Making diamonds out of coal

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Stembile Mpofu

Confronted by the ever-rising cost of living the majority of Zimbabweans are holding their heads in despair, desperate for an end to the economic hardship. The work being done by the Ministry of Finance to put the economic fundamentals of the country right is still far from having a positive effect on the life of the ordinary man on the street. In fact at this point the effects are negative. It is not an easy time or place to think creatively because time is spent thinking about getting the basics in place to allow one’s family to live. Unfortunately some in the corporate sector have found it fit to make as much as they can from the situation by charging exorbitant prices for their goods. I was surprised to find that my local pharmacy was selling a 15g tube of skin ointment that had cost USD$5.00 before the advent of the bond note, for USD$8.00 or RTGS40.00. If I were to buy the same medicine in South Africa or Zambia as many people have resorted to doing, it is unlikely that the ointment will cost the equivalent of USD$5.00. There is no justification for charging such high prices for essential goods like medicines.

The normal fall back is to put the blame on government and its policies and not to look beyond that. However the problem goes beyond government. That is not to say that there are no deficiencies in the government’s economic policies, because there are, but to awaken us to the fact that there are other issues at play.

Firstly that there is a tendency by those who have greater market share for a specific product or products to hold consumers at ransom by charging prices that ensure they make huge profits. They benefit from the consumers inability to find an alternative or reluctance to do things differently. This is not a phenomenon that is the preserve of Zimbabwe but it is visible throughout the world in every economy. Consumers become so dependent on a particular lifestyle that relies on particular product offerings that they cannot consider other possibilities. Where alternatives exist they should be explored. When I realised that the price of the skin ointment I needed had inflated in US dollar terms, it was clear to me that the pharmacy’s intent was to take full advantage of my need. I researched and found that there is a natural remedy that is good for treating skin conditions. The Jatropha plant of Zimbabwe’s biodiesel frenzy is an effective natural remedy for many skin conditions. I used the leaves to great effect and will not be buying that particular medicine again; my energy will go into ensuring that Jatropha is accessible and growing well in my garden.

The same approach can be taken towards bread. Learning how to bake bread is not rocket science. Including the baking of bread into the normal daily cooking routine may result in some meaningful savings. Finding cheaper and healthier alternatives to bread may also be a viable solution. The idea of viable alternatives brings us to an untapped source of knowledge that we should consider. Many black Zimbabweans look back at the rural way of life and consider it as backward, whereas therein lies many opportunities to develop new goods and products. A challenge to the young STEM graduates across the country. The products used to meet the various physical needs of our forefathers and mothers were tested in a real life laboratory, making them ready for use in a modern world will not require a great deal of work. Ruredzo was used as soap and hair conditioner, what would it take to create a line of cosmetic products from it. We are importing a great deal of toiletry products at great cost, with the price of toothpaste making fresh breath a luxury. What properties are in the plant used to clean teeth and in ash as a mouth cleanser?

Looking to our indigenous knowledge systems and developing them creates great opportunities to create authentic products that don’t mimic or imitate those from other countries or those being developed by large corporations. We should however, be ready to embrace such innovations. We are burdened with a preference for goods and products that come from foreign lands. There does exist amongst us the mindset that African knowledge systems and the goods and products derived from them are inferior, making us our own worst enemies. We only accept that something is good after it has received affirmation from the west. We see this attitude manifest itself even in out attitudes to musicians. Bhundu Boys and Oliver Mtukudzi come to mind, local appreciation of their music increased greatly after their acceptance by foreign audiences.

We must be ready to innovate where we feel that the large corporations are taking advantage of the consumers. This type of push back challenges the same companies to innovate too and not rely solely on the same methods they have used for years. In as much as people organise themselves to protest against poor governance, they should be able to organise themselves to counter the voracious nature of big corporations. IT specialists designed programmes to track election results during the 2018 elections, can applications be designed that allow consumers to track pricing of goods and services. Such an application could create a more competitive environment that has those retailers who charge fair prices benefit from their honesty.

We must remember that diamonds are created as a result of coal being put under immense pressure. Where we do not rise to the challenge of a difficult situation we will be defeated. The current situation in Zimbabwe should be one that pushes us to think far beyond what we know and what we are used to. We should think and act in ways that make us innovate. Fighting for things to remain the same will result in defeat; working to take control of the change and shape it in ways that give birth to new things is the way to success.