EDITORIAL COMMENT: Consistent quality will give Zim more exports
As Zimbabwean businesses and producers move into the export markets, they need to establish a reputation as a dependable source of supply of the right products, at the right price and delivered at the right time.
Some exports are easier than others. At one end we have metals from mines. They have almost infinite shelf life and it is very easy to state precisely what percentage of each metal is in a particular batch of bars.
Some metals, such as gold and the platinum groups, there are international standards for the ingots and here Zimbabwe needs to bring the final processing home, but meeting those standards.
Other metals are thrown into furnaces for alloys and all the buyer wants to know is exactly how much of each metal is in a bar so they can work out how many bars to use.
Agricultural exports have different criteria. Our major agricultural export is tobacco, and the tobacco merchants make their profit by precise grading and careful processing.
Although tobacco has a long shelf life at room temperatures, steps must be taken to ensure that not only fungus and other pests are kept at bay, but that the methods used to do this do not poison the eventual smoker.
More critically there is a wide range of prices for type and quality, with high quality leaf that provides taste in the eventual quality cigarette selling for several times the price of a filler tobacco just there to provide bulk and nicotine.
The eventual blender of a formula used in particular blend does not want to juggle formulas every year.
If a Zimbabwean tobacco type of a particular quality makes up 10 percent of the blend in a major brand that is a big advantage and the buyer wants the same quality in the same volumes year-after-year so that the smokers get the same taste they pay for.
Cotton is much the same. Varieties have different lint length and thickness and the eventual buyer at the quality end of the market needs an assured supply of the right length and quality if the best prices are to be obtained.
General quality, suitable for the middle quality textiles, will not fetch so much.
Zimbabwe has been discussing how horticulture can once again become an important export crop. Here there are a number of factors.
Many vegetables have a short shelf-life, even with refrigeration, and often have to be airlifted, meaning there needs to be planes with cargo capacity flying to the relevant market.
Once we are in this sort of league we are dealing with very fussy consumers and since Zimbabwe is near the end of a large continent this means we need every premium available to justify the cost of air transport.
So we need to have the varieties of vegetable that the consumers want, we need to be able to supply these regularly and frequently, and we need to have the cold chains in place so that the vegetables move from farm to middle-class kitchen in perfect condition.
At the Dubai Expo, our pavilion Commissioner-General Ambassador Mary Mubi has not just been there to explain opportunities for those who visit the pavilion, but has been exploring trade opportunities in Dubai and in the United Arab Emirates in general.
And one opening she has found has been horticulture and high-quality meat exports. The Emirates are food importers, which is not surprising when you consider that they are largely desert and semi desert but have expanding populations and large numbers of guest workers to extend their labour forces.
Transport is less of a problem than in almost any other market. Emirates airline flies six days a week from Harare, and almost certainly has spare cargo capacity in outbound flights since most of the cargo will be high priority imports like spare parts coming into Zimbabwe.
So we can tick off two boxes, that there is a market and that the transport angle is covered, at least for a reasonable level of exports.
But as Ambassador Mubi pointed out, there is more. For a start we are not the only agricultural exporter in the tropics on an Emirates route.
It is in fact difficult to find such a country that is not within a reasonable number of hours flying time from Dubai.
So if we are to access that market we need to meet the other criteria, for both meat and vegetables.
These, as she pointed out, are consistent high quality and a regular supply. It is not much use sending a container of something every now and again.
The buyer at the other end wants the daily or weekly shipment, and the contents of the container to be something they know they can sell.
And there are international standards and these have to be met. Obviously someone buying fresh food wants to know that it is totally healthy, for a start, and that no one has been mixing up chemicals that the final consumer does not want.
She extended her advice to manufactured goods, both for UAE and for other export markets, again making use of her own background in diplomacy plus the fact that she is at the major international trade fair.
There are potential markets, but to get into these Zimbabwean businesses need assured consistent quality, and here she recommended obtaining the international certification that many buyers want to see before they spend their money.
One factor in a semi-closed economy like Zimbabwe’s is that producers can get away with something that is acceptable if not perfect, so long as it is cheap.
When we move into exports, and even when our producers are competing against foreign producers keen to export to Zimbabwe, we need guaranteed levels of quality and consistent quality, in batch after batch.
This is a standard business practice but absolutely essential when trying to sell to new customers who do not know who you are, and might even be pressed to put their finger on the right point on a map, but know what they want and who will pay a fair price for consistent high quality.
We need to go after these markets and set up the necessary production and value chains so we can meet the requirements.