Due to the generally low personal incomes in the country, cheaper imported goods particularly those from China will probably have a large and lucrative market for most of the foreseeable future. Local businesses of all sizes are involved in the importation and subsequent resale of products from the Asian giant. These businesses range in size from retail giants down to ordinary street vendors and hawkers.
Because the process of importing from China can be complex and intimidating—made even more so by the fact that Zimbabwe is landlocked—many local businesses which want to import these cheaper goods for reselling have to settle for buying from wholesalers located in neighbouring countries with seaports such as Mozambique and South Africa. In doing so, they often forego the cheaper prices that they would have enjoyed had they directly imported the goods themselves. This article is therefore written for those who are considering importing directly from China—perhaps to reduce the number of middle parties involved in their transactions (and all their accompanying mark-ups).
When do regulations apply?
The vast majority of import regulations only come into play when goods are imported for commercial use. However do not get excited thinking you can game the system—it is often left to the relevant customs authority (ZIMRA in Zimbabwe) to decide at its discretion what constitutes a commercial import. When it comes to small packages such as those bought in eCommerce transactions for personal use, couriers like DHL or FedEx will often handle everything on their customers’ behalf. Actual importers do not usually get such kinds of privilege.
Choose what to import
Whenever you import a bulk consignment of any product, you are making a significant investment and taking on substantial risk. Therefore you have to take all reasonable measures to ensure that you can recoup your money (at a comfortable profit). One of the most obvious of these is determining if whatever you are importing will find a market in Zimbabwe. This then calls for market research for every product you wish to import.
Never solely rely on images in catalogues when you are deciding on what to import: get descriptive literature, look for YouTube videos and perhaps best of all, get a sample (or samples) of what you intend to buy before committing to a bulk order. One of the easiest ways of getting a sample, assuming that yours is not a customised product, is simply trying to find and order one through an eCommerce marketplace.
You should also do more research around the product which you wish to import. For example, Zimbabwe, like any other country, has products which it prohibits from entering its borders. Just because you saw something being sold in a corner shop or on the streets does not mean it entered the country legally—smuggling and corruption exist at our borders. Some products also require special licenses to import while others demand extremely high amounts of duty. Do not over-rely on assumptions or hearsay as these may cause you substantial future inconveniences and financial losses.
Search for suppliers
Suppliers can be found using a variety of online sources. Websites such as Alibaba.com can be used to not only search for products but to also discover their suppliers. You can also consult trade and professional associations (whether international or local) or attend domestic and international trade shows to find these suppliers.
The process of importing a product in large quantities is usually very different from the one involved when carrying out online shopping i.e. it involves far more communication with the supplier than just clicking on a “buy” button on a website. Whenever you are looking for a supplier in a non-English speaking foreign country and you have reason to believe that a misunderstanding is possible during the ordering process, try to only deal with those sales representatives who use English which you can understand unless you have a firm grasp of the formal language of that country (in this case Mandarin or Cantonese)—and no, Google Translate is not quite there yet.
Find a reliable freight forwarder and/or clearing agent
Importing is a very complicated process particularly if you are new to it. Most companies prefer to engage the services of professional cleaning agents or other businesses like freight forwarders which take most of the logistics of importing off their hands; ZIMRA strongly encourages this. Doing this also allows you to concentrate on your core business and as you can probably see, such logistics are an entire industry unto themselves anyway. As you must with all companies which you do business with, try to only deal with reputable ones.
Since the final goal of importing whatever you choose to is reselling at a profit, you must keep a close eye on all your costs and expenses. To obtain an estimate of how much your imported product will cost in total you will need the following information:
- An estimate of the shipping charges (from your choice of freight forwarding company).
- Charges for customs clearance, duty and tax (including the cost of agents you will hire to oversee or consult on these).
- The cost of land transport to your warehouse.
Once you have this figure you can then add it to the product cost and calculate the prices which you can realistically charge your customers and see if they make business sense.
Last but not least, you must account for the unpredictability of international shipping in your planning: If your order is too late you might run out of inventory while your shipment is stuck somewhere, while if it is too early, inventory management costs may get out of hand.