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Chinese investment gives Zimbabwean economy "a shot in the arm"

Submit Time:08-12-2015 | | Zoom In | Zoom Out

On the side of a dusty road leading to a major town in northern Zimbabwe, farm manager Charles Zimora oversees a red tractor tilling rows of dry and cracked soil under a blazing sun.

Wearing a loose blue work-suit and a worn baseball cap, Zimora has the look that did not betray his three-decade experience of a good farmer.

In 1987, he set his foot in agriculture as a teen, learning from the white commercial farmers. Later, he worked on the Hunyani farm just outside the town of Chinoyi. Back then, it was managed by the Chinoyi University of Technology as an experiment field before being leased to a Chinese-Zimbabwean joint venture in 2011 to grow grains: maize, wheat, and soy beans.

Zimora was retained as the manager. Now, he oversees 32 permanent farm workers and dozens more part-timers, usually hired during the harvest season, on the farm with 800 hectares of arable land.

"It is much better for the Chinese to utilize the land," Zimora said. "They brought in machinery, farming inputs, pivot irrigation towers. During the university days, we could not till the whole hectares as we do now."

He said the farm now pays better, and definitely hires more than ever before. But what counts most is the injection of foreign capital to a sector where most local small-scale farmers, including experienced ones like Zimora, could not secure loans to farm on their own.

"Otherwise, we have no money to buy farming inputs and the facilities,"Zimora said.


As he talks, the tractor drives by. Its shinning "YTO" brand sign reveals that it is a popular Chinese-made model "Dongfanghong", the name which is well associated with Chairman Mao's revolution that led to the founding of People's Republic of China in 1949.

Zimbabwe's ties to China could date back to the 1960s when freedom fighters of Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe received arms and military training from China to battle with the apartheid regime of Rhodesia.

At its independence in 1980, Zimbabwe inherited Rhodesia's booming agriculture sector, crowned as the "bread basket of Africa." But the good days did not last forever. Following the government's land reform in early 2000s, the West withdrew funds, imposed sanctions, and the once successful white commercial farmers fled away from the landlocked south African country.

In the first decade of this century, many farms were left idle while Zimbabwe's agricultural output plummeted, turning the country from food exporter to a net importer.

Mugabe, the revolutionary-hero-turned-president, reacted with announcing a Look East policy in 2002, promoting Zimbabwe to form closer ties with countries in emerging Far East, especially China, instead of relying on the traditional Western partners.

Today, China has emerged as Zimbabwe's top foreign investor. And agriculture, as Zimbabwe's pillar economic sector, is well funded by the growing Chinese investment.

Zimbabwe-China Wanjin Agricultural Development Company (Wanjin), the joint venture that manages Hunyani farm, has invested 15 million U.S. dollars in ten farms across the country since it was set up in December 2010, according to its general manager He Hongshun.

As in the partnership, Wanjin's Chinese shareholder chips in with capital, technology, and management while the Zimbabwean shareholder - the defense ministry - provided the land. All of its output, primarily grain, is sold locally.

"We are here to restore the idled farms. When we first came, there were grass and weeds everywhere," he said. "We started with two farms and now expanded to ten. Last year, our grain output reached more than 10,000 tons, making our contribution to Zimbabwe's food security."

Besides food, he said, local communities also got jobs, power and water supply as the Chinese investors became the new neighbor.


Zimbabwean Agriculture Minister Joseph Made said China and Zimbabwe have a wide variety of cooperation in terms of agriculture, and most notably the tobacco farming.

With smoking considered a deviant form of life back at home, Zimbabwe sells 95 percent of its tobacco abroad. Last year, about 40 percent of the country's tobacco export was destined for China.

Zhang Heng, managing director of China Tobacco Corporation's local subsidiary Tianze Tobacco Company Limited, said the company was founded in 2005 to join the already crowded market of Big Tobacco in Zimbabwe, dominated by British American Tobacco and several local white commercial farmers-owned companies.

But over the years, Tianze managed to secure its leading marketplace on the back of China's unabated demand for tobacco and a thriving contract-farming scheme.

Under such a scheme, Tianze provides interest-free loans to farmers to buy farm inputs and follow with regular technical advice. Farmers are expected to sell their golden leaf to the company to repay the loans and earn whatever that is left. Farmers with good credit records get bigger investment next year.

Cloudy Nyakonda, a local tobacco farmer, said he remembered what started off like any one of his usual field days in 2007 turned out to be a life-changing event.

"Officials from Tianze visited my farm and they invited me to join them. I accepted, and since then, I have never looked back," he said.

This year, the unassuming Nyakonda is expecting to harvest 500 metric tons of tobacco leaf on his 150-hectare farm.

"After paying all the overhead expenses, I remain with money enough for me and my family to survive. I have managed to build a nice house at my farm and I am able to send my children to better schools," he said.