Zimbabwe: The Russian Billionaire in Zimbabwe for Fertiliser Deals

7 February 2018

Stepping off his private plane in Harare on Tuesday night, in white shirt and blue jeans, billionaire Dmitry Mazepin represents both the hope and fear under President Emmerson Mnangagwa's "open for business" crusade.

Mazepin is one of Russia's richest businessmen - Forbes puts his worth at $3.2 billion, but various Russian newspapers value his wealth at up to $7.7 billion. Forbes places him in the Top 100 of richest Russians.

Mazepin has made his fortune in the fertiliser business, through his company Uralchem, which is the world's second-largest manufacturer of ammonium nitrate. In 2013, he bought into Uralkali, the world's largest miner of potash, used in the manufacture of fertiliser. Uralkali is worth $15 billion, by some accounts.

This week, Mazepin arrived in Zimbabwe and plans to invest in the country's 500,000 tonne per year fertiliser business, according to officials. Mazepin was among those that attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, where Mnangagwa made a pitch for international investment in Zimbabwe. It is unclear if the two met.

Mazepin is a graduate of the Minsk Suvorov Military School and has served as an MP in President Vladmir Putin's United Russia party. He started building his fortune in 2004, when he forged Uralchem from a string of companies that he had acquired in a series of often controversial takeovers.

He is well connected in the financial world. He has had the support of Russia's top lenders, such as Sberbank, VTB and Renaissance Capital, the last two of which have done business in Zimbabwe.

Uralchem seems a godsend for Zimbabwe, which is desperate to solve perennial fertiliser shortages. The country has had to rely on imports, the last of which were funded through a facility from Afreximbank, to meet demand. The country has just one ammonium nitrate producer, Sable Chemicals, which can only supply a quarter of demand, according to its chief executive Bothwell Nyajeka.

That a company the size of Uralchem is looking at Zimbabwe for investment is therefore reason for hope that Mnangagwa's pro-business drive is working. However, the scary part is that Mazepin has been accused of ruthless business practices and cutting corners in other markets. In the rush to welcome foreign money, how much should that be a concern to Zimbabwe?

In 2016, Mazepin was accused of "a raider attack," a business move in which a minority shareholder works from the inside to devalue a company and buy it on the cheap. Mazepin was accused of trying to bring down a fertiliser firm, TOAZ, which holds 20 percent of the global ammonia market. Past reports also point to Mazepin's conflicts at Russian gas firm Gazprom and other brutal takeovers.

It is not a coincidence that a Russian fertiliser billionaire is arriving in the country just as Zimbabwe has put its key fertiliser operation, Chemplex, up for sale.

Chemplex, a unit of the Industrial Development Corporation, owns the companies that are at the centre of the fertiliser business; Chemplex owns half of the Zimbabwe Fertiliser Company, 36% of Sable Chemicals (some reports have suggested that Masawara's Shingi Mutasa now controls 90 percent of the company) and wholly owns ZimPhos and Dorowa Minerals. Dorowa Minerals is the country's only phosphate mine.

In a notice last week, the IDC said it was looking for a new investor for Chemplex.

"The investor is expected to inject additional capital into the business, bring in new technology and access to wider markets for the business," said IDCZ.

An offer to Mazepin to take over Chemplex is on the cards. Chemplex is already also in the sights of Robert Gumede, a South African businessman, and also those of South Africa's IDC.

Amid all the hopes brought by Mnangagwa's open-door policy for investors, there will be many questions over the types of investors Zimbabwe is attracting. There will be fears that an over eager Zimbabwe might end up with investing partners that it may find hard to deal with eventually.

However, in this rare window of international goodwill that the country is enjoying, Zimbabwe barely has the luxury to wait and pick and choose.

"The country will go with those brave enough to step up now. But we will obviously do our homework and due diligence, to make sure we get the best deals out of those making themselves available," a senior Government official involved in the Mazepin visit told The Source on Wednesday.

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