Can joint ventures and sub-letting unleash Zimbabwe’s agricultural potential?

The under-performance of parts of Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector continues. This mostly applies to large estates and some medium-scale farms that were reallocated under the fast-track land reform as A2 resettlement farms. Last year, as part of the economic reform agenda, the government has responded by approving measures that allow joint ventures (JVs) and sub-letting with the hope that this will encourage investment, foster skills, increase mechanisation and release finance for improving productivity.

A useful paper by Prosper Matondi of Ruzivo Trust came out recently that discusses the issues. Building on past practices of tenancy arrangements in large-scale commercial farms, ever since land reform, joint ventures with external investors, former white large-scale commercial farmers and others has been on-going, but frequently very much under-the-radar. Former president, Robert Mugabe, was very much against the idea, fearing that such arrangements would reverse the gains of land reform, allowing former farmers back onto the land. Selective agreements were made, notably with Chinese investors in tobacco, but otherwise deals had to be struck informally or at a local level with district approval but without wider publicity.

JVs on state farms: state assets for private gain?

In 2014, with state farms in crisis, the Agricultural Rural Development Authority (ARDA) was encouraged to lease out its land to private investors and broker joint ventures on all parastatal-held land. This now involves 24 farms across the country, all of which are now running as commercial ventures, with a variety of investors, based on 5-20 year partnership arrangements. The transparency of such deals has left much to be desired, however, and state assets have been deployed for private gain, with some particular firms, such as Trek Petroleum (which Trafigura/Sakunda has a stake in), having powerful political backers. This was a hidden land ‘reform’ on a large scale, and while hailed as a route to recapitalisation of state farms can also be seen a source of elite capture.

An earlier blog discussed this move, raising questions as to whether this is the appropriate use of parastatal resources and capacity. New public-private initiatives around strategic investments in sugar for biofuel are proposed for the areas around the new Tugwi Mukose dam in Masvingo province. This follows on from the Chisumbanje deal in the Save valley, involving the notorious ZANU-PF supporter, Billy Rautenbach, whose Green Fuels company took over around 10,000 hectares of ARDA land for a mix of estate and outgrower production of cane in 2009.

Partnership farming in land reform areas: boosting production on A2 farms

Perhaps more interesting than these large-scale state transfers, often to well-connected companies, are the smaller deals that can now unfold with land reform beneficiaries on resettlement land. While the Ruzivo paper notes correctly that the new arrangements open up opportunities for joint ventures or sub-leases on any type of land, this is most likely to happen on A2 land, as A1 smallholder areas are well utilised and often highly productive. It is in the A2 areas where investment has been lacking and there is a dire need for recapitalisation. To date, the lack of financing has been the major constraint to success in most A2 farms without external sources of capital.

Existing JVs show the potentials. In our study areas in Mvurwi, we have been following a number of arrangements, including six involving Chinese investments and several involving local investors. Chinese investors have usually come through the Chinese tobacco contracting company, Tianze, that operates widely in the area, or have made deals with banks who have taken control of properties due to non-payment of loans. They have clear contractual arrangements, usually over 20 years or more, for full management of the farm, including taking over all property, the workforce and so on. A wholly new operation is established, often with significant new investment in irrigation (centre pivots), mechanisation (tractors etc.) and processing facilities (rocket barns).

Very often they are employing consultants and farm managers who have worked in the tobacco industry for years to assist them, as the companies investing are often Chinese provincial companies with diverse portfolios often not involving tobacco. While the financial performance of such operations is of course not known, many comment that the prospect of turning a profit is remote in the initial period, and investors need deep pockets. Chinese company officials working on such farms comment that the business conditions in Zimbabwe are so bad that they wonder if they will survive, and some are diversifying into mining and other operations to spread risk.

Such JVs contrast with those established more informally, often involving a former white farmer or an urban business person going into partnership with an existing A2 land reform farmer. The farmer may still be resident and farm some of the area, in line with their means, while the investor takes over the larger portion of the land. When relationships are good and trust is built up, these seem to work well. They are still few and far between, but the potentials are significant, as many farms have spare land which could easily be sub-let. As noted on this blog before, there is much debate in Zimbabwe about the ‘under-utilisation’ of land, and certainly joint ventures can help reduce this, increasing capacity. However, contrary to the Ruzivo paper, which generally paints a rather dismal picture of post-land reform areas, there is certainly not as much as 60% of land available for use across A1 and A2 resettlement areas.

Another JV mentioned in the paper, but not seen so prominently in the areas we work, is seasonal short-term land sub-letting for a particular crop. Here, land across many farms is let for – say maize – and the company is in charge of inputs, marketing and providing equipment. This returns some of the scale advantages of large-scale farming but distributes risk across multiple producers, much as does contract farming, now familiar in cotton, tobacco and some other commodities. This may have potential for some crops in some places (mostly likely where there are large concentrations of A2 farms), but the management and logistics of operating multiple contracts over many farms is considerable, and current conditions certainly would make this a very difficult business proposition.

Navigating bureaucracy: practical risks of JVs

Perhaps the most interesting part of the paper for me was the discussion of the risk of joint ventures. You can see the economic rationale clearly. One party has an asset (land) and the other has another asset (finance – and/or skill, equipment etc.) and it seems like a win-win. Until you try and get the arrangement formalised that is. A neat diagram in the paper (Figure 2.1, page 7; see below) encapsulates the challenges, and multiple risks, involved in negotiating a joint venture. The complex bureaucracy of land administration, across national and district scales, combined with the multiple legal frameworks (discussed at length in the paper) make the prospect daunting to say the least. No wonder Chinese investors have gone to powerful individuals and negotiated directly, while other arrangements have remained hidden and informal.

If JVs are to be a feature of Zimbabwe’s agricultural landscape, building an administrative system fit for purpose and, through this, building trust that it can work efficiently, and without the risk of sudden reversals and political interference, is vital. The government can go on and on about the importance of ‘unlocking value’ and ‘facilitating investment’, but unless the system is easy to navigate and is transparent and accountable, then many will continue to shy away, and the opportunities to invest in agriculture will remain on paper, but seldom realised in practice.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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