Growing up and playing in dusty roads at Magunje Growth Point in the 1980s, Thomas Chasara, envied the entrepreneurial skills and business acumen his father displayed when running an auto repair business at the centre.
There was brisk business, especially when maize transporters using tractors, light trucks and lorries that delivered grain to a Grain Marketing Board depot at the growth point, requested for Chasara’s expertise when their vehicles broke down.
It was Thomas and other young boys of his age’s vision, that after completing tertiary education, they would one day transform their parents’ businesses into formal institutions when Magunje Growth Point in Hurungwe graduated into a town.
However, this has remained a pipe dream for Chasara and his colleagues because 40 years later, the concept of growth points in Zimbabwe is fast fading away and the centres dotted around peripheral areas countrywide are failing to provide impetus as centres for national industrialisation.
“When growing up I thought the place would develop too and economic activities would sustain our family business. Today the business remains small. The growth point is still struggling and the vision of my father is vanishing,” said the 46-year-old Chasara.
However, local government expert and town planner Percy Toriro, said all doors are not shut for Thomas and others because with proper strategic planning, adequate Government support and requisite infrastructure, growth points can be the panacea to rural-urban migration.
At inception, the concept was a unique endeavour by Government to help decentralise development to remote parts of the country in order for the general populace to receive essential services.
Growth points are artificially created or stimulated in disadvantaged regions with the intention to eventually become centres of economic growth for the benefit of communities.
Since Magunje has a huge resource base including rich soils that support growth of nearly all crops and gold deposits in surrounding areas, Chasara and other youths living in areas with resources of the same magnitude thought growth points would be focal points for development.
The areas have potential to attract investors and eventually become hubs for economic activities.
The growth point policy is not a unique to Zimbabwe as it has been used widely in regional development planning to deal with the problem of polarised economic development.
It was first employed in Western Europe in countries such as Britain, France and Italy to bring development in depressed regions.
The strategy was later adopted by many countries in the American region, Asia and Africa to redress regional economic imbalances and to curb rural to urban migration.
In Zimbabwe, the growth points initiative was introduced in 1978 (then Rhodesia) as part of the policy document titled; “Integrated Plan for Rural Development”, which promoted regional planning.
This plan first designated 10 growth centres namely; Chisumbanje, Gutu, Jerera, Mataga, Maphisa, Murehwa, Mushumbi, Nkayi, Sanyati and Wedza and after this policy document was published, more growth centres were established.
The designation of the centres was adopted after 1980 independence as part of the government’s policy that embodied growth with equity as it was felt that for general economic development to succeed at a national scale, regional inequalities had to be drastically reduced.
The growth point strategy in Zimbabwe was adopted as a regional planning policy aimed at correcting the colonial imbalances through the provision of infrastructure to the disadvantaged communal sector.
Growth Points were financed to the tune of $60 million for infrastructure development by the Zimbabwean Government at the inception of the idea at independence. However, the funds were not enough and sustainable to complete the intended developments, leaving other projects hanging.
The idea behind establishing such growth centres was to ensure there were some economic activities in rural centres and to curb rural to urban migration through the promotion of increased market for agricultural products and raw materials abundant in the particular area.
The rest of the growth points in Zimbabwe, however, have remained small service centres consisting only of government offices and a few shops and no meaningful industries have been established. The economic fortunes of the majority of the growth centres depended on the continued support from the public sector investment.
According to a market survey carried out in Mhondoro District recently on the nature of business activities, four dominant services found were; general dealers (26 percent), beer outlets (12 percent), grinding mills (12 percent), butcheries (11 percent), while other activities were not captured.
Toriro weighed in saying; “When the concept was developed, urban population was under 25 percent and now it is over 40 percent, where people are competing for resources and putting the infrastructure under pressure. As a country, we still need to go back to the concept because globally, it has been used to address such challenges.”
For a growth point to become a robust centre of sustainable development, there should be the right mix of planning and scheming by strategic managers. There have been a number of challenges encountered in applying growth point strategies.
Funds allocated by Government for growth point development were not adequate, hence infrastructural and service provisions could not cater for industries growth. Some small businesses did not take off at all, while those that were formed either closed or down scaled to levels of home industries.
Growth points failed to attract investment because they did not have strong input base and market to support the industry. Some firms disinvested from the centres, which were not lucrative for example POSB closed its business at many centres, dampening the spirit of people like Thomas.
Some growth points were located close to large former commercial farming communities and the exit of former commercial white farmers resulted in less economic activities as majority of the new land owners are yet to surpass or reach the former farmers’ production levels.
The absence of manufacturing activities and related growth oriented enterprises affected the growth points in Zimbabwe. Lack of lucrative minerals such as gold could have been a determinant factor to the growth of some of the centres.
“We now need public funding if we are to use the growth point concept as solution to overcrowding in a few urban centres. Government should pick a few centres with potential and support them with resources. Areas such as Magunje have good maize, tobacco and minerals. For them to develop, they require effort, policy consistent and attractive infrastructure such as roads. There should be adequate supply of electricity, provision of water and other basic services,” he said.
Most centres designated for growth points do not have the requisite potential or strong human resource base from where to ignite the processes of cumulative causation and subsequent growth.
Attempts by governments to facilitate the processes of decentralization have resulted in tension between centralization and decentralization lobbyists.
Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP), a Briton -Woods institution prescribed policy shifted Government policy to liberalized markets. The implementation of this strategy was characterised by massive cuts in Government expenditure and promoting perfect competition.
Companies that relied heavily on public institutions went under, while projects were left midway after the implementation of the policy. The introduction of ESAP led to Government withdrawal of funding to growth points, most of which were at their infancy stage and this resulted in the centres failing to put up infrastructure that support industries.
Government latitude of supporting small businesses at growth points was restricted due to the blueprint. Free market environment promoted established corporates to thrive while emerging businesses suffered as they still needed support and protection.
However, some growth points have grown into towns thus achieving the goal of triggering national industrial development. For example, Mupandawana Growth Point has grown into a town thus showing the applicability of the growth point policy as a development strategy in Zimbabwe.