When the coronavirus pandemic made landfall in Africa, countries—Zimbabwe included—all but completely closed their borders in order to protect themselves from the highly contagious disease which has wreaked havoc in far better-equipped nations. With almost all cross-border trade grinding to a halt, countries are forced to become more and more self-sufficient. Industries to produce the equipment needed to combat the outbreak have been set up virtually overnight and some have expressed surprise at what Zimbabwean companies and institutions are capable of. Perhaps even more surprised by all this are the companies and institutions themselves which are suddenly gaining new markets and rediscovering old ones that had long ago abandoned them in favour of their foreign counterparts.

More people are considering online shopping

The 2010s brought with them wider access to the internet together with one of the most successful mobile payment implementations in the world. Since then various enterprising individuals have tried to use these to introduce the country to online shopping but, alas, such local efforts almost always lost to foreign ones. The online shopping market was eaten by international retailers and marketplaces which enabled locals to directly import whatever they wanted. In Zimbabwe, the notion of an online shopping industry successfully competing with its physical counterpart, as is happening in other parts of the world, has become more and more far-fetched as the years pass by.

The current pandemic has turned what was once a mere convenience that many were more than happy to forgo, into a necessity. Even without lockdowns put in place by the government, public places such as stores will remain risky for many for months to come. This risk is even more pronounced for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Online shopping will become more attractive as a safer shopping option for both retailers and their customers. A business such as Fresh in a Box which delivers vegetables brought online will become a healthier shopping option in more ways than one.

We are giving local engineering a long-deserved chance

There was a time when the market was flooded with so many imports which were so easily accessible that no local creation or innovation had any real chance of making it into the hands of paying customers. Innovators both within and outside academic institutions had a difficult time competing with foreign companies who had millions in research and development funding not to mention more colourful reputations.

The COVID-19 outbreak disrupted the supply chains and transport systems that made Chinese (and other developed countries’) companies and their products omnipresent in our homes and retail shelves. The falter of these channels has made the nine thousand kilometre distance between China and Zimbabwe more apparent.

Within the space of a single month we have institutions declaring their ability to not only service old ventilators but also to manufacture new ones—these are pieces of equipment that are crucial in helping the infected recover from the disease and hence reduce its mortality rate. This comes at a time when countries like India have banned the export of any equipment deemed crucial in combating the virus. The same globalisation and free trade principles which have laid our country’s balance of trade to waste are themselves falling apart as countries are consolidating their resources to better fight the virus on their home turfs.

The Harare Institute of Technology is said to be able to produce about 40 units of this crucial piece of equipment per day while NUST is repairing dead ventilators that are already owned by local hospitals. Evidently all of this was possible even before the outbreak and the country definitely was in need of ventilators before it but the currently infamous virus solidified our collective resolve.

Local textile and clothing manufacturers are regaining relevance through PPEs

The clothing and textile industry in Zimbabwe was long ago shoved out of the centre stage by imports. Regaining a foothold in the market has been difficult for the industry as it squares off against low priced imports (including used clothing) on the low-income market and brand names on the other end of the income spectrum.

Most of these companies have survived through manufacturing protective and other specialist clothing. The present crisis has caused the demand in the sector to spike as our health workers are in dire need of personal protective clothing and equipment. The demand for face masks is so high that some companies are taking advantage of the situation and producing units that confer more of a sense of comfort rather than any real protection to the wearer—it turns out that not every piece of clothing covering your nose and mouth is effective. Fortunately, on the last point, some local universities are working with and subcontracting textile manufacturers to produce equipment (including facemasks) that meets both SAZ and WHO guidelines.

Long overdue sanitizer manufacturing begins

COVID-19 is not the first health crisis in recent years that would have made the availability of sanitizers necessary, though it is certainly the most threatening. The country has had to deal with cholera and typhoid outbreaks. In addition, some towns and cities have long wrestled with chronic water shortages. In spite of all this hand sanitizers have almost always been regarded as luxuries.

As Zimbabweans tend to, many enterprising individuals foresaw the demand for sanitizers even before the disease hit Africa. Sanitizers and their raw materials were imported in bulk ahead of the anticipated high demand. What many of these people failed to foresee was that their mostly overpriced concoctions were about to get officially sanctioned competition. Several universities have started producing hand sanitizer in quantities which should be enough to meet local demand. Add to that energy giant Greenfuel.

In conclusion

Even though Zimbabwean companies and institutions have demonstrated their ability to step up when times are hard, we have to remember that most of our production facilities lack the benefits bestowed by automation and economies of scale that would make our products price competitive on both the local and foreign markets. This would seem to indicate that the only way local industry and innovation can thrive is by providing it with an environment that basically lacks any form of competition.

Our universities are also showing how useful they can be if every once in a while they stopped their pursuit for the groundbreaking and the original to solve immediate problems facing the country and industry as a whole.