Development Features

Transforming ZNS good for Zambia

ACTING President Inonge Wina operating a Zambia National Service grader during the launch of countrywide feeder roads rehabilitation project worth K16.2 billion in Litoya area of Nalolo District yesterday. PICTURE: KALUMBA CHIBABILA/ZANIS

AT HIS last press conference, President Lungu highlighted the need to embrace austerity measures in view of the headwinds Zambia is facing economically.
Poor commodity prices on the international market, load shedding caused by a dry spell in the 2014-2015 rainy season means Zambia has to import power to mitigate the deficit.
President Lungu’s economic recovery plan is designed to stabilise the economy.
Some of the pronouncements President Lungu made are curtailing of foreign and local trips by ministers and other government officials a directive to stop the quoting of prices in the US dollar and cessation of new infrastructure projects as well as the creation of foreign missions abroad.
Mr Lungu also directed that no work should be done outside the budgetary allocation and that the Zambia Revenue Authority should improve in tax collection and prosecute defaulters.
Other pronouncements are that the Food Reserve Agency should offload maize to millers in an attempt to reduce mealie-meal prices to about K65 per 25-kilogramme bag and the plan to create 10,000 jobs under the Copperbelt recovery programme, among others initiatives.
Austerity measures also mean that some of the projects have to be deferred until Zambia has a favourable balance sheet.
In short, the government has to use what it has to achieve what it needs.
One sector which the government has to use what it has to ensure sustained national growth is the road sector which gobbles a fortune from the Treasury.
Road construction in Zambia is very expensive because it uses a lot of imported materials such as fuel, bitumen, labour and equipment. Foreign equipment and expertise is costing this country a lot of money.
This is one sector which is not attractive to local contractors because it requires a healthy cash flow.
Local contractors find it extremely expensive to access finance because at the moment, the lending rate at the Bank of Zambia is around 15.5 percent while in commercial banks, it fetches at not less than 23 percent, which is very high.
Operational costs soar to almost 121 percent including profit.
For local contractors, the major hindrance is equipment which is imported and that is why they cannot compete favourably with the likes of Avic International and China Henan.
Until Dangote arrived on the scene a few months ago, cement – one of the major constituents in road construction – was very exorbitant.
In view of the austerity measures announced by President Lungu, our road engineers have their work cut out to ensure that they help Government to use what it has to achieve what it needs in delivering better yet economically efficient roads.
One such innovation on the table is rolling out Pave Zambia to rural areas because it involves building roads for low speed and low volume roads.
The Road Development Agency and its partners the Zambia National Service which has embraced the Rural Road Unit has to embrace labour-based technology in rural areas.
This applies to drainages, walk-aways which have to be constructed using local people.
However, to be able to accomplish the task of using local labour, there is need for skills training.
Currently, there is a big gap in terms of skills levels as colleges such as Lusaka Trades and Livingstone which offered trade courses in building science have diversified to offering business and other programmes while the Roads Training School closed.
Talking about foreign expertise, I have a feeling that the Engineering Institution of Zambia is somewhat weak by allowing foreigners to do work which can be done by Zambians.
Harnessing everything we have from raw materials to engineers can take Zambia somewhere.
Our southern neighbours Zimbabwe are now teaching us – they have built the first solar-powered plazas.
Road-making is science and there is no circumventing this process. As defence wings recruit, they should ensure that new personnel are imparted with road construction skills during their training.
Going forward, the government, as the regulator, should continue being involved in the formulation of policies to direct the road sector such as bringing down interest rates and subsidise the importation of equipment.
This may include setting up a pool of equipment for contractors to be hiring. Some contractors, especially local ones, fail to perform due to insufficient equipment.
Tax on road construction equipment should be removed. However, before it is totally removed, there should be a monitoring mechanism that the equipment imported is used for its intended purpose as some unscrupulous business people may divert it to other areas such as mining.
We are a country endowed with abundant natural resources but we fail to harness them due to lack of capacity.
That is why it is incumbent upon Government to continue creating an enabling environment for Zambian contractors to thrive by utilising the basic materials we have.
And failing to perform is a cost to the road user and the economy. Therefore, having pool equipment will go a long way in helping local contractors and ultimately the economy will improve.
Maybe Government, which has designated the National Road Fund Agency to be the toll agent from next month, should review the aspect of keeping money collected from toll gates at the Ministry of Finance because it increases the cost.
With exploration for minerals still going on in many parts of the country, Government may wish to take a leaf from the Democratic Republic of Congo which has fully exploited from prospectors by making them build roads.
There is no harm in Zambia negotiating with mineral prospectors to build roads leading to areas where they intend to be mining as well as other areas, including building power plants and transmission lines before being granted licences.
I can imagine how Solwezi should have been developed had the same principle been used in North-Western Province where First Quantum Minerals and Lumwana are mining copper and other minerals.
The author is Zambia Daily Mail Editorials Editor.

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