November was a landmark month for Zimbabwe, with President Robert Mugabe deposed after 37 years in power. But what does Mugabe’s removal mean for the country’s tech scene, which many have claimed has great potential but continues to be in the doldrums?
Limbikani Makani, editor of Zimbabwean tech news and analysis site TechZim, said Mugabe’s removal certainly signals a new beginning for the country. However, he said this new beginning does not necessarily mean that everything is immediately going to change for the better.
“His political party, which was evidently happy to have him as president until the last few months, is still at the helm of leadership in Zimbabwe and that doesn’t look like it’s going to change,” he said.
Makani is optimistic about the country’s future, but is waiting to see how things turn out.
“’ll let time show what changes are going to happen on the ground economically,” he said.
With regard to the country’s tech space under Mugabe, he said there had been some positive developments, if limited ones.
“Under the old government, Zimbabwe grew its internet infrastructure significantly, thanks to investments by private companies like Liquid Telecom,” he said.
Other positives included the removal of duties on technology equipment, which enabled the prices of devices such as laptops and smartphones to come down, while the government also began a programme to promote STEM studies in universities and colleges, and exchange visits for STEM students with other countries.
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“It sparked a new interest in tech among young people,” Makani said.
This was about the extent of the Mugabe government’s assistance to the local tech scene, however.
“There were not enough Liquid Telecoms and foreign direct investment (FDI) was discouraged by policies such as the Indigenisation Act, which was considered hostile to investment. Zimbabwe. therefore, missed opportunities for even more growth in the tech sector,” Makani said.
“The government didn’t do enough to foster a healthy tech industry and leverage the potential of reduced barriers in tech to participate in the global economy. This is evidenced by their budget allocation to the industry, as well as attention to the capacity of state-run tech infrastructure companies. Even though they gave speeches with catch-phrases about “increases in connectivity being correlated to rise in GDP” and did some ceremonial things for startups, on the ground they mainly saw the internet as a threat because of the free flow of information.”
Whether that will change under the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa is still unclear, though Mugabe’s successor has made positive noises about wanting to grow the country’s economic and encourage investment.
“It’s too early for me say. I honestly don’t know yet. I am, however, hopeful and will continue watching the space and doing what we can to influence positive thinking,” Makani said.
What does Makani, a long-time watcher of Zimbabwe’s tech space, actually want to see happen under the new government? He argues for more incentives – tax incentives for internet service providers and internet companies to connect more people, and incentives for tech startups and their investors. Education is also key.
“We need to encourage tech education, not only in formal institutions but also for people that just want to do tech. An efficient way to start is to partner institutions like Udemy, Treehouse and Udacity, or just learn from them and implement local learning,” he said.
“They should also set up special R&D teams – or just fund private R&D – into fintech, health, education and media.”
Makani also encourages the government to provide seed capital to tech startups, as well as offer incubation, mentorship, and exchange programmes with other tech ecosystems in Africa.
“We need to invite investment into tech startups as well as guarantee protection of private investments. Lack of protection of private property was an issue in Zimbabwe with the previous government,” he said.
“We should also invite global tech companies to open their African regional tech offices in Harare with some tax and other incentives. That way there’s not only employment but transfer of skills.”
He believes Zimbabwe has significant potential when it comes to developing as a tech hub.
“There’s a huge diaspora that left because of the country’s bad policies and these have acquired skill and experience working at some of the most advanced tech giants globally,” Makani said.
“Zimbabwe has a huge uptake of tech services already, even with a sick economy. High literacy means the market is ready consume services over the internet as disposable incomes increase. Having been in a two-decade long depression also means huge opportunities for investors in various tech areas as the country catches up the rest of the continent.”
Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.