ZIMBABWE’s manufacturing industry, which is operating at 34% of installed capacity, is agitating for a widening of the list of products that cannot be brought into the country without a permit.
The move is likely to increase the divide between Harare and its trade partners, but producers and officials in Zimbabwe insist it is critical to revive the manufacturing sector. Government also wants to keep the current account deficit in check.
The impoverished country’s import restriction policy is already a thorny issue with neighbouring SA, Zambia and Malawi, which accuse Zimbabwe of breaching regional trade protocols. Forty-three products are already on the list of blocked imports, including steel products, coffee creamers, and petroleum jelly.
Industry and Commerce Minister Mike Bimha has said the list was “a drop in the ocean” considering the range of products imported from SA, Zimbabwe’s largest trade partner.
In 2015, SA’s exports to Zimbabwe totalled R25.64bn compared with imports worth R4.36bn.
Zimbabwean manufactures now want wheat flour added to the list, in an effort to stop the decline in bread production.
Grain Millers’ Association of Zimbabwe chairman Tafadzwa Musarara said national bread consumption had fallen to under 1-million loaves a day.
The continued importation of wheat flour was self-destructive as demand was less than 25% of national installed flour capacity.
Bimha said the initial list of goods under SI 64 of 2016 had been provided for by local industry and that the sector would come up with any new recommendations to his ministry.
“I haven’t yet had any approach from business. If there are new issues we will consider those as they are brought to us,” Bimha told BDLive on Monday.
Denford Mutashu, president of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers Association, said SI 64 of 2016 was a flexible policy which allows for more products to be added, as long as local industry showed that it could sufficiently meet local demand.
“It (SI 64 of 2016) is not cast in stone and that flexibility attracts fine tuning of the imports restriction policy with more goods likely to be added, while some will be removed from the current list,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bimha said last week’s Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit held in Swaziland had not discussed Zimbabwe’s import restriction policy.
“We were not discussing Zimbabwe, we were discussing regional integration and those discussions were very fruitful. SA wants to engage us and is eager to help us on how to promote trade between the two countries,” he said.
Ahead of the SADC meeting, SA, Zambia and Malawi put pressure on Harare to lift the restriction.
Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies had given Bimha a three-week ultimatum until the end of August to suspend the policy.
While manufacturers have welcome the policy, importers have not. Cross border traders in Musina brought business to a standstill as protests broke out over SI 64 of 2016 in July.
Last month at Heroes Day commemorations, President Robert Mugabe said Zimbabwe would not reverse the import restrictions policy and urged aggrieved neighbours to “talk” to his administration.