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Will 2013 Bring a Change of Fortune to Bulawayo?

More than 100 firms in Bulawayo have closed their doors since January 2011. Bulawayo lost 20,000 jobs. Despite the hype that accompanied the launch of the Distressed Industries And Marginalised Areas Fund (DIMAF) in 2011, the year 2012 saw the city’s loss of firms continue. Bulawayo residents and business leaders’ forecast for 2013 is mixed.

Throughout 2012, Bulawayo’s industries suffered, as a lack of capital, water shortages and a shrinking population continued to take their toll. Once the country’s industrial hub, with a large manufacturing presence and top textile companies such as Belmor clothing and cotton printers, much of the city’s industrial infrastructure now stands empty and unutilized, relics of Bulawayo’s glory days.

Ministry of Industry and Commerce statistics say that over 100 large firms have either closed or relocated to Harare since January 2011, with others scaling back their operations.

The firms have given many reasons for these moves, ranging from lack of infrastructure to support the size of the city, including rail infrastructure, one of the core reasons many firms set up in Bulawayo to begin with. Unreliable water supply has also been a major concern.

One such firm is Archer Clothing Company, which retrenched about 600 workers when it left. The ready wholesalers, trading as Belmor clothing manufacturers, left about 300 workers jobless.

Also closed or relocated are national blankets, cotton printers, Security Mills, the country’s sole manufacturer of knitting yarn, Karina, David Whitehead, as well as Continental Fashions, a textile giant that had been operating in Zimbabwe for more than 48 years.

When firms shut down and lay off workers, the workers and their families often move away. This outflow of people can make it more difficult for other firms to find qualified workers, which discourages new firms from starting up.

This cycle has shrunk Bulawayo’s 2012 population to 655,675, down from 676,650 just ten years earlier, according to national census figures.
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But Bulawayo-based economist Eric Bloch says there is hope for Bulawayo’s industries in 2013, as there are still many positives in the city.

Bloch says Bulawayo remains at the center of any efforts to revive the country’s economy and, while many skilled workers have left to seek better opportunities, the city’s remains skilled enough to revive its old fortunes.

Minister of Trade, Commerce and Industry, Professor Welshman Ncube, says although DIMAF has not yet revived Bulawayo’s distressed industrial sector and that more firms continue to fold, the government is not giving up on the city.

Despite discouraging statistics, Minister of Finance Tendai Biti says the city, and the Matabeleland region as a whole, is not being neglected, saying that more funds have been channeled into the area since 2009 than into other parts of the country.

Local resident and businesswoman Ruth Labode says she sees centralization at the core of Bulawayo’s industrial challenges.

In her estimation, capital investments follow power and with political power centrally located in Harare, she says it’s no wonder that most of the nation’s private investments are made in Harare.

She says the 2013 elections could see a change that would promote equitable investment across the country.

Sheila Sidambe, vice president of the Matabeleland chapter of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, says while Bulawayo has not had any new investors to speak of recently, the chamber hopes that two investment conferences held in the city this year will bear fruit in 2013.

Meanwhile, the city awaits the pumping of water from the Mtshabezi-Mzingwane Dam, which is expected to ease water problems in the new year, with high hopes that this will resolve some of the infrastructure concerns expressed by so many firms.

With these changes, and the retention of a sizable skilled workforce, business leaders and residents in the city believe Bulawayo remains a good investment opportunity in 2013.