Those of us in the construction industry would recall that when government came up with the 20% subcontracting to locals for construction projects given to foreign companies, we were very excited and hopeful. This was because we felt that this policy will enable us grow into the future leaders in the construction industry by learning from foreign companies how to manage and run big projects.
However, looking back now, this policy despite being in place for more than three years has not yielded any tangible results. The reasons are diverse; most Zambians are subjected to do those parts of the projects that require less technical expertise, such as bush clearing, drainages and road signage. This is a big let down to the Zambian contractors who wanted to learn how to manage big projects from mobilization, through execution and finally commissioning.
Further, there are also other factors that were beyond the control of the main foreign contractors, like financing and capacity constraints on the Zambian contractors. The main contractors felt it was not their responsibility to spoon-feed the Zambian contractors. Therefore, Zambian contractors were left to organise themselves and source for funding and technical expertise on their own, which they lamentably failed.
If the country was to gain maximum benefits from such a policy the starting point was supposed to be that Zambian policy makers should have made it mandatory to foreign contractors to employ Zambians at all levels of their project management structure. For instance, if the project manager is foreign, the deputy or the contract manager needed to be a Zambian.
This should have been the case throughout the structure, all the way down to the general workers. That way, Zambians were going to benefit by learning directly from the masters and, eventually, it was going to be easier for them to subsequently contract for the 20% as they would have gained skills necessary to carryout construction on their own. Or simply, Zambian contractors could have started finding the needed skills within the Zambian communities, as those who had worked with foreigners would have been available for employment.
One may be asking why I have highlighted the above and what connection they have to the topic at hand. Firstly, I highlighted above that government awards Chinese companies more than 80% of Zambia’s construction projects, and that investment from China is one of the biggest in our country. Therefore, how Chinese conduct their business and daily lives here have got a direct bearing on the perception that Zambians will have about them. It is also important to note that interaction between the Chinese and Zambians as things stand now is only mutual and true at higher levels, but very poorly conducted at lower levels.
As highlighted above, despite the Chinese companies benefiting so much from our industries in the country, they have employed only the lowest levels of workers on minimum wage, leaving many highly educated Zambians still struggling to find jobs. Not even Zambians who graduated from China and proficient in Chinese language have benefited from the many Chinese companies in the country. The few that are employed are given unattractive conditions and hardly stay in their jobs.
Going forward, there is need for both Zambians and Chinese, more especially the leaders, to do some introspection. Chinese leaders in the spirit of sustainable partnership with Zambians need to guide their Zambian counterparts on the best policies that helped China to be where it is today to be replicated, or at least tried in Zambia. For example the policy where foreigners were required to partner at 50%-50% with the Chinese to undertake major projects or to invest in strategic projects can help stimulate mutual partnerships between Zambians and Chinese and guarantee a sustainable Chinese relationship with Zambians.
Foreign multinationals in China are required to localize their operations with enough local content so that local people can feel the ownership. Here, we have allowed the Chinese and other foreigners to bring in anything they feel like without any requirement for localisation. For instance, instead of allowing imports of finished gadgets, we can demand that these are brought in knock down forms so that assembly can be done here, thereby increasing job creation and technology transfer and spill over in Zambia.
Article by Kumbukilani Phiri and Durban Kambaki