17 December 2017

Zimbabwe: Why Grace's School Must Be Converted Into a Tech Hub

Photo: Grace Mugabe Children's Home
Grace Mugabe at the school which was expected to cater to 1000 students (file photo).

Last Tuesday as I was driving along the A11 Mazowe Road, I was surprised to see the developments that had taken place along the way. I had not been on Mazowe Road for 17 years so the National Defence College and the Amai Mugabe School were new, remarkable and refreshing sightings for me. I had heard about them but seeing is a different matter altogether.

I was enveloped with a sense of pride that the last 17 years or so were not completely in vain and indeed some form of activity had taken place in that area. So on my way back, I decided to explore the Amai Mugabe School which was opened mid-2013.

According to their website, "the Amai Mugabe School is an independent private school offering educational services to both day and boarding students. The school was born out of the need to provide high quality primary education, especially to those children emerging from disenfranchised family situations." We were advised that the fees is around $2 600 for day scholars and $3 500 per term for tuition and boarding excluding uniforms, books etcetera. No disenfranchised family can afford to pay these fees. To access the school, the disenfranchised would need full-funded scholarships.

When we enquired about the enrolment figures, the headmaster was not specific and elusively mumbled some incomprehensible incoherence. Further research confirmed that the school had been unable to attract desired enrolments because of the fee structure, essentially making it a state-of-the-art white elephant. As I marvelled at the expansive and big-budget infrastructure, the idea of converting it into an innovation hub became a real possibility.

As Africa is becoming a marketplace for innovation in the startup tech sector, Zimbabwe is lagging behind in that space. The startup tech revolution in Africa has been enabled by the setting up of technology/ innovation hubs and incubators across the continent. According to a March 2017 report by Ventureburn, an online startup newspaper for emerging markets, "there are over 300 technology hubs and incubators in Africa, with 32 of those being in South Africa."

Botswana adopted the traditional incubator model when it set up the fully government funded Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH) launched in 2017 on a 57-acre plot. The BIH operates as a science park, aiding home-grown technology geeks in science and technology.

Zimbabwe is a resource-rich and dependent economy. In line with world trends, Zimbabwe need to refocus and diversify the economy towards the aggressive inclusion of technological innovation as an intervention to accelerate enterprise development, particularly for the young people who constitute over 60% of the population. Given a chance, young people possess the basics of what it takes to leapfrog Zimbabwe into a global centre of tech innovation and entrepreneurship. India, Singapore, China and many others are achieving it. Zimbabwe can too.

This is where the world already is and will stay for a while longer. Zimbabwe is missing in this space. We are missing because we are still to identify leadership with fresh eyes and unorthodox thinking, with the readiness and strategic visioning to see this as an alternative low hanging opportunity for Zimbabwe and then proceed to set aside adequate resources for the championing of this tech/innovation movement.

Earlier this year, the government set up a $25 million ICT innovation fund. Given where other African countries are in the technological revolution, setting aside $25 million shows lack of seriousness and commitment to this tech/innovation revolution for the country. The way the fund was conceived and how the funds will be disbursed was haphazard with no depth and clarity of thought. There is a global tech/innovation war out there and Zimbabwe has chosen to participate in this war with dried mulberry tree sticks!

Compelling reasons why the Amai Mugabe School ought to be converted into a tech/innovation hub

  •  Zimbabwe must be thankful to the former first lady for having had the vision and audacity to build a school of that magnitude. But we are all acutely aware that national resources were utilised and they were expended in abundance. In terms of brick and mortar alone, I stand to be corrected by saying that it is the best school thus far in the whole of southern Africa. The International School of South Africa built by Lucas Mangope during his tenure as the president of Bophuthatswana, then a Homeland for Tswanas, now part of the North West Province of SA, is a comparable school in terms of infrastructure, but still, Amai Mugabe School remains above the rest.
  •  The past cannot be changed and vindictiveness and revengefulness is cheap. Without wanting to suggest this, a simple lifestyle audit will confirm that national resources built the school. What I am saying is, the Amai Mugabe School is a national asset and ought to be used for a national cause that benefits the nation. It is currently an underutilised, costly to maintain, running at a loss entity. I am submitting that the national cause should be Zimbabwe's first government sponsored tech/innovation hub.
  •  Zimbabwe does not currently have a tech/innovation hub. It needs one, like yesterday. The infrastructure at Amai Mugabe School is adequately suited for this.
  •  Amai Mugabe school is a stand alone, private institution. That is a good thing. While the proposal for the tech/innovation hub is for it to be predominantly government funded, it must ideally have private institutional and individual investors who have global connections by having worked in tech/innovation capacities across the globe so that they are able to replicate this knowledge locally being at the centre of the governance of the hub. While government must provide the most funding, it must have the least equity. The hub ought to be a private institution as opposed to a state owned entity (SOE). If the way the majority of the 107 SOEs are being run in this country is anything to go by - an issue I have written about before - the hub will be stillborn from the outset.
  •  The Amai Mugabe School has boarding facilities ideally suited for young people to reside in on safari at the hub for long periods of time, developing tech applications with local and international relevance. We do not want our tech minds to be worried about kombi fares. They must be fully funded and resident full-time at the hub.
  •  The school is out of town, just 38 minutes away but close enough (39.6 kilometres) to be able to interface with government and business in the pursuit of finding lasting tech-driven solutions for Zimbabwe.

The former first lady no longer has access to the national purse and therefore will likely not be able and willing to fund the school single-handedly in the future. It is a wise move to relieve her of this burden now.

Gloria Ndoro-Mkombachoto is an entrepreneur and a regional enterprise development consultant. Her experience spans a period of over 25 years.

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