The good news and the bad news: What the latest trade data tells us about Zimbabwe’s exports

Zimbabwe exported goods worth US$4.39 billion in 2020, a marginal 2.7% increase from 2019’s US$4.28 billion, in a tough year in which COVID-19 hit commodity demand and cut off trade links.

What else does Zimbabwe’s trade data, just released by ZimStat, tell us about the economy?

Minerals still dominate exports

Despite all the government rhetoric over the years about value addition, Zimbabwe’s exports are still made up mostly of primary commodities, largely minerals. Of the US$4.4 billion earned from exports, mineral exports accounted for US$3.2 billion, or a massive 73% of all our exports.

Gold lost its number 1 spot on official exports

Traditionally, gold has been Zimbabwe’s biggest export. This changed in 2020, a year in which gold deliveries fell by 31% to reach 19.1 tonnes, the lowest output in six years.

For now, nickel mattes – which are really PGM mattes – are the biggest exports. In 2020, Zimbabwe exported US$985 million worth of mattes, just beating gold – at US$982 million – into second place. Nickel ores and concentrates earned US$612 million, diamonds did US$141 million, ferroalloys US$140 million and platinum brought in US$134 million.

Processed foods exports growing

Zimbabwe exported more processed food in 2020 than it did in 2019. Exports rose 17.96% to US$115 million from US$98 million in 2019.

These exports were dominated by sugar, which earned US$76 million. Others included fruit juices (US$5.6 million) and pastry products (US$3.7 million).

According to ZimTrade, the export promotion agency, this growth was due to access into new markets. Zimbabwean producers increased investment in better technologies and adopted global standards and accreditations on food safety and traceability, ZimTrade says.

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Workers at Bulawayo’s Courteney Boot Company, which makes hand-made boots for export. Clothing exports fell in 2020 (pic: Forbes)

Tobacco: processed exports up

Zimbabwe is a major exporter of raw tobacco, but managed a marginal growth in manufactured tobacco, whose share of leaf exports rose from 1.06% in 2019 to 1.22%. In terms of value, Zimbabwe exported US$54 million of processed tobacco products in 2020, from US$45 million in 2019.

Driving part of this growth was the export of cigars and cigarettes, which grew by 71% from US$15 million in 2019 to US$26 million in 2020.

[ALSO READ: Ready to roll: Zimbabwe cigar venture eyes smokers at home and abroad]

Tobacco exports also found new markets in 2020. In addition to traditional key markets in China, Indonesia and the UAE, there was a rise in exports into Mozambique, South Africa and Botswana.

How COVID-19 hit horticulture exports

COVID-19 had a major impact on Zimbabwe’s horticulture exports, which are among the country’s top four forex earners. Exports fell 13.5% from US$68.8 million in 2019 to US$59.5 million in 2020.

This happened because of lockdowns around the world, which weakened demand for Zimbabwe’s main fresh produce; peas, citrus fruits, berries, and flowers. The major importing countries are Netherlands, United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany.

Workers at Nhimbe Fresh: the company in 2020 signed deals to expand exports to UAE

Restrictions on air traffic also cut off trade channels.

“With the short lifespan of horticultural produces, some farmers were forced to destroy their produces as they had no market to sale,” says ZimTrade.

While these exports fell, ZimTrade sees opportunity in “superfoods”, which are in demand internationally due to their high protein and low calories. An example of these are avocados, whose production the likes of Ariston and Meikles have been looking to expand.

ALSO READ: Low hanging fruit: Avocados, nuts, and the reinvention of Meikles

Says ZimTrade: “Currently, as part of its trade facilitation activities, ZimTrade is engaging buyers in United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain who have expressed interest to source from Zimbabwe if farmers are able to meet demand and have competitive prices. The country is also in the process of establishing a citrus protocol with China, which is expected to ease and improve exports to the Asian country.”

Other falling exports

Clothing and textiles exports dropped 29% from US$61.9 million in 2019 to US$44 million in 2020. Reflecting the impact of COVID-19 on travel and tourism, there was a massive 49.5% fall in the export of arts and crafts, from US$10.4 million in 2019 to US$5.3 million in 2020.

Zimbabwe’s key export markets

Zimbabwe’s major export destinations in 2020 were South Africa (39%), UAE (20%), Mozambique (9%), Uganda (3%), Belgium (2%), and Zambia, Botswana and Kenya each accounting for 1%. Exports to Mozambique grew 15% from US$354 million in 2019 to US$408 million in 2020.