US dollars dominate the debate in Zimbabwe
Delta Beverages, the third-largest company on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, has had little cheer over the festive season. In the run-up to the holidays, foreign currency shortages severely reduced the supply of concentrate for Coca-Cola, one of its most popular products. And just two days into the new year, the company, 40% owned by global brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, made a bold announcement - it would charge for all its products in US dollars and would not accept payment in bond notes or by electronic transfer. It was an attempt by Delta to get its hands on the $7m or so it needs in foreign currency to keep operations running. Annually, the firm needs more than $100m. For several months, the beverage maker had been struggling to secure foreign currency from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) to pay for the import of soft-drink concentrate. But the government swiftly blocked Delta's attempt to charge in US dollars. Company CEO Pearson Gowero went on state television with RBZ governor John Mangudya to publicly back down. Gowero said that in "the spirit of the multicurrency system", the company would continue to accept bond notes and payment by electronic transfer, known as real-time gross settlement.John Robertson, an economist and the founder of Robertson Economics in Harare, said this week that Delta Beverages was not in a good position and the challenges it faced mirrored the larger structural problems businesses in Zimbabwe have to deal with."Most of the money is electronic money and is not useful for paying for anything outside the country. But Delta has real costs of running machines at its plants, transport costs, and it's not just the cost of the final product found on the shelves," he said."But they can't demand US dollar payment, because it's not there and there is now the real risk that with their price hike they might see foreign competitors eat into their market. People will find it cheaper to bring in products from outside than buy from Delta."On Monday Delta said it had increased prices for its wholesale beer products by 25%. The company said it was still assessing prices for its other products."The adjustment of the wholesale price is meant to cushion against the significant increases in local costs, as confirmed by the official inflation statistics. It also addresses the value share with the retail partners," said Delta's corporate affairs head, Patricia Murambinda, in a statement.Inflation in November was recorded at 31% by the national statistics agency, but independent estimates put it at over 100% in real terms. Delta, which sells 15 beer brands, said it was aware that retailers had followed suit by hiking their prices too. But "these prices do not reflect the costs of acquiring the beverages from Delta", it said. Some retailers have hiked prices by as much as 100%. The lager business remains Delta Beverages' most profitable segment and has recorded strong signs of growth. In its half-year results to September, it said volumes were up 54% from the previous period. Zimbabwe's economic meltdown is partly the result of the government's insistence on 1:1 parity between the US dollar and the bond note, while on the black market a dollar is worth more than three bond notes. Minister of industry & commerce Nqobizitha Mangaliso Ndlovu said in a recent interview that the government was fed up with "wanton price hikes" and his ministry would soon consider revoking the operating licences of businesses that charged in dollars. Lucky Mlilo, president of the Professional Business Association of Zimbabwe, urged government restraint and said market forces should be allowed to guide the economy."There should be more business in government and less government in business," Mlilo said. "Most government dictates tend to hinder and interfere with business operations rather than help them."The Delta case was "very interesting", he said. "The government sat down with them and reached an agreement where the RBZ will assist them with foreign currency allocation. This is one of the top 10 companies in the country and it would be folly to allow such a company to collapse. "This could have been an arm-twisting strategy for Delta to have its case heard. The question is, are we going to see more corporates using the same strategy?"