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Chinese-owned Farms Struggle to Help Improve Food Security in Zimbabwe

Josephine Ganye working in her wilting and stunted maize fields due to the unrelenting heat and poor rainfall in the drought prone Buhera on January 28, 2020. Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP

Strategic investments by the Chinese enterprises in Zimbabwe’s agriculture sector face mounting challenges that are scuttling plans to assist the southern African country’s erstwhile foothold as a net food producer. The Sino-Zim ventures were launched with the aim of assisting the southern African country’s struggling food security needs in a decade that punctuated by drought and international food aid appeals.

From erratic electricity supply that has plagued the country for years, to poor access to water due to successive long dry seasons that saw agencies such as the World Food Programme declaring a drought for the 2019-2020 season, these have combined to dent food production efforts by external players such as the Chinese.

Robert Mugabe “Looks East”

During the late President Robert Mugabe’s rule and his subsequent fallout with European and American development partners, the country turned to the Chinese under what was billed as the “Look East Policy” to help rebuild the broken economy with a special focus on agriculture which at one time was Zimbabwe’s major foreign currency earner.

This included government leasing farmland to the Chinese, and after Mugabe’s fall in 2017, such arrangements continued but the Chinese have found it difficult to boost food production against a litany of challenges.

As a result, Zimbabwe’s food reserves have for years remained precarious alongside investor capital flight, something President Emmerson Mnangagwa has sought to reverse to boost the production sectors.

Sino-Zim Agricultural Deal

A bilateral agreement that brought together Zimbabwe and the investment clout of China’s Anhui State Farms led to the formation of the Zim-China Wanjin Agricultural Development Company in 2010.

The agreement, where it is fronted by Zimbabwe’s military, saw the Chinese leasing seven farms from the government with a combined size of approximately 10,000 hectares for the production of food crops soya beans and the country’s staple maize, while also including export crops such as cotton and tobacco, once a major forex earner for the southern African country.

Ten years on, Zimbabwe’s food production and food security ambitions are still being tested. Last year, a former Wanjin official told private media that while the company had five farms in 2011, it has since reduced them to three, citing poor availability of water and electricity.

Emailed queries to the Zim-China Wanjin Company did not get any responses.

However in March of this year, Lands, Agriculture, Water and Rural Resettlement Minister Perrence Shiri noted that the country’s food production still left a lot to be desired, suggesting that the country should borrow ideas from China to transform food production.


Zimbabwe’s has promoted irrigation as the answer to agriculture production with the China Lesso Group pitching its irrigation and water conservation project to the government last year.

“They have taken note of the challenges we are facing in respect of power supply and they are proposing that we use solar power,” Minister Shiri said after meeting the Chinese team.

Irrigation in Zimbabwe is powered by massive consumption of electricity with farmers appealing to the power utility to ensure uninterrupted electricity supplies in farming areas. However, this has proved difficult as the country’s energy imports have for years been plagued by forex shortages.

It is these kinds of challenges that have plagued investors, according to experts, and have forced Zimbabwe along with other African countries to re-think their approach in how to manage complex economic and development partnerships.

“You should also bear in mind that the joint farms do not grow maize exclusively and perpetually; for both economic and rotational considerations. Much as the total maize production from such partnerships is significant, it is only a small proportion of the 1.8 million tons of maize the country needs to meet its annual needs,” said Langton Mukwereza, a Zimbabwean researcher who has contributed to the China and Brazil in Africa Project under the auspices of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA).

According to a Food and Agriculture Organization assessment, Zimbabwe produced just 900,000 tons of grain last year, against the country’s annual needs that stand at 1.8 million tons.

“In Zimbabwe, the footprint of Chinese and other external investors directly on the land will remain insignificant unlike the cases with other African countries which have vast tracks of unopened land,” he said.

“In such countries, it is feared that such partnerships could threaten long term strategic interests of host countries through skewed enterprise choice (emphasis on export crops to China at the expense of local considerations such as food security), threat to social harmony, and risk of increasing debt,” Mukwereza said in emailed responses.


Despite these challenges, researchers believe there are opportunities for the Chinese and others for mutually beneficial partnerships with African countries. Zimbabwe has in the past few years, for example, significantly boosted production of tobacco, a major export crop that has attracted tens of thousands of smallholder farmers and also the attention of the Chinese.

According to Andrew Matibiri, Chief Executive Officer of the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB), a government body, in a paper presented last year, “a record 145,725 farmers registered to grow tobacco resulting in a new record crop of 252 million kg in 2018.”

A woman wearing a face mask grades cured tobacco leaves at Tilisa farm in Bromley on April 15, 2020. Tobacco farmers fear the national lockdown measures could disrupt marketing of their crop which is Zimbabwe’s second-biggest foreign currency earner after gold. Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP

The farmers are drawn by Chinese investment in a sector where last year alone, one Chinese firm alone invested $50 million in tobacco contract farmers. However, Matibiri noted that “challenges that were faced in dealing with the resurgence of production included the large number of farmers, funding of production, compliance, need for increased training and extension services, deforestation, and lack of marketing skills.”

“Major Chinese investors in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector include Tian Ze (flue-cured tobacco) and China Africa Cotton. Both provide loans to farmers under contract farming arrangements to produce industrial export crops. Both pay farmers competitive prices and their investments bring in significant export earnings to Zimbabwe each year,” said Mukwereza.

The Long Term Outlook

Last month on the occasion of Zimbabwe’s 40th year of independence, the Chinese embassador to Zimbabwe Guo Shaochun expressed confidence in the long–term relations of the two countries, noting that “aid and cooperation must be result oriented and its results must be visible and truly serve the development of Zimbabwe and well-being of Zimbabwean people.”

As Zimbabwe’s agriculture continues to limp along, perhaps the ambassador’s message will serve as a tonic for the country’s food insecure population.

For Nelson Mudzingwa, the National Coordinator of Zimbabwe Small Holder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), the answer to the country’s food production needs lie in local solutions.

“Currently Zimbabwe has economic challenges that I feel our food production strategies should not be much of a burden but must consider local production methods first supported by a comprehensive agrarian reform policy framework where the academia, researchers, private sector and policy makers are supporting,” Mudzingwa said.

“Massive food production needs capital resources of which smallholder farmers should have access to without stringent conditions,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the combined efforts of the smallholders who form the bulk of maize producers, the Chinese and other external investors will see Zimbabwe get out of the woods both in the short and long term

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