Zimbabwe’s industrialisation and economic growth needs all hands on deck and the widest possible range of strategies to maximise our potential as we move steadily, but at a good velocity to our vision of being a middle income economy by the end of the decade.
Existing industries need to grow and adapt to changing circumstances. New investors can bring in new capital and technologies, as they have started doing.
Zimbabweans with the required skills and access can open businesses using established technology and can be licensed when required to access those technologies.
But we must go further than this conventional approach or set of approaches and work out new ways of using our own natural resources, our own raw materials and our own skills.
And this is where the innovation hubs and the industrial parks that President Mnangagwa has been so keen on over the last two years come in. Zimbabwean taxpayers have spent a lot of money over the decades setting up universities, technical colleges and polytechnics, but they are not just there to graduate several thousand younger Zimbabweans every year with degrees, diplomas and certificates.
That role cannot be minimised, since we need the skilled manpower.
But we need more.
All universities and colleges have a research function, and in fact this is built into their degree systems. A doctorate is awarded for original research, for new insights, for finding out new facts.
You cannot be awarded a doctorate for regurgitating or organising existing knowledge. You have to advance human knowledge.
And even after winning their doctorate, a researcher needs to continue their research, as well as teach others coming up the ladder and help direct the research of those following them. So we already have the building blocks in place.
The question that follows is obvious: research into what? And it is here that the President would like the double, to advance human knowledge and systematically identify and solve Zimbabwean problems. For a wide swathe of disciplines, pure and applied, there are abundant opportunities to do precisely that.
Of course this has been happening for a long time. Zimbabwean biological and agricultural scientists have achieved world reputations in a number of disciplines.
Zimbabwean geologists have mapped the rock belts that all those mining companies, after carefully studying the results, dig into; Zimbabwean chemists and engineers have been looking for practical solutions for industrial problems.
But it is obvious that we can go a lot further. Some innovative research will need multi-disciplinary teams, and just about the only place where you are likely to be able to assemble a team of scientist and engineers is at a university or technical institute.
So we need to encourage scientists and engineers to climb out of their silos and talk to each other and work together. We also need to break down the barrier that some academics erect between pure research and applied research, along with the very English attitude that if it is practical then it is of a lower order.
In fact the distinction is false. Most pure research has practical applications and solving practical problems often requires some pure research, and in any case leads to questions that do create fundamental breakthroughs.
Our industries need to take the universities and colleges more seriously as well, as a source of solutions.
Many top managers in industry see a university as a source of manpower, to be precise young trainable manpower. And so they are. But how many faced with a difficult problem think about asking their local university for ideas?
For that matter, how many industrialists and miners think about sponsoring a decent graduate student in an appropriate discipline to dig into the materials they mine or use and find solutions and new products?
They could hire their own, but having that person attached to a university or research institute means they will get a lot more bang for their buck, since that person will have access to colleagues and access to research tools and laboratories.
Some industries have already done this. The tobacco industry, for example, set up the Kutsaga Research Station, funded it through a levy, and encouraged a constant flow back and forth between the practical research station and the universities.
As with many other areas, tobacco has led the innovation drives simply because Zimbabwe is a world leader in the crop and cannot borrow other people’s methods and research because those methods do not exist and the research has never been done.
But a lot of other people in Zimbabwe can do the same, as individual businesses or, combining a tobacco has done into a sectoral approach.
The universities and research institutes are now reacting. To take one example, that the President was shown in Gweru at the Midlands State University when he went down last week for the graduation ceremony and to commission the university’s small, but growing industrial park.
Coal tar is a waste product from a number of processes. It has been used for more than a couple of centuries as a road surfacing material, but only in colder temperate climates since it has a low melting point. Petroleum based bitumen has been the product of choice, and in tropical climates the only choice.
But some bright researchers at MSU have figured out a way of processing coal tar into a functional material for sealing Zimbabwean roads, using some results from modern “pure” nanotechnology, and even went out and obtained the first MSU patent.
Now they are going through the necessary certification of their product, and the setting of manufacturing standards, before starting production.
The interesting point is that this is the last material we need to make a Zimbabwean road 100 percent Zimbabwean. The rock, stone, clays and the like are all local, and so is the cement when we need culverts, drains and kerbs.
We have to import the bitumen for the final layer, a potential bottleneck. But as MSU moves through the steps from science to engineering to industry, that bottleneck vanishes, some disgusting waste product is put to good use instead of polluting the environment, and a bunch of Zimbabweans will get jobs making the stuff.
This sort of triple win is what the new results-orientated research culture is supposed to produce.