Farirai Machivenyika Senior Reporter
Business leaders yesterday slammed profiteering during the lockdown when they met President Mnangagwa at State House.
The business leaders pledged full support for Government efforts to halt the spread of Covid-19 and suggested joint measures to ring fence prices of basic goods.
They also recommended measures to help businesses and their customers survive the emergency and the 21-day lockdown that started on Monday and help them restart normal business activity as the threat receded.
There have been reports that some unscrupulous operators in both the retail and production sectors were taking advantage of the lockdown and the Covid-19 emergency to overprice and profiteer. But the business leaders condemned this as totally unacceptable and said everyone must unite in the national effort to defeat Covid-19.
Yesterday’s meeting with the President included leaders of organisations representing commerce, retailers, millers, manufacturing industry, mines, small and medium enterprises, and bankers. It was called to discuss interventions required to fight the pandemic.
Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Mr Christopher Mugaga said the pandemic was impacting heavily on every facet of life.
“An issue of concern is the overpricing of commodities by some players and as representatives of business organisations our message to all players is very clear: This is an unusual moment and we can’t afford to have any players who specialise in overpricing when we all know this is a national disaster,” he said.
“I think if you look at other countries you will see that our fellow private sector players are coming in. In the US some companies are providing services for free. You look at China from the time they were impacted. So we have been pushing that we need discipline in the sector.”
Mr Mugaga criticised industries classified as essential for abusing the privilege by profiteering.
“I think you know naturally there are people who want to take advantage of a challenge, but we will continue monitoring to ensure that we do not have those who abuse the privilege,” Mr Mugaga added.
He recommended setting a zero-rate Value Added Tax on basic commodities to make them more affordable to consumers.
Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers Association president Mr Denford Mutashu urged Government to prioritise manufacturers of basic commodities in the allocation of foreign currency to ensure uninterrupted supply and suggested that along with this prices of these goods could be regulated.
“On the issue of prices, we can ring-fence and regulate the prices of those key commodities: mealie-meal, bread, rice, sugar, cooking oil,” Mr Mutashu said.
“You could come through with that intervention because that is what other countries have done, for example, South Africa and Rwanda. They have regulated the prices of those commodities because at this particular time no corporate should be looking at making a profit.”
As part of the business survival strategy, he called on Government to put a moratorium on rents as most corporates and individuals could not afford to pay owing to the lockdown.
The Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe offered to let the Government buy the 40 000 tonnes of maize in stock, a 20-day supply, to ease demand for essential subsidised mealie-meal.
“We are offering 40 000 tonnes of maize that we have in the country now, which we procured under the free-funds arrangement meant for non-essential commodities like snacks and stock-feeds. We are offering that maize for Government to procure and ease demand, which is at 2 000 tonnes per day. This will go a long way in reducing queues we are witnessing,” said Mr Tafadzwa Musarara, GMAZ chairman.
The millers would monitor their retailers and ensure they adhered to set prices for subsidised roller meal.
His organisation also pledged food for patients admitted at Wilkins, Beatrice and Thorngrove Infectious Diseases hospitals and to provide 200 food hampers for frontline staff for the next two months.
The president of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, Mr Henry Ruzvidzo, said: “We have been working very closely with the coordination teams and the WHO to see how we can contribute to the effort (to fight Covid-19). One of the areas that we have been working on in the first instance is the safety of our workers. We have actually had training that has been carried out by the WHO of the trainers who will train staff on how to work safely.
“We are also focusing as business on how we can contribute to the national effort and we have been working in terms of assisting the isolation centres.”
Organised industry would soon establish an isolation centre in Harare and assist referral hospitals in Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare and Masvingo.
Mr Ruzvidzo said the CZI was assessing the impact of Covid-19 on business with the first set of results expected soon.
Government needed to prioritise allocation of forex to the pharmaceutical sector and manufacturers of basic commodities.
Zimbabwe Chamber of Mines president Ms Elizabeth Nerwande said the mining industry had launched a response plan to tackle Covid-19.
“We have pooled a substantial amount together and we have a target which is over a million dollars and we are hoping to get that.
“The mining houses in all areas have also made sure they uphold the safety of their workers, stakeholders and the communities around them,” he said.
Zimbabwe Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises president Mr Daniel Chinyemba said: “We live from hand to mouth and we don’t have any savings. So we hope at some stage you will come up with a fund to recapitalise our business because we believe after this lockdown a lot of businesses are going to close down or fail to carry on their business.”
Bankers Association of Zimbabwe president Mr Webster Rusere said the pandemic would affect all sectors of the economy and while bankers would extend repayment periods for loans the Government should look at relaxing some requirements to make this easier.
“What we are going to do is review with our corporate clients, our individual clients, our SMEs, the informal sector and their facilities in order to give them more time to pay, in order to give them more time to restart their businesses,” he said.
He urged Government to relax requirements on issues such as regulatory capital and non-performing loans to enable bankers to fund the business community during the emergency and the recovery.
In his response, President Mnangagwa said it was necessary to remain on high alert in the fight against the disease despite the low infection and mortality rates recorded by the country so far.
“We should not be complacent because of the low figures. We expect that in the next two to three weeks the figures will multiply and it’s important to close ranks and join hands in the fight of this virus,” he said.
The President said the number of people in need of Government assistance was likely to rise as a direct effect of the lockdown and urged such people to register with the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare.
On the issue of a rent moratorium, the President said the inter-ministerial taskforce on Covid-19 would deliberate on the matter and make recommendations.
“At the end of the day we depend on all of us for propagating the message of discipline and complying with recommendations from the health sector experts guided by WHO for us to survive this pandemic with minimum loss of life,” President Mnangagwa said.