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THE University of Zimbabwe (UZ) will tomorrow hold a conference on business competitiveness, as stakeholder efforts to extricate the country from a worsening economic crisis intensifies.

Zimbabwe recently imposed a ban on the import of a wide range of products as it seeks to protect its fragile industries from cheap imports that have ruined local industries, which have failed to compete due to high utility costs as well as undercapitalisation and antiquated machinery.

David Madzikanda, the director of the UZ's Graduate School of Management, which will host the conference in conjunction with the National Economic Consultative Forum (NECF), said the input from the conference would feed into a national report to be produced by the NECF.

A draft of that report has already been produced but will need evaluation from academia and "input from various economic stakeholders", said Madzikanda.

"At the end of the day, we want a report that reflects on reality -- what needs to be done if Zimbabwe is to become competitive," he said about the purpose of the conference, to be attended by representatives of small and medium scale enterprises, the financial services and manufacturing sectors, the country's power utility, the medical field as well as government.

"Zimbabwean companies need to become competitive in terms of the products they produce," said Madzikanda.

It is expected that the business conference would gather academics, international, regional and local business leaders, policy makers, development partners and investors, among other stakeholders.

A statement said the purpose of the conference would be to nurture "business competitiveness in order to attain sustainable economic growth and national competitiveness".

"The Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum defines competitiveness as 'the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country, taking into account its level of development'. During the 2015-2016 period, Zimbabwe was ranked 125 out of 140 countries.

"While Zimbabwe has not ranked favourably, it is encouraging to see some significant improvement in its latest rankings, but a lot still needs to be done to improve the country's competitiveness. This ranking paints a picture of a country's ability to attract investments, raise per capita GDP, create jobs and wealth for itself, and ultimately raise the standard of living for its own people," said the statement.

"With this understanding, it makes sense for us to have a conference that will discuss key issues covering policies, institutions and factors that determine the level of productivity of Zimbabwe. It is for this reason that the University of Zimbabwe Graduate School of Management jointly with partners (ZIMBISA and others), representing the private sector, has joined forces to have a conference that will focus on improving the factors that affect Zimbabwe's competitiveness metrics."

Madzikanda said the initiative would complement current government efforts to improve the country's ease of doing business, whose ranking on the World Bank's Doing Business report has been unfavourable over the years.

In terms of that initiative, government hopes to create a favourable environment to attract foreign investment which would allow local industries to grow and become competitive.

"This is all meant to achieve the same objective," said Madzikanda, explaining that the UZ's initiative merely complemented the ease of doing business reforms being spearheaded by the Office of the President and Cabinet.

Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa has said the reforms would also facilitate registration of small businesses.

The poor performance of local industries has resulted in the country registering huge trade deficits, which cumulatively amounted to US$20 billion last year since the country ditched its own currency and adopted a multiple currency regime last year.

As a result, the country has experienced liquidity challenges due to the drain of money from the economy, largely caused by a huge import bill.

To control this, government recently gazetted Statutory Instrument 64 of 2016 listing a number of products that will now require a licence for import. That requirement was largely seen by many as an import ban.

The country's largest body of manufacturers, the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI), welcomed the new measures, saying these were "part of a cocktail of measures to drive Zimbabwe's industrialisation and economic growth agenda".

CZI applauded "government for this policy measure which was in response to industry's recommendations on what needs to be done to improve the ease of doing business and to claw back on the trade deficit".

"The list of products covered by SI 64 was a recommendation from industry which was based on an extensive study and consultations with the respective sector players on the locally available manufacturing capacities. CZI believes that the measure taken by government will go a long way in stemming deindustrialisation, creating jobs, building industry capacity for exports and reducing cost of production to competitive levels on the back of improved economies of scale," it added.

CZI said the manufacturing sector's capacity utilisation would rise from 34 percent if the policy was fully and diligently implemented.

Madzikanda said should local industries become competitive, "there will be no need for SI 64".

Source: Financial Gazette