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Trading blows

Working lives - Zimbabwe

Engineers operating in Zimbabwe face increasingly difficult trading conditions, reports Scott Wilson Africa director Derm Knight.

The plight of Zimbabwe's white farmers is well known. Awareness of the starvation facing thousands of landless, unemployed black Zimbabweans is slowly growing.

A UK consulting firm may seem the least obvious victim of the deteriorating political and economic situation in this southern African country - Scott Wilson is an apolitical organisation committed to sustainable development.

But like other consultancies, the firm depends on capital investment in the private and public sectors. Both have virtually dried up in Zimbabwe, the former due to the flight of business confidence, and the latter from lack of funds. The order book is pretty empty.

Lack of work is only part of the problem, though. It is difficult enough to execute the jobs that do come through the door.

Credit has all but disappeared, with most traders closing down accounts and demanding cash up front for transactions.

And hyper-inflation seriously erodes the buying power of the Zimbabwe dollar locally. Recent devaluation has failed to ease the chronic shortage of foreign currency, which further fuels inflation, and results in shortages of anything dependent on imports.

As a result, the availability of every kind of supplies has dwindled, whether it be construction materials, fuel or food.

Fuel shortages probably cause the greatest threat to a firm engaged in the construction sector, in the form of lost productivity. As stocks dwindle, all the things that keep a normal urban society ticking over - the collection of refuse and delivery of goods, particularly food - start to fail, adding additional pressure to already strained households.

Power shedding, caused by the electricity supply authority's inability to pay for imports, increases downtime at the office and interrupts household management. Many areas suffer simultaneous water supply outages following electric pump inactivity, often from network deterioration.

Even if employees can get to work, the chances are that their minds will be on pressing domestic issues.

A serious migration of skilled and experienced people is under way, and this could prove to be the most devastating blow of all when, or if, normality returns.

Replacement of valuable lost staff will be expensive, adding to the already enormous cost of rehabilitation, before Zimbabwe can rejoin its neighbours in the quest to develop the subcontinental region.

How are firms coping?

Many have had to downsize and/or reduce effective working time, and some are closing down.

Larger firms have been able to relocate key staff to other offices outside Zimbabwe, or execute work locally from within their groups. Others are actively seeking to grow their client base in neighbouring countries while continuing to work out of Zimbabwe. Some have diversified by identifying alternative applications of their skills base.

Despite the worsening situation in Zimbabwe, there are still those who believe the country will emerge. When it does engineers will be called on to play an important role in reconstruction.

Scott Wilson is one those firms determined to see the tough times through.

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