Trade perspectives: Zimbabwe’s rocky road back to the global economy

Posted on August 7, 2018 by Alex lambeth

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At the time of writing, waves of violence and detentions have flared in Harare after the country’s first post-Mugabe elections, with the Movement for Democratic Change’s (MDC) Nelson Chamisa and the interim ZANU-PF President Emmerson Mnangagwa vying for leadership of the southern African country once famed as ‘The breadbasket of Africa’. Mnangagwa was victorious but only narrowly avoided a run-off with Chamisa, amidst claims of vote rigging from the MDC. It appears that substantial political tensions will remain, but will the election process prove enough for Zimbabwe to continue its journey back to the world of international trade and investment?

Since the end of the Mugabe-era last year, the interim Mnangagwa Government was working to rebuild Zimbabwe’s status in international trade and investment, particularly with regard to the once-famed agricultural sector, welcoming a number of international trade delegations. Before 2000, agricultural exports were responsible for as much as 15% of GDP and and 33% of export earnings; 70% of Zimbabweans’ earnings are dependent on the sector (World Bank). The Government has been proactively supporting the sector through the Command Agriculture and Command Livestock programmes, both largely funded with private sector partners. Command Agriculture, in essence an import substitution programme, has been controversial particularly with regards to timely repayments by beneficiaries.

Whilst individual programmes may prove problematic, it is at least encouraging that the Government, over the latter years of Mugabe-rule and the interim Mnangagwa presidency has proactively sought to support the development of sustainable agricultural industries after the crises of the 2000s. A recovering agriculture sector combined with a more welcoming business environment will be a vital in bringing Zimbabwean exports back to consumers and for attracting the international investment the market needs.

Zimbabwe is not just endowed with an environment that would support a vibrant agricultural sector but it is also rich in natural resources. The Chamber of Mines of Zimbabwe has predicted that in 2018 the mining sector will grow by 10% with the sector expected to be worth £30bn by 2030. In March the Government signed a $4.2 billion deal for a new platinum mine and refinery, a substantial boon for the administration.

As would be expected, particularly since the departure of Mugabe, much has been made of Zimbabwe’s potential in the press; throughout Mnangagwa’s interim presidency he declared the country ‘open for business’. However, the country needs to continue reforming to attract greater international investment and improve its situation with its international creditors. Positively, the complex indigenisation law, which proved such a barrier for international companies, was amended earlier this year with only the diamond and platinum sectors now requiring 51% local ownership. Even within these sectors there is some discretionary flexibility permitted. Whilst some sectors are officially reserved for local businesses the amendment also permits exemptions under special circumstances. The racial overtones of the original law have also been removed. This marks a substantial change in the law, which will operate in a vastly different way to the protectionist focus of the original.

Over recent months, it would seem that Zimbabwe has finally grasped the nettle and put economic development and engagement with the international community at the heart of policy making. However, the recent elections appear to be testing Zimbabwe’s nascent democratic structures to their limit. Whatever the coming months bring, the new administration will have to work hard to maintain momentum to ensure that Zimbabwe is genuinely open for business.


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