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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 May, 2004, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
The last shirt maker in Ndola

David Loyn
BBC developing world correspondent

This year Zambia celebrates the 40th anniversary of gaining independence from Britain. It comes at a sombre time. Zambia is one of the large group of African countries which has become poorer in recent years.

Children on a hilltop overlooking copper mines
Zambia was once the world's third largest copper producer
"Get ready for a bumpy ride," said Sury Patel, as he hunched over the wheel of his 18-year-old Nissan, turning into Independence Way, the main street of Ndola.

You would not have known that we were in a city of half a million people, in the industrial heartland of Zambia. Forty years after independence, Independence Way looks the worse for wear.

It was a narrow road, pitted with holes in the tarmac and with no streetlights to help Mr Patel as he jolted along, peering through the cracked windscreen of his car.

We were heading for a drink at the cricket club where Mr Patel was secretary, as he was of the city's masonic lodge, its main school board, a hospital and several other causes as well.

"There is not an institution in Ndola which I have not been secretary of," he said, in imitation of the Mikado's Pooh-Ba, as he ordered Rhino beers and settled into a bar stool.

Collapsing industries

The Ndola cricket club was a single-storey, white painted building with a corrugated iron roof and a polished screed floor. It was built some 60 years ago or so and had a comforting architectural familiarity to anyone who has travelled in former British colonies in Africa.

Closed-down factory in Zambia
Factories have been closed down throughout Zambia
But, like so much else in Zambia, cricket is dying. In Ndola, it is dead already.

"There is no cricket played here any more," Mr Patel complained, as he remembered the days when his slow bowling had been a feature of the team.

The main copper mine nearby has gone, taking the town's copper refinery with it, and the textile industry has collapsed too. Mr Patel's shirt factory is one of the few still open and he employs only 20 people where he used to employ 200. The closures were inevitable once other industries declined.

It does not take an economic genius to work out that, if most of the purchasers of your shirts lose their jobs, then they can no longer afford to buy them.

But another plague hit the textile factories too. Just as they were losing their domestic market, Zambia was forced to open its borders to imports.

Painful prescription

The order came from the International Monetary Fund, as part of the so-called structural adjustment which these gatekeepers of globalisation demand as the entrance price to the world economy.

It is now one of the 12 poorest countries in the world

The IMF's textbook prescribes short-term pain to make long-term gain. Countries have to open their borders to the chill winds of competition, while removing subsidies from their own industries.

The textbook says that foreign investment will then flood in, opening new competitive industries to replace those that have collapsed. It has not worked in Zambia, at least not yet.

During the period of the most intense IMF-led reforms, it has tumbled more than 30 places down the UN's index of poverty. It is now one of the 12 poorest countries in the world.

Mr Patel simply cannot compete with the cheap second-hand clothing which now fills the markets of Ndola.

Victoria Falls
Zambia's Victoria Falls are a World Heritage Site

The IMF's programme has had another effect too. Foreign companies taking over Zambian factories were given lucrative tax breaks.

There was nothing to stop them taking their tax breaks, stripping out the factories and closing them down, in order to sell goods into Zambia from their plants in neighbouring countries. Not that many Zambians have much money to buy anything any more.

There are signs of decay everywhere across the country. In Livingstone, next to the Victoria Falls, around 20,000 people have lost their jobs in the last ten years.

'Mad waste'

There is huge potential for tourism here, which they have hardly begun to exploit. And amid the industrial wasteland of closed factories, there is now a grain storehouse.

It is a mad waste of resources in a town which should be able to feed itself on the proceeds of tourism. The Victoria Falls are a World Heritage Site, but they should not need the World Food Programme to stay alive.

Back in the cricket club in Ndola, the other men at the bar - all Zambian businessmen of Asian extraction - had a number of different answers to the country's problems.

Disused industrial site in Zambia
There are signs of decay everywhere across the country
The socialism of the country's first 25 years was blamed, as well as corruption. But they all conceded that socialism had protected their ability to make money in the early years, and corruption in Zambia is much less damaging than in many African countries.

The country has amazing tourist potential. It has a benevolent climate and has never had a war. Perhaps the IMF's textbook ideas did not work after all.

Mr Patel is not waiting to find out. His three children are now in the United States. His eldest son, who is a trained accountant, wanted to come back to Zambia.

He was prepared to take a pay cut, but not down to the one-tenth of his US earnings which was all he would have made here.

As soon as he can get the right visa, Mr Patel - the last shirt maker in Ndola - is going to join his family in America and Zambia will be the poorer for him going.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 22 May, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Zambia
26 Nov 03  |  Country profiles
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21 Jul 03  |  Business
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02 Jan 03  |  Business
Zambia to re-think privatisation
11 Feb 03  |  Business

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