Zimbabwe’s clothing manufacturers understand all too well why Asian economies are often referred to as “tigers”. With feline swiftness, low-priced imports from the East have cut a swathe through the local clothing, textile and footwear market.
The influx of Asian goods now ranks high on Zimbabwean manufacturers’ list of worries — which also includes triple-digit inflation, high interest rates, shrinking consumer demand and political instability.
“These goods are being dumped even in the rural areas. They come cheap, are of cheap quality and our wares cannot compete — especially with the Chinese types,” says Justice Mashinti, who heads the National Employment Council for the clothing industry. The body provides a forum for unions and employers to negotiate wages, safety regulations and other matters.
In a dig at the perceived frailty of Asian imports, consumers have nicknamed them “zhing-zhong”.
However, suspicions about the quality of these goods have not prevented Zimbabweans from buying them. In a country grappling with 70% unemployment, affordable goods are invariably sought after.
Batteries, playing cards, toys, toothbrushes, nail varnish, electric irons and radios are among the bright assortment of Asian products available at stalls in flea markets across the country.
At Sekusile, a busy and crowded market in the southern city of Bulawayo, a trader called McDonald is hardly visible behind the rows of colourful women’s underwear and the racks of men’s shirts that are for sale. His own stall is bedecked with sports shoes and slippers that sell for a third to half the price of their local equivalents.
“I make up to Z$300Â 000 [about R260] a day,” says the 25-year-old, who travels to neighbouring Botswana once a month to replenish his stock. Botswana, he adds, has many Asian shops offering a variety of products at low prices.
While Asian imports have traditionally been the preserve of flea markets, they are also making an appearance in the formal retail market.
“We see shoes that we think are Chinese,” says Mike Vernon, a local manufacturer of footwear.
Allen Feigenbaum, who also makes shoes — mainly for export — adds: “Because of economies of scale and availability of the most modern equipment, they can produce footwear at prices that are impossible to beat.”
Minimal import duties do little to stem the influx of Asian goods.
“For many of these products duty is a ludicrous Z$100 [less than R6,50] per kilogram [of clothing],” says economist Eric Bloch.
To save local jobs, the clothing industry union is spearheading a campaign to encourage Zimbabweans to buy domestically manufactured products.
“We’re saying to the Asian people, don’t supply us with what we can produce here, supply us with that which we can’t produce,” says Fred Mpofu, secretary general of the union. “It’s like we’re exporting our jobs to Asia.”
The union plans a competition at the end of this month to showcase local fabrics and designs.
The parliamentary committee on industry and international trade also plans to investigate the sale of Asian goods, as acting chairperson of the body Moses Mzila-Ndlovu says government policy on cheap imports is unclear.
“We are facing a crisis in our consumption of imported inferior goods without the government showing much comprehension,” he notes.
IPS could not obtain comment from the Ministry of Industry and International Trade on the extent of Zimbabwe’s dealings with Asian countries.
However, a commercial officer at the Chinese embassy in Harare who declined to be named said the trade balance between China and Zimbabwe is tipped in Zimbabwe’s favour.
This is because tobacco exports from Zimbabwe account for 75% of the $200-million in annual trade between the two countries.
The officer maintained that most Chinese-made products are of a high quality, “but where people are poor, they will source poor quality goods at a cheap price”.
Any effort to address the matter of Asian imports is likely to be complicated by the fact that Harare is pursuing stronger ties with the Asian bloc — this as relations with Western countries sour because of political differences.
Since the start of 2000, a controversial land-redistribution programme, disputed parliamentary and presidential elections and widespread human rights abuses have put Zimbabwe at odds with former colonial power Britain, the United States and others.
The government’s rapprochement with Asian states does appear to have yielded some benefit for the tourism sector, however, which has been hard hit by perceptions of political uncertainty in Zimbabwe.
Minister of Environment and Tourism Francis Nhema says the number of Asian tourists is likely to rise by about 50% this year, from 41Â 000 to 80Â 000, a figure that includes about 25Â 000 Chinese. — IPS