The city of Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) was once a regional manufacturing powerhouse. An extensive railway network coupled with bustling factories and skilled labour churned out everything from clothing to locomotives. The unfortunate and ongoing political crisis that has defined Zimbabwe for over a decade, didn’t spare this historic city. Overnight, whole factories shut down as factors like electricity, hyperinflation and other essential factors hammered away at its productive core. The city soon became a frail shadow of its former self, much like the once colossal American automobile manufacturing city of Detroit. Where factories stood, churches quickly took over to capture the void of hopelessness and despair. Many skilled labourers who had once worked like busy bees, found themselves redundant and either left in massive waves of brain drain or took to menial jobs.
I was born in and spent the early years of my life in Bulawayo. This fact serves as a disclaimer. Having acknowledged this, what I’ve had the pleasure of seeing over the last few days is a youth driven revival. A young man by the name of Takunda Chingozoh, whom I had the pleasure of sharing a slot with as one of the first Forbes Africa 30 Under 30 inductees, is leading what I believe could very well be the city’s new lease of life. Takunda, through an initiative known as Tech Village, is building a platform driven by collaboration. He’s working to resource and bring together young people who are into technology, so as to build solutions and hopefully commercially viable enterprises. The Tech Village ecosystem encompasses an upcoming coworking space, events, and other nodal initiatives.
Techvillage recently organised a week-long Techfest. It encompassed hackathons, educational sessions and pitch competitions. I attended it with the singular objective of scouting for talent. Breakthrough innovation requires new thinking. Most of this will come from people who’ve never formally worked before; especially for bulky and bureaucratic organisations or even worse, for the non-profit sector. Apple, Facebook, Snapchat, Google and many other technology colossuses were built young and fresh talent. It is in this light that I saw the foundations of mega startups within the hearts and minds of Techfest participants. Most were still in college, incredibly well versed in their areas of passion (everything from virtual reality to the better of Arduino or the Rasberry pi was dissected). Throughout all the activities, few distractions as can be found in bigger cities like Harare were present. No vices of “dealing” and pettiness of corruption were apparent. It was just a group of young dreamers. Among the most impressive people I came across was a female first year student who’s teaching herself how to code and participated in the hackathons.
The concept of collaborative thinking and shared resources isn’t new to Africa. Ubuntu has underpinned a great number of societies. What appears to be challenging has been the process of tapping into existential knowledge bases and resources as developmental enablers. For example, rather than lamenting the lack of electricity available in some parts of the continent as defined by traditional grids, a massive opportunity exists to totally go off grid and embrace the power of the sun which Africa is generously blessed with.
The idea of Bulawayo as an African and indeed global centre of innovation is a very compelling proposition. Like the American city of Detroit, Bulawayo’s vast factories are no longer relevant in the bigger scheme of things. Rather than trying to revive them, the city ought to leverage on its emerging talent and very infrastructure to pivot towards information technology enabled services, business process outsourcing, software development, and hardware. Its serenity, geographic positioning and key educational centres like the National University of Science & Technology are a launchpad that can spur billion dollar startups and create hundreds of jobs directly. Bulawayo is to Zimbabwe what Cape Town or San Francisco are to their nations; centres of calm.
The key ingredient it’s apparently lacking is a catchment of high net worth or influential people to further accelerate progress. Many technology, media & telecoms leaders across Africa like Vodacom Group Chairman, Peter Moyo actually grew up in Bulawayo. They can play a highly enabling role in accelerating Bulawayo’s digital transformation. It’s encouraging to see that the Bigtime Strategic Group; a South African technology services company founded by a Bulawayo native; buys into such a vision and has been contributing to its resourcing. They were a sponsor of the Techfest.
A goal I have to also contribute to Bulawayo’s digital transformation, is rising to the stage where Esaja.com can build a campus in the city of Bulawayo. Until then, I’m encouraged and will further encourage others to join the young leadership in Takunda and company to spur innovation and build more bridges. Bulawayo can account for at least 60% of Zimbabwe’s future GDP by leveraging on technology. Through nothing more than brain power, a new lease of life can emerge. Perhaps a platform of common interest that’s similar to The Silicon Cape Initiative in Cape Town or Tiecon in India will bring us all together.