Chinese agribusinesses are a familiar sight across Africa, not always one welcomed by locals, but a new scheme in Zimbabwe is proving particularly controversial. Under the so-called twinning program, investors from Hubei would be paired with farmers in Mashonaland East, one of the most fertile regions of Zimbabwe. The farmers would provide land and labor, the investors capital and equipment; the crops grown would be shipped to China.
It is unclear who would own the land. Some reports suggest the Chinese investors would be given all or some of the land, others that they would just own the farm business they operate on it. The twining program is a provincial government-to-provincial government agreement and the details have been kept quiet.
Provincial officials from Hubei have recently returned from a visit to Mashonaland East. Much of the land in question was originally taken from white farmers in 2000 after independence and redistributed to friends of the regime regardless of whether they had any experience of agriculture. Since independence Zimbabwe’s once-prosperous farming based economy has collapsed, with the country facing food shortages. Hence the need to import expertise and finance to get fallow and failing farms back on their feet.
How much benefit this scheme would provide to local farmers or put food on local tables is questionable, given the crops will be exported to China. There is already a backlash against investors from China, South Korea and some of the Gulf states buying up farmland across Africa to produce cash crops for export at the expense of local subsistence farmers. Giving it away smacks of a bizarre reverse new colonialism.
Footnote: Chinese business have stepped into an economic void caused by U.S. and European sanctions imposed in 2002 against Zimbabwe’s human-rights record. Chinese-made goods are a common sight in local stores. Trade between the two countries totaled $560 million dollars last year, with three-fifths of that accounted for by Zimbabwean imports of Chinese products, particular mobile communications hardware.
Zimbabwe’s leading export to China is apparently tobacco, a surprise for such a minerals-rich country, though that may change with the easing of international restrictions on sales of Zimbabwe’s diamonds. Two of the five companies with diamond-mining licenses are Chinese. However, we note in passing trouble at one of them, Sino-Zimbabwe, state-owned cement maker China Building and Material Co.’s joint venture with Zimbabwe’s state-owned Industrial Development Corp., which reportedly fired local workers at its diamond mining operation earlier this month (via Bloomberg).
Political relations between Beijing and Harare are warm. In February, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called for the lifting of sanctions against the country. The following month, China provided Zimbabwe with a $700 million loan, to be used primarily to develop farming. Meanwhile, Chinese-owned businesses have been exempted from a recent law requiring Zimbabwean businesses to be 51% indigenously owned.