21 February is National Youth Day in Zimbabwe. Since the turn of the millenium, the ruling party ZANU PF and government have spent billions of USD on youths, sometimes through RBZ loans, ostensibly to start income generating projects. Similarly billions have been spent on the 21st February Movement, renamed the National Youth Day. Despite throwing such loads of cash on the youth, the fact remains that the targeted youths remain marooned on the no man’s land between joblessness and squalid poverty. The few who have access to big loans spend the money on expensive vehicles and philandering. Soon they will be back to where they were.
Every year big announcements on youth empowerment are made and yet the youths continue to sink in the quicksand of rags and squalid poverty. No one has stopped to ask why the youths remain stagnant despite the lavish amounts of money thrown at them. Do they lack business acumen, is it the business environment that is failing them or is it lack of training. The answer is as complex as trying to understand why Zimbabwe continues to import maize and wheat after sinking more $3.5 billion into command agriculture.
A toxic business environment
Zimbabwe’s business environment is unpredictable and over politicised. For one to succeed in business they must get really dirty. Nigeria’s world renowned business tycoon, Aliko Dangote, visited the country once and he threw his hands in the air in surrender after the corrupt elites descended on him like vultures on a carcass. The corruption bridges one must cross are too ghastly to contemplate. Thabo Mbeki once told Mugabe that a South African business mogul fled back to South Africa after a cabinet minister had demanded a $5 million bribe to allow him to start a business in Zimbabwe. Add to the corruption cost, we have a banking environment that is in a comatose state. Investors are not guaranteed of getting their money back once they transfer it to Zimbabwe. If they want to procure anything abroad they might find it hard to make the payment. Yes the money is reflecting in the account but getting it out is a nightmare. In such an environment even Billy Gates will utterly fail if he tries to establish a business in Zimbabwe. If established businesses are crumbling how much difficult is it for youths who are trying to start out on a business venture.
Lack of leadership and business training.
The youths in Zimbabwe sit on the periphery of the periphery of the economy. They have no opportunities to be groomed through hands-on experience in business management. A significant number have to earn the RBZ loans through party activities such as mobilizing youths, singing and chanting slogans at rallies. They have to figure out their own way through life with very little mentorship from successful business owners. With the exception of Strive Masiyiwa, whose Econet business empire continues to grow in leaps and bounds, Zimbabwe has not had a consistently successful entrepreneur in the past decade. Strive Masiyiwa’s continued successes was guaranteed by his decision to leave Zimbabwe and go regional and later global. Had he remained in Zimbabwe the story would be different.
First and foremost, an enabling environment is needed for youths to prosper. Throwing money at youths without training them in entrepreneurial skills is a waste of resources even thought the concept of youth empowerment is brilliant. Government must facilitate seminars and workshops where successful businessmen like Strive talk to the youths of Zimbabwe. A business incubation model is needed where youths are thoroughly prepared on how to run a successful business. Likewise, government need to link the local youths to young entrepreneurs of the same trade in other parts of the world. Government need to evaluate past youth empowerment programs and draw lessons from the past to inform the future. Our vocational training centres, Polytechs and Universities also need to evolve and move from producing laborers to entrepreneurs in various fields.
More importantly, the thinking of the youths must be reoriented to solving today’s problems. They must invest their energy in new and home grown technology that speak to the challenges Zimbabweans are facing today. A successful business model is one that is an answer to contemporary problems. Our youths must not continue to use the same farming and mining techniques used by our ancestors centuries ago. They must evolve from home industries to more sophisticated industries that can generate export revenues for them and the country.