Presently, partly cloudy but the dark clouds are beginning to disperse and drift away.
Outlook: clear weather in days ahead.
That could have come from the weathermen from a meteorological office but it pretty well sums up outgoing French Ambassador to Zimbabwe Laurent Delahousse’s forecast of direction political and economic relations between the two countries going forward as Paris’ top man’s tour of duty in Harare comes to an end next month.
“Our relations, both political and economic, have improved in the last couple of years,” he told The Afronews last week. “And, we have always had a very vibrant cultural presence in the Bulawayo and Harare offices of the Alliance Francaise.”
It may seem overly optimistic for a key member of the European Union to pronounce blue skies ahead and wonderful sunshine for a country that only as recently as a couple of seasons back was a target of political vitriol and “economic sanctions” by the same western bloc.
But France’s Delahousse, who arrived in Harare in July 2013, and saw what diplomats are supposed to see and hear, is convinced Zimbabwe deserves a positive assessment.
How times have changed.
“I think the time is ripe for doing business in Zimbabwe,” he said during the 20-minute long telephone interview.
During his term, political relations have thawed with trade showing positive traction than in the preceding decade.
“I think the future is bright, especially after what happened in the last decade and half,” he said , referring to the political fall-out between Zimbabwe and its former colonial master Britain that dragged in the EU and their western allies including the United States, leading to the imposition of economic sanctions on the southern African country.
Delahousse admitted that though France had no direct colonial interest or reason to politically interfer in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs, “we are a part of the EU and are bound by EU guidelines”.
“After 2002, there was really no development cooperation between government and the EU until after the 2013 elections when we reviewed our strategy and decided to remove these sanctions,” he explained.
“The aim is to normalise relations . . . and move on,” he said, adding that despite a few clouds here and there especially with regards to a constrained democratic space and related matters, there was need to look at the whole picture.
The experienced diplomat is credited with initiating the re-engagement and rapprochement between Zimbabwe and the EU, which has witnessed progress on several fronts.
The economic sanctions denied Zimbabwe access to concessionary loans and lines of credit from international financial institutions as well as a shut-out for some of its exports, putting massive pressure on the economy with devastating impact on the country’s population, “and sadly, not on the 80 or so on that list”, the diplomat said.
Since 2000 when Zimbabwe embarked on its land reform to correct a colonial and racial land ownership structure skewed in favour of former white commercial farmers – mostly of British stock, with a sprinkling Dutch, German and one or two French farmers, relations between Zimbabwe and its “traditional trading partners went awry”, leading to unprecedented massive capital flight as well as political ostracisation.
The outgoing ambassador admitted a review in strategy.
“These sanctions have been removed and only two people remain – the President and the First Lady and one company (Zimbabwe Defence Industries) – remain on the list,” he said, adding: “It\s time to move on in a spirit of mutual respect.”
Delahousse believes and reiterated Zimbabwe is now ready and open for business, echoing calls by Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Minister of Finance Patrick Chinamasa that the county is working all out on reforming the investment climate and ease of ding business.
As part of the rapprochement and to grow relations with the EU, World Bank as well as the International Monetary Fund, Chinamasa was invited to Paris and London – a visit widely seen as a significant step in the process – as he became the most important official in government to visit the EU since 2000.
Delahousse said the minister had a chance to exchange views with the Paris Club of creditors, with full engagement expected once Zimbabwe has dealt with other multilateral creditors.
“The public pronouncements by the top and key government officials is very encouraging and an important step that has given foreign investors from East or West a new sense of optimism,” he said, explaining that such statements are likely to trigger investor interest.
The ambassador noted Zimbabwe had all the basic infrastructure “that only needs modernising, and that is what we are telling all those seeking information on investment opportunities here,” he said.
Although bilateral trade between France and Zimbabwe is still very low, this is poised to change for the better, believes Delahousse.”Zimbabwe exports mostly crocodile skins to France for the lucrative high street market,” he said.
According to the International Trade Centre, France only receives around 3,5 percent of Zimbabwe exports while on its part Zimbabwe imports traditional luxury items like jewellery, clothing as well as wines, whiskeys and spirits.
“When I came here three years ago, we (France) had only about seven or so companies here, but now these have grown to around 20!” he said with a note of pride.
French ambassador to Zimbabwe Laurent Delahousee said there was a huge appetite for Zimbabwe among companies in France.
“Although the value is still small, everything points to a growth trajectory as there is a queue of French companies making inquiries and ready to come to the party – like Lesaffre.
Lesaffre, a French firm that is the world leader in the manufacture of yeast and fermentation products, recently acquired a 60 percent stake at the Gweru-based Anchor Yeast, Zimbabwe’s sole manufacturer and distributor of yeast and related products.
A Lesaffre representative said through the joint venture, his company would inject $3,5 million into Anchor Yeast to refurbish its factory while both partners are injecting $14 million into the business.
Plans are also underway to establish a school for bakers and to provide services and training for bakers next year.
“The real assets of Zimbabwe are the knowledge and know-how of the citizens. We know there are a lot of things to fix, a lot of issues but I am amazed by the quality of education and knowledge of the people,” said the official.
Delahousse was delighted with the investments by French companies.
“This is a good test case for foreign investors,” he noted “The issue of indigenization is has been misunderstood and blown out of oroportion,” he noted.
French companies, said the ambassador, are not looking at “cash and run” investments but are in for the long haul, up to 20 or 30 years.”
Most French companies, in fact, international entities with individual budgets bigger than Zimbabwe,’s” he said, explaining that their presence is a show of confidence.
According to the Deposit Protection Corporation, an unnamed French investor is also expected to inject around $20 million into MicroKing Finance this month. MicroKing is a subsidiary of AfrAsia Zimbabwe Holdings Limited owned by Mauritius-based AfrAsia Bank (ABL) Limited which has since exited the country and is now disposing of its remaining assets.
Last year, a local renewable energy firm, Samansco signed an exclusive distribution agreement with a French energy company, Schneider Electric and this will help boost its revenue to over $10 million in the next two years.
Delahousse said the return of Schneider Electric to the country was “testimony to the hope and confidence that French companies have in Zimbabwe.” Schneider Electric has a presence in over 100 countries and employs 160 000 people.
In 2013, Limagrain through its French subsidiary Vilmorin & Cie, acquired a controlling stake in the country’s biggest seed producer, SeedCo.
French cement maker, Lafarge has also invested millions of dollars into its business in Zimbabwe while the multinational corporation Total has franchises in the country. Total has been in the country for close to 40 years.
In 2015, French investments to Zimbabwe amounted to over US$80 million.
French companies that have footprints in Zimbabwe include Lafarge, Total, Vinci, Samrec Imerys, Bureau Veritas, SeedCo and Limagrain. Motech and Motul, AGS Frasers, Gyproc and Saint Gobain, Anchor Yeast and Lesaffre and Meteo France International and Sanofi.
On why some countries or companies are still a bit gun-shy on responding to the change in the investment climate blowing in the country, Delahousse said he felt a sense that although they obviously see Zimbabwe as an opportunity and a good investment destination, “they are just being cautious in their vdecision-making . . . and different companies look at different things”.
“There is a lot interest for Zimbabwe by the French private sector as well as by the French government,” he said. “I am a believer in the future of this country and with our team we have been doing and contributing for this dream to become true.”
On Zimbabwe’s part, he urged the country needed to do more in having policy consistency, improve ease of doing business, act on corporate governance and improve transparency on natural resource management.
“The only way to weather the and clear the lingering doubts of negative perceptions,” he underlined, , “is to create a more democratic space for citizens, properly manage and account for natural resources to leverage on the wonderful weather and basic infrastructure and skills competences.”
It may not seem the best of times but for Delahousse, who is on his way to the small Great Lakes nation of Burundi at the end of September, for his next diplomatic tour of duty, it’s Zimbabwe’s time.
French companies have seen blue skies ahead over Zimbabwe and are staking their place in the sun.
By Patrick Musira