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We need each other - Interview with "retired idealist" Nigel Mugamu
Upenyu Makoni Muchemwa,
March 18, 2011

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Nigel MugamuNigel Mugamu is an entrepreneur and blogger. He describes himself as "'a retired idealist' who has been smacked around a few times by the reality of life". Nigel is a finance professional, and has been writing for several years. His articles, which contribute to the discourse on development in Africa and Zimbabwe, have been published on several websites and publications in Australia and the UK. He also maintains his own blog.

Why did you come back to Zimbabwe?
I don't have to worry about what visa I am on to stay in this country. I have an emotional attachment to this country; it's what has made me who I am.

How have your perceptions of Zimbabwe changed since you came back?
I'm lucky because I walked into a job, and it's a business that my family owns. I don't look at Zimbabwe through a political lens all the time, I'm thinking in terms of industry and commerce. I don't look at Zimbabwe the way that most people do . . . maybe there's something wrong with me. We opened a bookshop in the middle of December, and we've got five staff that work in the shop and they in turn have families that they support. So that's how I look at Zimbabwe now. When you talk to people at home, they're not worried about whether Mugabe's in the country, and whether Tsvangirai is in the country most people are just thinking, 'it's Easter next month, I need to go kumusha and I need to save xyz for bus fare and maybe if I can sneak in a few days before and after that would be great'. Listen

Being in business you're always going to take into account the political landscape. I'm not saying I've completely ditched it, but I don't focus on it. I focus on getting more customers, why is there a bookshop over there, what are they doing differently. I think we have over politicised things. When you hear stories of the government helping people in a particular area with maize and seed and turning that, I mean someone just wants seed to sustain themselves, and turning that into 'well actually which party do you support?' I have a problem with that. And then of course I've got a lot of friends in the Diaspora who say things like 'I won't return to Zimbabwe until Mugabe dies'. You can't live your life that way. I've come home and I don't see any one who is living that way. You don't postpone. That's an issue I think. When I was on that side of the fence, there might have be a little skirmish in Harare and then the problem is when the story is being told over there: Harare is on fire. And I'd pick up the phone and call my parents asking if they're ok.

What is the biggest challenge that you feel people face when establishing a business?
It's interesting because you've got these concepts that you've learnt, but then it doesn't work like that. Similarly business in Germany is different to business in France. (I have to teach myself that what happens in the book isn't always applicable in real life.) In my experience, and I've spoken to a number of people who are starting various projects, capital is something that hinders some of these projects. In our own experience (establishing a travel business) the perception, I mean, how do you sell Zimbabwe to some French guy, because all they seem to see on Sky News and BBC is political violence etc. Listen

How do you think the government can make it easier and help the formalisation of informal businesses?
There are a number of things. My view is that government is there to regulate. If you look at the UK, who actually runs that country, it's not government, it's business. We've got a situation here where for many, many years, like when I was growing up; government did a lot of things for people. So we've gotten used to that, it's almost like we expect them to help. The last decade or so has taught us that government can't always provide. How can they help? When you want to register a business, lets make it easier so it doesn't take six weeks. Small things like if you want to run your own business as a sole trader, you don't have to register, you can go and apply for a license, and now you're registered. Now we know, for example that there's a person called Sam who's a builder. How do you tax Sam? There's a minimum amount that he has to pay. And if Sam can't pay that then he has to prove it. But at least we're getting some sort of revenue. We shouldn't criminalize certain things - that's how the black market works. Government also needs to stop certain rhetoric that goes against what they're trying to do. It confuses people. For example the empowerment laws. You can't say 51% and then 3 months later scrap the regulations in order to do a consultation. That scares a lot of people from even thinking about Zimbabwe. Listen

What do you think is the key to fulfilling the country's development agenda?
We need each other. The government needs SMEs and large business to pay taxes to provide social services. Those social services provide jobs for mum and dad, who pay school fees for their children. The children then become educated and become like you and I (productive members of society). When I look at Zimbabwe, it's pretty much like how Biti said it would be a few years ago, 85% at the bottom, 12% in the middle and then 3% at the top. In this country we have a small middle class, but it's the 85% that I think about, and those 85% are the workers. NIPC says you pay your gardener this much, and then you've got to sit there and say 'morally, does it make sense to pay this person this much and expect them to live? And expect them to pay school fees'. We, the people who have the maids and so on, need to make a decision to pay them more and help them with the school, we've got to help bridge that gap.

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