Ruth Butaumocho Gender Editor
When Ms Sithembile Priscilla Pilime joined the famous trek to the United Kingdom to study nursing in London during the Rhodesian era, she had no other ambition except getting a good education. On her return home and armed with both nursing and social sciences qualifications, Ms Pilime realised that she could do more than treat sick patients. She decided to try her luck in trade promotion and investment, and the choice she made more than three decades ago has become the pinnacle of her success.
Ms Pilime is the chief executive officer of ZimTrade, Zimbabwe’s national trade development and promotion organisation. She has been with ZimTrade for a cumulative 18 years, serving in various portfolios until her appointment as the organisation’s chief executive officer in 2011.
“It has been a long journey, inspired by a passion to contribute to trade and commerce and play my part as a Zimbabwean. “Looking back, I realise that I did not make a mistake in my choice of a career. I love trade and I am very passionate about it,” she said in an interview recently.
Her contribution in economics and trade has been exceptional earning her a pinnacle position in the trade matrix of Zimbabwe, as a matriarch in that sector.
From the time she was promoted to head ZimTrade, Ms Pilime who is also one of the founder members of the organisation, has taken a robust approach to contribute towards the growth of the country’s exports markets, an initiative that has taken her and her team across the region for Zimbabwean products.
In addition to participation in regional and international trade fairs, ZimTrade has made successful inroads in neighbouring countries scouting for business opportunities for local companies.
“The scouting ventures have not been futile, but we have managed to identify business opportunities’ for local companies in the construction, food processing, services and a coterie of other sectors,” she said.
In the last two years, Ms Pilime and her team has managed to identify business opportunities in Mozambique, South Sudan, Zambia, Angola with plans to explore the Tanzanian and DRC markets in the near future.
The passion for trade, commerce and development she displays today, was not achieved overnight, but was a result of her commitment to effect progressive trading culture and create a boon for companies and organisations.
“Trade requires speed in action, so it is important for us to continuously promote an enabling environment for existing and potential exporters so that they will not lose business,” she said.
It is that passion and a penchant for identifying opportunities in trade that saw her being sent to Bonn, Germany in 1985 as a trade attaché, barely a few years after working with the then ministry of trade and commerce.
When she returned home in 1991 from Germany after completing her mission, Ms Pilime was co-opted on the working group on the institutional development for a trade promotion, which gave birth to ZimTrade.
“While working for the Ministry of Trade and Commerce, soon after independence there was a growing call to improve Zimbabwe’s exports of manufactured goods so that the country could earn foreign currency.
“Then, the industry was not keen on exports, so naturally a change in approach was needed.
“There was a feeling that Zimbabwe needed to establish its trade development structures as a full joint venture partnership between Government on one hand and the entire trading community, both public, private and the other,” she said.
This was viewed as an exciting concept which was not only going to bring considerable benefits to the development of Zimbabwe’s international trade, but could also have significance for development in many other spheres.
Following the successful consultation series, the working group of institutional development for trade promotion gave birth to ZimTrade. Because of the role she had played in the setting up of the structures, Ms Pilime wanted to carry the vision and immediately joined ZimTrade as market advisor.
She served in that portfolio from 1991 to 1994 and was eventually assigned to Bulawayo to establish the regional office, which served both Manicaland and Matabeleland provinces.
“For the 10 years that I worked in that capacity, I had to take care of the trading and economic activities that were happening in the clothing and textile industry which then was robust and growing rapidly,” she recalls.
In 2004, she left Zimtrade and rejoined the then Ministry of Industry and Commerce and was immediately posted to Brussels as a trade attaché. Her mission covered a number of Scandinavian countries and was tasked with trade negotiations between these countries and Zimbabwe.
After completing her diplomatic mission in 2011 Ms Pilime returned home and immediately applied for the chief executive officer position at Zimtrade, which was vacant.
The following year, she was appointed to head the organisation.
“I was however, shocked at how the situation had changed from the time I had been with the organisation to its status then. The ZimTrade I had worked for then, to the one I was being asked to steward had completely changed.
“Because the activities at ZimTrade are tied up to the performance of the industry, the economic crises that Zimbabwe was facing then had taken a toll on the organisation, its performance or lack of it.
“Experienced and qualified members of the staff had left and the industry was still trying to recover from the economic malaise that resulted in some companies shutting down,” she recalled.
Being one of the founding members of ZimTrade, Ms Pilime realised that she had to come up with turnaround strategies to ensure the survival and sustenance of the organisation against all odds.
She approached the European Union to get a specialist consultant who could employ effective measures as part of turnaround strategies that were needed to reconnect the organisation’s and industry’s needs and aspirations.
“We immediately identified areas that we needed to work on to boost the organisation’s activities. These areas include rebuilding the industry through various strategies, promoting exports in regional markets and encouraging quality production of goods earmarked for the export market.”
Together with two other founding members of ZimTrade, Ms Pilime set up systems in place to improve the visibility of the organisation by reconnecting with industry and commerce in view of forming synergies needed to strengthen the export market.
Gradually, ZimTrade began to shape and started making inroads in the regional export markets.
Looking back, Ms Pilime said her efforts have not been futile. From the time she took over, she has ushered in a new culture of doing business that has resulted in a boon for export markets regionally and internationally.
“We have identified business opportunities and markets through the regional and international fairs that we have been organizing for our existing and discerning business clients.
“We have identified business opportunities in Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, South Sudan and Angola where Zimbabwean companies have struck business deals in energy, food processing, furniture, clothing, construction and the hospitality industry.
“Through the various training programmes and workshops that we regularly hold, we have been able to walk people through what is expected for the export markets,” she enthused.
Ms Pilime has also warmly embraced women in business, an area long considered a “flight risk” by the business community and some financial institutions.
Under her guidance, ZimTrade currently has several trade and economic programmes for upcoming and established businesswomen from diverse backgrounds.
“Women are the backbone of most industries and we need to promote their efforts in participation in the economic activities of this country.
“It is against that background that we have identified women from different backgrounds to mentor them on business and trade, while encouraging them to produce their quality goods and services for the export market,” she said.
Currently 20 local women entrepreneurs are participating in the Brilliant Entrepreneur programme creating business linkages for women entrepreneurs, while opening doors to new ideas, innovations and markets being held in both Zimbabwe and Netherlands.
The programme which builds on women’s individual talents and offers intensive training, matchmaking as well as technical support in business innovation, is being conducted by the Brilliant Entrepreneur, (BEP) in collaboration with ZimTrade, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, (EKN) in Harare and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO).
Ms Pilime says she does not believe in theoretical trade, but wants practical solutions to problems. “Through this programme, women are getting hands on experience on how to improve their businesses,” she said.
Having straddled the width and length of trade and export issues for more than three decades, Ms Pilime is an advocate of standards and quality as such ZimTrade is an ISO certified organisation.
She urged Zimbabwean companies to continuously improve quality of their products in order to be competitive in the regional and international markets. An ardent gardening fan and a keen interior décor designer who is tickled by outdoor life, Ms Pilime however bemoaned the stifling export regulations in Zimbabwe.
“They are just too many impediments for export. The export permits that are required take too long process, the time that the businesspeople should be using to increase production. “The Government will need to free the export environment to facilitate easy trade among our businesspeople and the region,” she said.