Shoots of optimism in Zimbabwe
Crown Agents Foundation Director Kate Wilson Hargreaves finds cause for hope that innovative technologies could help Zimbabweans effect transformational change.
Last week I made my first trip back to Zimbabwe since 1991 when I travelled there as a gap-year student at the end of a volunteer teaching post in Lebowa homeland, 2 hours south on the South African side of the border. Zimbabwe had just become a Republic and new President Mugabe was very much in the ascendency.
Flying in 26 years later, change for my visa came in the form of ancient $1 notes, soft and crumbling at the edges, and faded and smudged from decades of handling and symbolic of the fragility of this economy. The default to a US$ economy, depressed capital investment, shortages of imported goods, extremely high price for diesel and only 19% rural electrification means that some women give birth by candlelight and children can’t study in the evenings. People’s pensions have become worthless, and disputed land tenure limits agricultural growth. One of the drivers whom I spoke with during my visit, talked to me of crumbling infrastructure, worsening services in every walk of life. Only two of his five grown-up, educated children have any income from work.
These are the very real challenges in Zimbabwe. However, during my trip I did find grounds for optimism about Zimbabwe’s future: Crown Agents Zimbabwe’s diligent team are doing successful work on Results Based Financing for health centres. This work is showing seeds of improvement in health services and there are calls to extend this model into other sectors such as education. There’s also a silver lining in the currency crisis: a 90% mobile phone penetration country-wide take-up is facilitating mobile money transfer, even in rural areas. These disparate shoots of hope present an unexpected opportunity: high literacy levels and high mobile saturation makes Zimbabwe fertile ground for public information applications for smart phones or information channels via SMS. One example, ‘MomConnect’, provides information about ante-natal and neo-natal services, appointment reminders which have the potential to save lives in a country with a maternal mortality rate of 614 deaths per 100,000 live births.
Another area for hope is the openness of attitudes and the regulatory environment to game changing tech innovations such as solar power. In just one example, Crown Agents is working with ALEUTIA and DFID on introducing the ‘SolarEnabler’ smart solar box for hospitals in rural Zimbabwe. Players in the solar market talked of the inevitable shift to solar power, whether on or off-grid, in coming years.
Mucha Mwonzora, our Country Director in Zimbabwe, spoke movingly about her ‘journey’ from being a skeptic of technologies to opening her mind to potential uses, as a result of a friend of hers tragically bleeding to death after giving birth to twins earlier in the year. Her life might have been saved had there been a functioning supply chain for blood to maternity clinics.
Innovative technologies have the potential to connect remote areas — from off-grid solar, to maternal health to the economy-boosting possibilities captured in mobile phone uses. Experimentation in these fields can bear fruit, as long as new technologies are embedded in community-led solutions and any data or insights derived from them belong to those communities. There should also be skills transfer so that local communities understand the use, maintenance and repair of any technology infrastructure. If partners can support this process, there is much space for organic and exciting growth for this beautiful country.