Zimbabwe: Ethanol Project - the Other Side of the Story

Photo: Capital FM
Filling the tank.

DESPITE the controversy rocking the Chisumbanje ethanol project since its re-opening early this year, a tour of Chisumbanje in its sun-bathed environs presents a picture of resurgence and hope for future bright prospects among the rural communities there.

The Zimbabwe Independent news crew visited the ethanol project last month and this week to observe what is happening on the ground following a heated debate about the controversial investment.

The project is located in Dowoyo communal lands on the eastern bank of the Save River, about 100 km south of Birchenough Bridge on the Birchenough-Chiredzi road, in the Chisumbanje area, Chipinge district in Manicaland province.

Consisting of sugarcane plantations in Chisumbanje and Middle Sabi, the project, being spearheaded by a consortium of local investors led by controversial tycoon Billy Rautenbach in partnership with the government's Agriculture and Rural Development Authority (Arda), is said to be one of Africa's largest such investments.

Those who support the investment say it is a significant national project of great strategic importance as it is envisaged US$600 million would eventually be ploughed into it creating about 8 000 jobs at its peak.

It will enable Zimbabwe, which has no oilfields, to produce its own fuel and reduce its fuel import bill at a time when the country is reeling from a serious liquidity crunch. They also say the project has created jobs for hundreds of people and will help in boosting government's revenues as the company will pay lots of taxes when it starts operating full throttle.

Advocates of the projects also note there will be a lot of downstream industries and benefits, for instance, support for new black sugarcane farmers who have ventured into the area following the land reform programme.

Overall, they argue, it will boost economic prospects of the country which desperately needs new and sustainable investments.

However, critics of the project argue government cannot make policy to suit and serve the interests of one private company while creating a captive market for it as that will go against the grain of preventing monopolies and allowing customers to have freedom of choice in what fuel to buy due to the mandatory blending of ethanol and petrol.

Critics argue that while it is true that the project will ensure investment and create jobs as well as add value to the economy, the interests of those who will directly benefit from it and other stakeholders need to be put in a basket of competing interests and a choice and policy framework be made in the interests of economic progress and public good.

However, a visit to Chisumbanje revealed a lot of people down there want and support the project which has brought hope to the arid and out-of-the-way region where government, since 1980, failed to bring development.

Apart from historical issues, Chipinge has always been one of the hotbeds of opposition politics, partly because people there feel marginalised from mainstream economic development.

From the vibrant chatter at Checheche Business Centre in Chisumbanje where banks, general dealers and housing projects are mushrooming at a rapid pace, down to the lush green fields of sugarcane, maize and beans, the locals' refrain is joyous and optimistic: "Tapona isu neMacdom (Macdom has saved us)."

Macdom, along with Ratings, are two companies set up by Rautenbach to invest in sugarcane growing in partnership with Arda. To ordinary villagers, the intricacies of the ongoing arguments about the revival of ethanol production and the storm it has brewed through mandatory blending amid motorists' concerns about the efficiency of the product and its impact on their vehicles from a technical and engineering point of view, do not matter at all.

Motorists are questioning why they are not being given a choice to buy the fuel they want, especially given concerns being raised by some car manufacturers and assemblers such as Nissan that their vehicles can only accommodate a maximum of E10. E10 has 10% ethanol and 90% unleaded petrol.

In Chisumbanje, however, the project is largely seen from a self-interest standpoint: It is godsend and has given the poor and suffering villagers a lifeline through jobs and associated incomes.

The most important benefit to ordinary villagers is that the irrigation facilities associated with the project have given them a rare opportunity to harvest, not just once -- as is the norm with most of the country's farmers -- but three times a year, thereby ensuring food security.

The project has also strengthened family ties, most of which were broken because of migration by a large number of male adults to the cities and South Africa in search of jobs. That a lot people from Chipinge work in South Africa was clear, not just from what villagers say, but due to the presence there of a lot of cars with South African registration plates.

During the tour, the Independent came across George Chinyamukwakwa (42), his wife Elizabeth Makuyana (28), their two sons Lovemore and Robert, harvesting their maize crop. They were working together in their field, an increasingly rare phenomenon in a Zimbabwe whose high unemployment levels have driven many across the borders in search of the proverbial greener pastures while tearing families apart.

In June last year ,while making a submission to former deputy prime minister Arthur Mutambara's inter-ministerial team tasked to map the way forward in the aftermath of the closure of the ethanol plant, one woman painted a graphic picture of the destruction of the family unit as men left their homes in search of jobs in South Africa.

"There are no families to talk about because the unemployment here drives our husbands and sons to South Africa," the woman bemoaned. "Bring it (the ethanol plant) back so our husbands can work here. Our families are being ravaged by the Aids pandemic as many of our people only return in body bags."

Fast-forward to last week when Chinyamukwakwa, along with his wife and children were working their field -- an incarnation of the family scenario many are hoping the re-opening of the plant would bring back to Chisumbanje.

"Tapona isu neMacdom," says Chinyamukwakwa, "tinorima katatu pagore tichikohwa chibage, beans nematamatisi (we till the land three times a year and harvest maize, beans and tomatoes)".

His tattered black T-shirt with the inscription "South Africa World Cup 2010" tells its own story of a man who has found the going tough in that fabled land of gold and came back when the project offered a lifeline through irrigated plots measuring 0,5 hectares for each household.

To date over 1 000 households have been accommodated into irrigation plots on the two irrigation sites developed for Chinyamukwakwa and Chisumbanje villages.

More families are set to benefit as the project expands. Its vision is to establish four ethanol manufacturing plants from 46 000 hectares of sugarcane, with an annual capacity of 1,5 billion litres to meet Zimbabwe's domestic requirements and export the balance to regional markets while co-generating 120 megawatts of electricity.

Green Fuel also aims to place 8 000 rural households from Chipinge under small-scale irrigation horticulture instead of the current dry land farming.

It has vowed to do its part to keep the family units intact.

Company workers are picked up from their homes by 13 hired buses and many other commuter omnibuses in a sustained campaign against the "compoundification" of workers.

"We pick them up from their homes instead of setting them up in compounds because we want them to work and go back home to take care of their families," says Lilian Muungani, the company's spokesperson. "It is a revolutionary approach to labour relations which will prevent some of the ills that come with separating workers from their families."

And it is not just such individual households like the Chinyamukwakwa families who are benefitting as even Checheche Growth Point has come alive with housing construction and service industries.

Major investments are taking place at Checheche Growth Point with several top banks, retail outlets and other big companies opening branches. Financial institutions like ZB, CBZ, Agribank and BancABC have all opened branches. National Foods has opened a depot as have Fawcett Security and Moonlight Funeral Services, tapping into the reported US$2 million which flows into the local economy directly and indirectly as a result of the ethanol project.

The Chisumbanje initiative of community development is in tandem with progress also being made by mining companies in other parts of the country. Platinum mining company Zimplats has built schools, roads as well as a place called Turf Village in Ngezi at cost of US$85 million. The place has shopping facilities and about 2 000 housing units for their workers.

Mimosa has partially lifted the gloom following the closure of Shabanie Mine by building a complex to house its workers along the Zvishavane-Gweru road in addition to sponsoring FC Platinum which has quickly risen to become one of the top soccer teams in the country.

However, there are concerns that diamond mining companies in Marange in Manicaland have not done enough by way of corporate social responsibility. They have been criticised for failing to adequately compensate families who have been relocated from Chiadzwa to make way for the mining operations. According to a parliamentary portfolio report, the companies have also reneged on promises to build enough houses for the affected families.

But in Chisumbanje villagers say the ethanol project has brought relief to them and is a model of what should be done to take the country forward, a sentiment fiercely opposed by some, mainly in towns and cities.

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