The advent of the automobile was of great importance in our economic history.
It helped propel mankind’s endeavours in the exchange of goods and services or mobility to unimaginable convenience or even superfluity.
Indeed, the automobile industry lubricates and facilitates industrialisation of the economy.
Charles Duly introduced this marvellous technology onto the land between the Zambezi and the Limpopo Rivers in 1902.
In 1961, the country would witness the establishment of automobile assembly plants, far ahead of China or any of the East Asian economic Tigers.
The British Motor Corporation (BMC) [Leyland and now Quest Motors] established a motor assembly plant in 1960 in Mutare, then Umtali.
The Ford Motor Vehicle Plant (Willowvale Motor Industries) was established in 1961.
In 2018, the Zimbabwe Motor Industry Development Policy (ZMIDP) was launched with a view to reviving this strategic sector.
It had an implementation time line of 11 years up to 2030.
Subsequently, interim statutory requirements were put in place.
Zimbabwe’s automobile sector is currently dominated by imports, particularly second hand units.
This has strangled the domestic motor vehicle manufacturing industry.
For instance, statistics from the Central Vehicle Registry (2018) show that Zimbabwe imported 239 042 second-hand vehicles for the period January 2015 to September 2018.
As a result, the domestic automobile manufacturing industry has witnessed its market-share dwindling to unsustainable levels.
This situation has to be rectified.
The automobile industry is witnessing massive technological innovations.
From the pacesetting battery powered innovations by Elon Musk and the Tesla Motor Company, to Information Communication Technology-driven innovations now commonplace in the automobile sector today, Zimbabwe’s industry has significant gaps to fill.
While South Africa has a comparative advantage in terms of economies of scale and geographical location, Zimbabwe can equally develop its automobile sector to levels where it can contribute significantly to the overall Gross Domestic Product.
The automobile industry is strategic.
It can facilitate the development of other industries that include the battery, leather, radio, tyres, bolts, nuts, and steel sectors.
According to Denford Mutashu of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers, local vehicle assembly is failing to produce a US$5 000 car which the market demands because of low demand.
There is a visible dearth of support to the industry when compared to how China supported the growth of theirs.
China invested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, building up a pool of engineers, people who could invent or improve things.
Trinity Engineering were leading in this endeavour, unfortunately we did not give them the support they deserved.
The Japanese had given us automobile technology transfer through Mazda and we were supposed to initiate development of the local components for the motor vehicle. In any case, for the automobile there is no need to reinvent the wheel, but to improve on what is existing. For instance, Zimbabwe has significant reserves of lithium.
The automobile today is going electric, powered by the lithium battery.
It is here that Zimbabwe can contribute, take advantage of these lithium reserves and innovate with the battery.
The role of local innovators
This starts with the budget; how much we are appropriating towards research and development (R and D).
We have now created innovation hubs at local universities and a significant percentage of the National Budget should be reserved for R&D at these hubs.
There should be investment in R&D for both individual and institutional researches.
Anything less, we will continue to lose all the innovative brains.
The motor vehicle industry is strategic and deserves all the support.
Ekironi Madzanira is a PhD Student with the Zimbabwe Open University. His research explores the case of innovation for the revival of the automobile industry in Zimbabwe.