Columnists Features

‘Look beyond copper’

SINCE the 1930s our country’s economic mainstay has been dependent on the export of copper blisters and cathodes and this reliability on copper mining has continually made our economy vulnerable to the changes in the production levels and prices of the mineral.
When Zambia won its political independence in 1964 first President, Kenneth Kaunda, and his United National Independence Party (UNIP) set up great hopes for development.
Central to these hopes was the rapid growth of the copper industry, driven by favorable world prices through the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1969, Zambia was classified a middle-income country, with one of the highest gross domestic products (GDPs) in Africa, three times that of Kenya, twice that of Egypt, and higher than Brazil, Malaysia, Turkey and South Korea.
By 1973, Zambia had an urban population of one million out of a total population of four million who were in waged employment.
Although major progress was made in the first decade of independence, economic development started slowing down when the price of copper collapsed after the first oil crisis in 1974, forcing Zambia to borrow in order to maintain social provision.
After the second oil crisis in 1979, which led to soaring interest rates, our country was thrown into a severe debt crisis. Our economy continued to deteriorate for the next 20 years running into the 1990s, leaving Zambia as the 25th poorest country in the world then.
Throughout this period of economic slump, many stakeholders called for the diversification of our economy from being heavily dependent on copper exports.
Efforts were being made to venture into sectors such as agriculture, tourism and manufacturing but we still had very little results to show because copper remained our country’s biggest export.
Now 50 years after independence, Zambia has found itself in a very awkward situation where our economy has become even more vulnerable to any changes in the price and production volumes of copper.
It is now clearly evident that the export of copper cannot be relied upon as an important source of economic growth, jobs and diversification.
At the beginning of this month, the Centre for Trade Policy and Development (CTPD) reported our country’s alarming poor trade performance in the first quarter of 2015. It stated that in March alone the deficit stood at K310 million, representing an increase of K202.7 million from February 2015.
This rise is almost double the February 2015 deficit which was K107.3 million. The report cited the challenges the country is currently facing in the mining sector of downwards production volumes of copper as key to the rising trade deficit.
The simple reason why our imports continue to outstrip our total exports is that ours is a consumption-oriented economy and not a productive one.
This means as a nation we import almost all the commodities that we consume, and if we can reverse this trend then our economy can revert to growing as opposed to its current predicament.
The question we need to ask ourselves as Zambians is, “are we going to continue relying on copper mining as the driver of our economy?” I say it is time we stopped paying lip service to the call for economic diversity so that we can implement real and not cosmetic solutions.
We need to start looking into developing our own industries for value addition especially in agricultural products. Zambia is blessed with vast land of which we are currently just utilising about 14 percent of the total 47percent land which can be used for agricultural activities.
Surely why should we continue to import products such as fruits, fruit juices, furniture, clothes and all the other agricultural produce.
We can cultivate our own fruits and extract juice, grow our own timber and produce furniture from it and sew our own clothes from the cotton that is grown in the Eastern Province which very often is just wasted.
I am, therefore, requesting leaders and professionals in the various sectors of our country’s economy and especially the engineers, to look into developing alternative measures that will bring real economic diversification from copper mining in order for our country to retain to the glory days of economic growth.
The author is a humanism activist and a member of the Zambia Institute of Chartered Accountants

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