Zimbabwe’s trade with the rest of the world has often been a challenge of how the country can position itself and its products in strategic markets.
The successes and failures thereof have largely been dependent on activities by all stakeholders interested in international trade, particularly export development and promotional activities as well as re-engagement efforts and economic diplomacy by the Government of Zimbabwe.
The kin interest in export markets generated by most local companies over the years has also been a success factor in exposing more Zimbabwean products on the global market.
The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), which has seen most economies coming up with drastic measures to contain it has, perhaps, been the largest challenge for local businesses in decades.
The Government of Zimbabwe has been commended for confronting the fight “head-on” by imposing a 21-day lockdown, a measure that has become synonymous with COVID-19 responses around the world.
The national lockdown has seen some companies closing offices, shops, manufacturing sites as well as conference and meetings being cancelled or postponed.
Whilst the lockdown is the viable option to contain the spread of the virus, it is important to acknowledge the effects of the response to local businesses, particularly those that had depended on human and physical interaction.
When discussions about how the lockdown would assist in fighting COVID-19 started, some ideal business executives where looking at how they can continue in business, whilst workers are at home, or with minimal staff.
Until today, some companies are still looking at best ways to stay afloat during these hard times.
Thus, there is need to note that the major lesson for businesses during these times is that technological advancements can cushion local enterprises against the impacts of COVID-19.
Arguably, companies which are quick to embrace fourth industrial revolution will survive COVID-19 and will likely perform better post-pandemic.
As this a period of uncertainty, the fourth industrial revolution has brought with it some opportunity, which has seen some companies make huge profits whilst observing social distance.
Are Zimbabwean companies ready for the fourth industrial revolution?
The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) builds on foundations laid by previous revolutions, that is, steam engine, electricity led to mass production, and computerized and automation.
The revolution, which is developing at fast pace, is grounded in cyber physical systems, offering a wide range of new breakthroughs in areas such as digitization, artificial intelligence and robotics.
According to a study by the African Development Bank in October 2019, 4IR has “potential to transform Africa’s economy, increase its productivity and enhance its global trade.”
In doing so, it would dramatically improve the wellbeing of African citizens as a result of “fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres and that disrupts the industries of all countries.”
Given the growing number of consumers and business users in Africa, coupled by improved internet connectivity, 4IR is fast becoming a reality in most African countries.
Countries such as Rwanda and Kenya in East Africa have adopted the new technologies in areas such as aid distribution, medicine and agriculture.
These technologies have also enabled citizens to improve interaction with each other and their livelihoods through innovation.
For local companies, it important that they realise migration to 4IR is not an option, as companies that have not done so will face major struggles.
Hence local businesses must accelerate their 4IR adoption plans.
In Zimbabwe, areas such as mobile money and development of mobile applications is one area where local companies can piggybank as they come up with 4IR solutions that will solve their challenges during this lockdown.
Additionally, Zimbabwe’s literate human capital and supportive infrastructure means it is easier for local companies to adopt 4IR solutions, compared to other countries where, for example, access to internet.
Therefore, the national lockdown is a ripe opportunity for local companies to adopt 4IR solutions, which will keep their staff connected, which in turn will reduce business down-times.
Although adoption of 4IR solutions will require huge investments in some cases, there are readily available business-focused programmes that can help bridge the gap in the short-term period, as the nation is closed.
How local business can leverage on 4IR business solutions
With the advent of gas stoves that can be lit by mobile application by someone hundreds of kilometers away, imagine the possibilities of new technologies in areas such as manufacturing sector and agriculture.
Virtual reality technology has been used all over the world to improve agricultural production in conjunction with satellite imaging.
The same can be said about irrigation systems that can be switched on over internet or farms where single plants are monitored via drones to ascertain individual requirements such as water and fertilisers.
To demonstrate potential in Zimbabwe, Chinhoyi University of Technology showcased this technology at the 2019 Zimbabwe International Trade Fair where they exhibited a virtual reality programme that can assist farmers to monitor their production remotely.
The programme will allow farmers to have up-to-date information about their cattle, inspect them and make informed decisions whilst they are away from the farm.
These key 4IR technologies, which also include intelligent farming machines, farming robots and smart farms will ensure Zimbabwean farmers are able to secure national and export food requirements in response to restricted movement of people, who in some case may include farm workers.
The current breakthroughs in technological and digital innovations have disrupted the conventional business models, both in public and private sectors, hence local businesses still have a shot at surviving the global pandemic if they fully embrace 4IR solutions.
New technologies have resulted in new products and services that are benchmarked on efficiency, reduced cost of doing business and improved output.
New technologies can see local companies producing more of better quality at a low cost, even without needing a lot of human interference or traditional processes.
For example, Hansa World has developed software that allows managers and executives to even do payment authorization online at the comfort of their homes without having to push physical papers.
This can result in better output as people work in the comfort of their homes as well as reduced operational costs.
As movements of persons is currently being discouraged, 4IR business solutions will allow the company to stay connected with its staff, who in turn will continue offering service to their clients.
Thus, the failure for offices to open will not translate into huge loses for business as it will continue servicing its clients.
However, for this to work, there is need to relook into their strategies as companies cannot continue doing “business as usual”.
This means that if the institutional strategy was anchored on staff being at work from 8am-5pm, there is need to revisit and ensure new demands and technologies adopted will allow assist in meeting the company objectives.
There is need for local businesses to invest in the necessary infrastructure and systems that will enable 4IR solutions to contribute to timely meeting of targets.
This can be anchored on the idea of “factory-eye” which provides decision makers and manufacturers with real-time information into their operations.
The result is that they will be able to make quick and proactive decisions that responds well to the changing environment.
Successful operation of “factory-eye” requires that all machines in the factory be connected to each other through sensors that will relay data in real-time.
In a world of competition, this will allow local businesses to stay ahead of competition and continue making profits even during challenging times.
This should be built on cloud computing and networks of data-gathers and this interconnection will allow business to continue operating regardless of location of staff members.
In the medium- to long-term period, there will be need for investments, particularly in the manufacturing sector, that will see smart factories where production steps have seamless connections – from research, design, production and packing.
With the current rate at which technologies are advancing, machinery and equipment will be able to improve processes through self-optimisation – where systems can autonomously adapt to production variables.
This will allow companies to remotely monitor their production processes and reduce the number of workers needed to produce commodities.
In times when movements are restricted, this will allow manufacturers to keep up with production timeframes, produce much needed requirements and improved quality.
Publish Date: Sunday 12 April 2020