Readers of a prestigious American business publication have been told that now is the time to re-engage with Zimbabwe if investors want to get in on the ground floor ahead of a resurge in the economy.
"For companies willing to take on some risks, now is the time to buy local assets, which, though priced in U.S. dollars, are still fairly cheap because of the associated risk," write analysts Anna Rosenberg and William Attwell in the Harvard Business Review.
They add: "This is also a good time to look for the best possible potential business partners – they are eager for investment but may not be available for long if interest in the market picks up. However, companies should stay clear of sectors with high levels of political interference, such as mining."
Rosenberg is director and Attwell senior analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa Research at the Frontier Strategy Group, a firm which gives advice and intelligence to businesses operating in emerging markets.
"On a recent research trip to Harare," they write, "we were struck by the business opportunities that still exist in the economy despite the difficulties the country faced in the past several years."
President Emmerson Mnangagwa "knows he will need to meaningfully improve the business environment and living standards to secure his legitimacy," they add. The country is at a crossroads and if Mnangagwa follows through with economic reforms, "multinationals that are willing to accept some risk and invest in the country could benefit from first-mover advantages..."
The analysts identify the lack of cash as the main challenge facing the economy and say progress in addressing this will be "slow and incremental".
Mnangagwa has successfully negotiated support from the African Export and Import Bank for importers, as well as guarantees to allow the central bank to increase the printing of the country's "bond notes". But Zimbabwe will be able to access the credit it needs only once he convinces bodies such as the African Development Bank and the World Bank that the government is a reliable borrower.
"As Mnangagwa's reforms begin to gradually stabilize the economy, significant opportunities will emerge across an array of sectors and segments – both formal and informal – for companies hoping to expand in this relatively under-served, but high-potential market," Rosenberg and Attwell write.
They identify four "plus" factors for those wanting to do business in Zimbabwe. Verbatim excerpts from their report:
Consumer-facing businesses: Any company that enters the market offering lifestyle and consumer goods products could benefit from demand that has been unmet for years... If the middle-class benefits from improving economic conditions and better access to cash, consumer demand is likely to increase. Lower-income consumers also present a lucrative opportunity...
An influx of capital could also result in a revival in the formal retail sector (e.g., supermarkets, shopping malls) over the next several years, since the infrastructure does not need to be built from scratch. This means it would be fairly easy for consumer-facing industries to get access to consumers.
Technology: Providers of mobile banking and cash transfer solutions are doing particularly well in the economy due to the country's multi-currency exchange regime and low availability of U.S. dollars....
Technology solutions that help accelerate improvements of Zimbabwe's decaying infrastructure will also be in high demand. By now, Zimbabweans are well versed in using technology innovations to solve their daily life challenges, and any company able to provide them with practical solutions to access financing, rebuild infrastructure, and ease distribution will likely benefit in this environment.
Talent: Zimbabwe has one of Africa's strongest education systems, and consequently boasts an abundance of high-caliber talent, which means it is relatively easy for companies to find locals to run their operations....
However, in recent years many high-skilled Zimbabweans have emigrated to neighboring South Africa. Given South Africa's stagnating economy, skilled and experienced Zimbabweans could return home as the political environment stabilizes and employment opportunities for them expand with an improving economy.
Agriculture: A mainstay of the economy, the agriculture sector will be a major priority given its importance as an export sector that brings in foreign currency. Recently introduced reforms to give agricultural firms better access to finance aim to help farmers buy and import equipment to increase their output – and this could be a boon to global manufacturers. Machinery, seeds and irrigation systems will likely witness a surge in demand.