Editorial Comment: Chemical industry pushing ahead fast
The chemical industry is one of the basic building blocks of any industrial society, and often these industries convert minerals and other local resources into the required fertilisers and other chemical inputs that other essential industries need.
Zimbabwe needs a lot more fertiliser, as agricultural production rises and the population increases and so needs more food.
At the same time we need our water supplies cleaned, especially when we are looking at adding a lot more houses and flats that will need a decent water supply.
The general de-industrialisation and the switch to imports, that started during the hyper-inflationary era and was accelerated during dollarisation, not only stopped expansion of what we had, but also allowed some of the industrial base in the chemical industry to be eroded.
The Second Republic fixed the basic economic base and has been encouraging the necessary investment into factories, mines and other infrastructure that a flourishing chemical industry requires.
This reached another milestone this week when President Mnangagwa commissioned the new fertiliser blending plant built by Zimbabwe Phosphate Industries in eastern Harare that will produce 200 000 tonnes of basal fertilisers a year, about a half of present national demand.
Zimphos already has been pushing production at its phosphate mine, to mine more of one of the essential raw materials, and has been increasing output of others, so the new plant draws together a lot of the investments already made, and adds to these with the output of the final product that the farmers need.
Zimphos spent US$1,1 million on the new plant, but is adding another US$2,2 million investment in a granulation plant next month and has committed itself to another US$7,5 million in investments.
Since Zimbabwe has large phosphate deposits the company does not see why anything needing this particular mineral should be imported, when all that is needed is to do the required processing internally.
This sort of attitude makes sense. Some things we do need to import, but when it comes to turning a Zimbabwean rock into some product it is daft to turn an identical foreign rock into the same product. Often the lack of processing investment also means that both the mining jobs and the processing jobs are done by other people somewhere else.
The Ukraine conflict has shown up potential choke points in many value chains in the agricultural industries, both of grains and oil seeds and of the fertiliser and other inputs required.
Zimbabwe is already committed to pushing its agricultural production to ensure that we can cope without imports if necessary, and hopefully have some left over for export.
That also requires that we fix the fertiliser supply chains. The President brought up the final cost of these fertilisers.
Some have been rising in price because of scarcity, rather than manufacturing costs, and in any case when we import there is usually a large transport and shipping bill. Shipping fertiliser from Msasa will obviously cost less than shipping it from eastern Europe, so there is an immediate saving.
President Mnangagwa also noted when he commissioned the plant that farmers need to be careful when applying fertiliser. They need to apply the right amount. If they overdo it they just spend money unnecessarily.
The new plant is part of the expansion of Chemplex, the Zimphos owner, into the whole chemical industry and the commitment of required investment.
Another example is lime, a product needed by farmers and, in his hydrated form, as one of the major chemicals used in water purification.
It also has a raft of industrial uses. Large deposits have been found in Rushinga, and Chemplex is now planning a processing plant in that district to replace the large quantity of imports from Zambia and South Africa.
This will mean that two of the major chemicals used in water purification, aluminium sulphate and lime, can be supplied by Zimbabwe chemical processing companies, along with many of the minor chemicals used.
Once again we are converting our own minerals into required chemicals, and in a country such as Zimbabwe with very large mineral resources and a widespread of extractable minerals this makes sense.
Not only can we replace imports as we grow the industry, but in many cases we can go further and be an exporter. Phosphates, as one example, tend to be concentrated among a small number of producing countries, so there are markets.
Even more important these markets need to be developed as bags of finished products, rather than truckloads of raw materials, so the value of the processing, and the jobs created by that processing, remain in Zimbabwe.
The resurgence of Zimbabwean industry started very largely with the consumer end, the easiest bit to put back together and then expand.
The primary industries take longer for an investment to move from commitment to product, but now these are starting to come forth. We are seeing the chemical industries moving forward fast, with several products and plants in the pipeline.
In the chemical industry there is a lot of intense interest in the Muzarabani test wells for natural gas. This is one of the main missing raw materials in our chemical industry, and while natural gas will be a major energy source if the test drilling is successful, it will also be a prime raw material for a lot of other products, from ammonia onwards.
But even without that product, there are so many other raw materials that, as President Mnangagwa noted, the private sector can use as it expands our chemical industry and he was enthusiastic about the private sector climbing in and making the needed investments.