It is unfortunate that the award of tenders for prepaid meters for Zesa has yet again been delayed and it likely to be further delayed by a court action brought by a losing bidder.
A tender process can take time because there are several sets of criteria that have to be evaluated by the State Procurement Board.
First the user, a parastatal or a Government department, has to issue precise technical specifications. There are reports that Zesa itself changed these at one stage.
Even when the tender is awarded, the board has several stages to go through before it can even look at the prices. The product offered has to meet the specifications, and this in the case of an electricity meter obviously means that it must be tested in a laboratory for a start. Any product flunking that technical test is clearly eliminated at this stage.
The board presumably also has to check the status of the company making the offer. This, we assume, goes beyond just a confirmation of the basic information that the bidder has to submit. We hope that the board has to be fairly sure that the bidder can in fact deliver.
The larger and more complex the tender the more work needs to be done in this area. Bidders still wearing L-plates can cut their teeth, surely, on contracts that everyone is reasonably confident they can handle and then move up to bigger contracts on their record.
Tied to this is the desirable requirement that Zimbabwean bidders should, if all other things are almost equal, be given preference, especially if jobs are created in Zimbabwe.
It must be an interesting discussion, for example, to look at one bid from a pure Zimbabwean company offering 100 percent foreign goods, and a second from a foreign company willing to set up a factory in Zimbabwe. Which one is the best offer?
We feel some adjustment should be made on a pure price assessment to take into account other benefits to Zimbabwe, but that this adjustment should not be large. We imagine it could often be priced fairly accurately, allowing the SPB to do a calculation to aid them in their assessment.
All these sort of processes show that awarding tenders is not just a case of opening envelopes and the next day telling us who won. Quality products precisely priced and supplied by reputable concerns are required, not expensive junk by briefcase salesmen.
Anyone thinking that the SPB is too bureaucratic should sit in on some major purchasing decisions in the private sector. Even the most efficient company can take months to assess the best supplier of major technology, and that company only has its shareholders to deal with if it makes a mistake, not the entire nation of Zimbabwe.
Private sector decision making often centres on technology-financial trade-offs. Engineers tend to want the best while financial managers tend to want the cheapest.
In the end everyone has to agree on buying the cheapest solution that will actually work, and presumably the formal rules of the SPB are designed to produce this same solution.
Everyone now knows that the process did not run as smoothly as desired with the Zesa tender. Besides the reported change of criteria by Zesa there was a clerical error in the SPB and now a pending court case by a losing bidder.
It is curious that a lot of the problems the SPB has come under fire for involve Zesa tenders, and we wonder as a result just what exactly goes wrong in these cases.
The SPB seems to have fewer problems with everyone else, and seems well able to defend its decisions when attacked by Zimbabwean concerns offering a desired product at a far higher price than an importer, with the taxpayer expected to pay the difference.
We hope that everyone concerned with Zesa tenders has, at least, learned from these problems. Perhaps a tighter specification is needed at the start and a clearly defined technical evaluation laid out right from the beginning.
The problem of how to evaluate foreign and domestic bids is trickier to solve. We do not want, and presumably the SPB does not want, to encourage Zimbabwean firms to bid a bit higher than they need to if they are allowed an adjustment in adjudication.
The system must ensure that all margins are shaved to a viable limit, something that can be tricky when there are only one or two potential Zimbabwean suppliers.
Even superpowers have this problem. The US Department of Defence really only has one or two potential suppliers of military equipment for each item. One tank maker, one submarine builder or two plane makers make it difficult to ensure competitive bids.
As a result that department has to do a lot of its own calculations to see if it is being taken for a ride, and even then it makes mistakes.
If the SPB is going to give preference to Zimbabweans then it too needs some system to discourage overbidding. We do not pretend the answer will be easy.
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