Why “Open For Business” Won’t Just Cut It


President Emmerson Mnangagwa this week told an investors meeting in Dubai that “Zimbabwe is open for business”. He has been saying this passionately and consistently at international forums since he came to power two years ago, but with increasingly little impact on investment inflows into Zimbabwe. We are in big trouble as a nation, but where are we getting it wrong?

Zimbabwe’s rear-view mirror is full of policy visions and catchy phrases like “Zimbabwe is open for business” that failed to turn the economy around. Despite the President’s best intentions, two years of him proclaiming at every opportune moment that “Zimbabwe is open for business” is a big problem on its own. Few Presidents go about wooing investors like he has been doing, because other countries have well-oiled nation branding programmes that do the job more efficiently and effectively than a President’s lone voice.

Despite world-class tourism attractions, rich soils, diverse mineral resources and competent human skills, the Zimbabwe brand has not attracted global capital as fast, and as much, as anticipated by the people. It looks like the President has been talking to trees, not investors.

There are many messages from Zimbabwe that are entering the international arena via social media, the internet and news platforms. These messages are as varied as their sources, and they mostly give a negative perception about Zimbabwe. The effect is that there is an ever-widening gap between the perception about our country in the global marketplace, and the reality of it. The President’s lone voice gets easily buried in the noise and makes little impact.

Zimbabwe recently emerged from an old dispensation to a new one, and that naturally comes with a lot of international goodwill. We particularly experienced such goodwill from the British establishment between the coming in of President Mnangagwa in November 2017 and the July 2018 elections. Such goodwill is fast getting squandered because the positive messages about this country are too far in-between, not well-coordinated and easily get drowned by the negatives.

A Google search of the word “Zimbabwe” returns loads of negative content that can instantly turn away tourists and potential investors. These include corruption, hyperinflation, weak institutions, land invasions, and kidnappings – real or faked. All the positives about Zimbabwe such as the Victoria Falls, low crime rate, peace, a hospitable people, and competent human skills have been pushed on the periphery of search engine algorithms and rarely pop up first. We cannot blame search engines for portraying us as a “monster” nation, because we have not gone beyond sloganeering when it comes to promoting our nation brand.

Whether we put effort into it or not, Zimbabwe is already a brand. In fact, every nation is already a brand by default, hence the notion of re-branding which seeks to re-configure the way a country is viewed in the eyes of its citizens and the outsiders.

It is government’s duty to play a leading role in ensuring that Zimbabwe moves form talking about being open for business, to actually seeing local and foreign-owned businesses booming. Other countries with worse pasts than ours have done it successfully by using their private and public media, civic society, business, academia and prominent individuals to push their nation brand. We can learn from our neighbour, South Africa.

South Africa was a young democracy in the late 1990s, with its image heavily dented by crime, social injustice, HIV/Aids and political risk associated with a nation emerging from struggle against apartheid. To create a positive and united image for South Africa, the South African government successfully led the setting up of the International Marketing Council of South Africa (IMC) in 2000.

The then South African President Thabo Mbeki summed up the reason for setting up the Council in his May 2001 address to the IMC: “The challenge that faces the International Marketing Council is indeed the challenge to say how can we communicate this message about South Africa to the rest of the world, which is the message of hope – a message of hope not only for the people of South Africa but a message of hope for the people of the world. All of us who travel around have sensed this level of interest in the country and the positive mood generally across the globe about South Africa.”

In other words, Mbeki’s administration “sensed” huge interest in SA from foreign investors and tourists, and formed a Council of competent people to sell brand SA to the world. It would have been a disaster if Mbeki himself had gone about selling brand SA to the world.

Essop Pahad, then Minister in the SA Presidency who was also an ex officio ICM member, said in November 2000: “The establishment of the IMC with luminaries drawn from the public and private sectors should be the vanguard of a truly national effort to reposition South Africa in the minds, hearts and pockets of the world.”

Here, Pahad teaches us that the IMC was not only staffed by South African luminaries, but that the IMC was a “truly national” effort to develop brand SA. South Africa is much more geographically, culturally and racially diverse than Zimbabwe, but all those dynamics were well represented in the IMC, and it got a buy-in from the majority of South Africans.

In 2002, the SA Government established Brand SA as a public entity. Brand SA’s mandate was “to strengthen South Africa’s global competitiveness, and to encourage and support active citizenship among South Africans.”

By 2005, South Africa had positioned itself well in terms of attracting investment, international creditworthiness, exports volumes, tourist arrivals and international relations objectives. There was great co-operation among government departments, public entities, the private sector and the non-governmental sector. The hosting of the FIFA Soccer World Cup in 2010 is credited to the work of the IMC, among many of its other notable successes.

Zimbabwe will not get anywhere as long efforts to promote the nation brand are left to the Presidency or a lone tourism body. All hands from the media, private sector, public sector, academia and business need to be on the deck. But for that to work, it boils down to one boring word: process.

Nation branding is a process and not a one-hit wonder campaign. The American Marketers Association defines a brand as a “name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller and to differentiate them from those of the competition.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos defined branding as “… what people think about you before you enter a room, how they interact with you in the room, and what they say about you after you leave the room.” The Zimbabwean approach so far has been focused on how we interact with investors and tourists in the room where President Mnangagwa would be addressing a forum like this week’s Dubai one. There has been no deliberate plan to control the perception before he enters the room and after he leaves the room.

Tourists and investors are targeted consumers of the Zimbabwe brand, but they are attracted only to a compelling brand. Zimbabwe has pre-existing stereotypes associated with its past such as the land reform and politically-motivated violence, among other issues. Such blemishes on our nation brand cannot be wished away by quick fixes such as enormous airport adverts, roadside neon campaigns and proclamations that we are “open for business.” Only a well-planned and coordinated effort from nation brand strategists will drown the negative messages about Zimbabwe that enter the global information superhighway, and ensure positive content pops up on search engines.

The phenomena of nation branding is growing rapidly due to global competition among nations for markets, capital and human skills. Zimbabwe must begin to realize that the world is increasingly getting globalized through ever-improving technology, cheaper and faster air travel and the internet. Even the Victoria Falls now ‘belongs’ to South African tour operators, who market it more than we do, and reap huge rewards while we collect only park entrance fees.

In her report for 2015/2016, Chairperson of Brand SA’s Board of Trustees, Khanyisile Kweyama wrote: “Brand South Africa has successfully concluded field research on perceptions about South Africa in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Senegal and Russia. This is essential to gauge and document perceptions about South Africa in these countries which informs interventions to promote the Nation Brand as a globally competitive investment destination…”

To date, Brand SA runs four websites (www.brandsouthafrica.com; www.southafrica.info; www.mediaclubsouthafrica.com; and www.playyourpart.co.za) that all create awareness internationally of all that South Africa has to offer investors and tourists. It has offices in China, the UK and Russia, and helps coordinate the SA Presidency’s messaging at international for a like the Davos, BRICS, UN and others. They also have media partnership with China Daily, CNBC Africa and other global media houses to help drive a positive, unified message about South Africa.

Nation branding can, if done systematically, attract tourists, stimulate inward investment, boost Zimbabwe’s export volumes, and attract top talent and specialist skills to our country. All this will in the medium to long-term help increase our currency stability, restore international credibility, improve investor confidence, and engender pride and patriotism among Zimbabweans.

Finally, our Presidency should treat nation branding as a component of national policy, governance and economic development, and not as a campaign tool. Nation branding should also not be left to propagandists in either the ruling party or government, but to “luminaries” and experts in the field who can unite the media, business, academia, minority groups and diverse political interests to a common purpose.

Nation branding is best done by skilled professionals, not politicians whose stay in office is subject to periodic electoral contests. Besides, politicians, including the Presidency, face the inherent challenge of not being liked by everyone because of the nature of their office. It’s futile to try pulling in investors and tourists from such offices. Brand Zimbabwe campaign must transcend political parties for it to amass the critical buy-in of locals.

If countries with violent pasts and diverse cultures such as South Africa, Rwanda, Scotland, South Korea, Egypt, Germany and Ethiopia have successfully embarked on nation branding to increase their global competitiveness and clear blemishes of their sad past, Zimbabwe can and must do the same. It takes a lot more than the President and an occasional Cabinet Minister proclaiming that “Zimbabwe is open for business”. It’s a process that people around President Mnangagwa must start without further delay.

  • Felix Mbonderi is a political analyst based in Harare. Feedback: felix.mbonderi@gmail.com

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