisan vai Flickr
Like so much of the developing world, technology is the obvious solution for many local problems. Take the new insurance plan launched for farmers last year, for example. Backed by a “highly innovative weather monitoring network,” Strive Masiyiwa, Founder of parent company, Econet Wireless told Business Day, the whole thing was made possible through an alliance with local seed producer, SeedCo.
In this agreement SeedCo produces a small plastic container of seeds, along with a printed number which the farmer must SMS back to the network to activate the account. Once the number is received, the farmer’s location is noted Masiyiwa explained: “The Econet base station in the farmer’s area monitors weather patterns including rainfall, temperature and humidity. This information is used by weather experts to tell if there has been a drought in the area.”
With an insurance policy in place, small farmers, which make up the backbone of Zimbabwe’s agriculture, should find it easier to cope with inconsistent weather conditions in future. This is crucial because as on top of various high profile government failures, these individuals lead an extremely tough hand-to-mouth existence. Silas D. Hungwe, President, Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union penned a paper (PDF) recently, in which he explained in detail the world from the African smallholder farmer’s perspective.
In fact the need for small scale agriculture is so widespread that The City of Harare carried a Letter to the Editor on 31st December 3013 from from L. Gwindi, ‘Harare City Corporate Communications Manager’, which highlighted the prevalence of this even in towns. “[This is] practiced in all high density suburbs [where] people grow crops such as vegetables, maize and fruit trees.”
This overreaching trend has an impact on the tech landscape on the ground Schofield tells us. “[Some technology is not suited to the Zimbabwe environment, for example, 80% of farms are now smallholdings, so machinery suited to large scale farming is not of any value.” Yet like the majority of sub-Saharan Africa, small-scale innovations made possible through mobility could well be the key to development.
ICT & the Government
Zimbabwe’s latest telecom statistics show mobile penetration is at 103.5%. Much of this comes via Econet Wireless, the company behind EcoFarmer and the company with greatest presence on the Zimbabwe stock market. This is the organisation responsible for EcoCash, the local mobile payment system - not dissimilar to Kenya’s flagship M-Pesa system.
Last year Econet Wireless was selected as the number one local company in the ICT Ministry Award 2013. The second company was Axis Solutions which labels itself as leader in Enterprise Mobility in Zimababwe. Mukudzavhu, Director and Co-Founder, is very hopeful about the future for the country and strongly feels mobility will be the key:
“Our belief is that mobile is the way to go. What we want is [to enable] everything you can do in the office from your mobile. We also see a lot of data sitting in organisations. We are the local go-to for Zimbabwe. We want to arrange and organise all of that data into meaningful information that people can use. We want to transform the way people make payments.”
“One of the innovations that we’ve come up with ourselves allows for accounting revenue on a mobile. We’re the only ones [in Zimbabwe] who are doing that,” he continues.
The government has been pretty active in the IT space which only serves to aid development. There is a Minister of ICT with a national ICT policy 2010 -2014 strategic plan (PDF) – this online document covers the usual bases – and various on-going initiatives. Yet the Ministry of ICT has also come under criticism. The ICT awards last December, for example, received a scathing attack from nominee, Dereck Goto, Founder and Lead Web Developer at Web Entangled in a piece entitled: “Zimbabwe’s ICT Achievers Awards – what an insult!”
He quantified in the piece: “For fear of being accused of being a sore loser, I will provide visual evidence and links to projects developed by Sadomba-Mahari, the best ICT Web Developer for 2013 (and 2012!). I will leave it to the reader to make their own conclusion as to the authenticity and sincerity of the awards.” He also said: “I would like to challenge the event organisers to reveal the criterion they used in coming up with the category winner for the public to see and learn.”
We contacted both Mr Goto and the Ministry for ICT and neither responded for comment.
Technology, Education & a Young Population
Image credit: Derek N Winterburn via Flickr
Interestingly, an article we published back in June about the reasons for all the South African rural tech failures resonated strongly with our readers. One individual who was in the process of rolling out a new eLearning tech initiative in schools across the continent told us he was surprised in the disparity between the South African and Zimbabwe government reactions to his proposals.
We contacted Daniel Sencier, who has recently moved out to Johannesburg from the UK, for this piece and he provides more information: “When our team went to Zimbabwe, we were welcomed with enthusiasm by members of the cabinet. After several days of presentations in relation to our solar powered, satellite internet provision for rural schools, they agreed to go ahead and trial our offering. They seemed genuinely concerned about the education in their country and were very determined to bring a brighter future to their children.
“In South Africa, a similar trial was approved back in June 2013 by the Technology Minister, Derek Hanekom. Since then, every meeting has resulted in another meeting, and even though the approved 20 school trial would cost less than 0.05% of the total education budget, nothing yet has been set in motion. We visited a state school in KwaZulu-Natal last week and they need help very badly. With South Africa having a surplus on its education budget last year, we have identified countless areas where this money could have been spent.”
None of this may come as a surprise, of course, when you consider the emphasis Zimbabwe places on to its excellent education system. Despite recent problems (which include the request for British funds to educate a million children) the Telegraph explained:
“Mr Mugabe, a teacher himself by training, inherited one of Africa's best education systems and, in the 15 years after independence, improved it further, expanding the number of schools, improving teacher training and boosting resources. As a result, Zimbabwe continues to boast one of the highest literacy rates in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
In fact the African Economist rates Zimbabwe as number one in Africa for literacy (at 90.7%) this compares to South Africa at number three (at 86.4%) with Equatorial Guinea sandwiched in the middle of the two (with 87%). To provide some context, at the other end of the scale Burkino Faso has a miserable, 21.8% literacy rate.
Perhaps this extremely young, educated population, situated next door to the biggest economy in Africa, finally has a chance to control its own future using tech? “I do think a lot of young people see IT as the biggest opportunity. We have a young population with one of the highest literacy rates on the continent,” says Mukudzavhu.
“IT is very democratic, “he continues. “A lot of innovations are taking place in Zimbabwe but the only thing is people don’t have funding. If they could get funding to start exporting these innovations outside Zimbabwe there is potential. The youth will be playing a major role in this space.”
Few people could make any serious comparison between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Despite being neighbours they are worlds apart and Zimbabwe’s social problems are glaringly obvious. Yet technology is opening up unprecedented new opportunities.... and history only goes to show how quickly things can change.
Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect