French Ambassador to Zimbabwe Laurent Delahousse (LD) has stood out as an envoy seeking to mend relations with Zimbabwe through an active re-engagement process. He has come out strongly to say that he believes in efforts being made by this country to rejuvenate the economy and speaks passionately about the Zim-Asset economic blueprint. A chat I (VR) had with him recently was quite revealing. The French are in this country for the long haul.
VR: You appear to be on a positive path in terms your engagements with Zimbabwe. What is motivating this?
LD: To re-engage with Zimbabwe is very good. There was a tendency to just engage with the East but Government has understood that it needs partners everywhere.
You must have partners everywhere because some of your friends may be unable to help in some cases. In fact, Government decisions on some issues are right.
VR: Such as?
LD: The way in which the Ministry of Finance is re-engaging creditors. This is paving way for international financing. For instance, at the moment the World Bank and even the French government cannot lend money (to Zimbabwe) simply because we are owed, so when someone owes you, you can’t give them more. But we have started a positive cycle of re-engagement.
VR: So from what you are saying are you happy with current initiatives and the obtaining environment?
LD: There is still a lot to be done. The indigenisation law needs to be more flexible and understandable.
Government also needs to understand that before land reforms some farms were acquired independently and not taken by colonialists.
These are investments made by people or individuals and cannot be taken without compensation. This is not good for foreign investment. We need to respect property rights and compensate.
VR: From your perspective, are these some of the reasons why Zimbabwe ranks poorly as an investment destination and yet the country is only trying to correct past wrongs?
LD: It’s not only about taking back land. As I said, the need to respect property rights is critical. In fact, Zimbabwe has now improved greatly in terms of policy consistency.
You have your Zim-Asset blueprint. Everything in that document has been well received.
VR: So you see it as panacea to Zimbabwe’s present challenges?
LD: It needs a strategy for implementation. It’s very beautiful and nice but there is a time when you need money to work on it. You need money and I understand that is what they are working on but in terms of policy consistency there are some issues that are very touchy in respect of politics.
The freeze of civil servants salaries was well received but a week later (we learnt this was not the case), so it was a bit confusing.
There should be co-ordination before announcing some of these measures. In fact, it’s not policy inconsistency but more a problem of the way in which the business of government is conducted in this country.
But overall there is a lot of consistency in re-engagement and a desire to improve the way in which things are done. The economic policy is certainly in line with reality.
LD: Zim-Asset is a good strategy which makes a good analysis of the situation in the economy but it’s not financed.
VR: From your perspective how best can the programme be financed locally?
LD: The Ministry of Finance needs to increase tax input. There must certainly be a lot of tax evasion. Number two is to have the tax base widened. More and more are people going into the informal sector.
It is important to restore growth and to restore growth you have to take economic decisions that will bring confidence. If on one hand one takes farms from investors and on the other hand you want investors to come . . . it can’t work.
VR: What will work then?
LD: There is a lot of waste. A lot of agriculture areas where we had profitable farming activities but today there is nothing. There is a lot to be done to restore the agricultural sector. All that is linked to bringing revenue which will then generate tax revenue for investment.
VR: How do you respond to efforts being undertaken to address challenges associated with some of the issues you are raising?
LD: Indeed, we note efforts being made as I said earlier. For example, the land audit is a necessary step to identify how much land is under good use and what is not.
The land audit also needs to be an instrument that brings legal security and help to promote economic efficiency. Agriculture is a very modern economic activity and it needs a lot of funding.
VR: Taking you back to re-engagement effort. If France is happy with the re-engagement and Zimbabwe’s effort to repay its dues, what are you putting on the table for Zimbabwe?
LD: We are putting the assets of those French companies that would want to do business here.
Many companies from France are coming, for example Limagrain which is negotiating for a stake in Seed Co for 60 million euros.
This deal will improve the quality of seed, provide equipment and technology that investment will bring in better seeds, and more confidence so that money can come from private companies.
When the time is right, the French Development Agency can start to bring in loans and development funds for Zimbabwe.
There is a lot of infrastructure which needs to be rehabilitated that can’t be done through private financing.
For example, a project such as the Batoka Gorge will necessitate loans from the World Bank. At the moment nobody can finance that. International support is required and France will take its part.
Another example is the $10 million secured for NMB and CABS to finance small businesses at an interest rate which is much lower than market rates.
Twice cheaper or three times cheaper. Propaco also supports Econet – helping develop its network. So we are supporting Zimbabwe’s economy. Also the kind of support from France is exactly what I am doing here, political support.
The attitude is changing. There is less and less of seeing the negative only. There is now focus to see the good also.
VR: The future is bright then?
LD: It’s not an easy thing but we are very keen. We just want to be sure of where we are going. Everyone has understood the merits of re-engagement.
Companies will invest if they are sure of Government policy so step by step it’s a progressive approach.
I have a passion for the people of this country. The kindness and openness of the people of Zimbabwe and their skills and crafts. If you have such quality people, with resources, then you have a good foundation.
VR: So is France in it for the long haul?
LD: The French government and companies are always in for the long haul.
This is something I have been insisting in the last few months like what I said recently (during the visit by the French Ambassador), French companies are not here for deals to sign short-term deals, shady or negative deals.
They are interested in clever, win-win long-term business relationships not short term. They are not hit-and-run ventures.
That is why negotiations take long. For example, the Seed Co deal has taken one year because it a serious and long-term venture.
Zimbabwean business people know that when they have an experience with French companies it’s for 20 years or 30 years.
Firms such as Total or Lafarge are in it for the long term. This is the approach by French companies. They are more prudent but it can be a bit complicated.
VR: So how many French companies are operating in this country presently?
LD: There are 10 big companies with an office here and much more than that doing business with Zimbabwe.
Some of these are also thinking of creating offices here to have a stronger presence. I am aware of two prospects to open up direct presence in Zimbabwe soon.
Others are looking for investment opportunities or contracts so we will have new investments soon.
VR: What has come out of the last two business visits here by French companies?
LD: One company Biloveritas started negotiations before the visit in January and they signed an agreement when they came. Two or three other companies are looking at contracts in Zimbabwe.
They have opened negotiations with ministries or private companies but these have not yet been finalised because it takes time. There is time for business. Sometimes it goes quicker but sometimes slower. At least one of the companies that came in January said it came because they had heard me make a presentation in Parliament.
I did a presentation to French companies telling them what needs to be done in Zimbabwe and for them to not just look for bad things but to see opportunities.
VR: So that is paying off?
LD: Indeed, given developments that I have mentioned, we will see more activity.
VR: Thank you for your time. Your parting shot?
LD: Clearly what is needed in Zimbabwe is less talk and move delivery. For the Government it’s less seminars and more actual work and when you negotiate a MOU the signature should be done in two weeks and not in two months.