Thursday, 8 May 2014

Diaspora direct investment: funding farming in Zimbabwe

Breaking out of the rut of donor or government dependence in development has long been a mantra, but how to do it? Of course remittances provide huge resources but these tend to be channelled to support individuals and households rather than collective investments. How to mobilise funds at a wider scale for broader projects is a challenge.

A new initiative is trying to do this, focusing on farming projects in Matabeleland. Mobilising the resources of Zimbabweans and others in the diaspora is the aim. The project is run from an organisation called 'The Global Native' based in Leeds in the UK. It has partnerships in Zimbabwe with Foundations for Farming that supports conservation agriculture, and a business venture focused on a tomato canning plant.

They are urging people to invest in 'community shares' that offer a 5% return. These funds are being put towards capital investment, notably trucks for transport. The overall narrative is that supporting farmers – turning Matabeleland green – is an important development investment that can bring sufficient returns for savers in the diaspora, at the same time as them gaining better links with their home and contributed to much-needed development in a neglected part of the country.

The initiative is linked to various church groups, NGOs as well as private businesses in Zimbabwe, including a game ranching operation and a provident society. A new network is being created between local farm businesses and the diaspora in towns such as Leeds. Fundraising events are being held in the UK to support the effort.

I cannot vouch for the initiative, nor for the projects that the organisation is involved in. I have expressed my doubts about the gardening technique 'conservation agriculture' on anything but the smallest plots before on this blog. It is unlikely to produce the type of agricultural transformation that is claimed, although may be useful for certain people with small garden areas that can benefit for labour based intensification. Equally the expansion of greenhouses for tomato production in Matabeleland at the scale envisaged may be a long-shot, given the challenges with this sort of horticulture, and its marketing.

But my interest was sparked less by the projects themselves but the overall vision of raising finance for wider development activities. There has been a tradition of 'diaspora direct investment' in Latin America, and the home town associations of West Africa, and indeed many other parts of the world, are well known sources of development finance. Zimbabwe's rural economies have long been supported by remittances, increasingly from diaspora sources. During the crisis period, diaspora financial flows to Zimbabwe amounted to around $900m per annum. This continues, but is shifting to a wider array of investments. As part of the 'long haul' to recovery that the excellent recent Chatham House report outlines, diaspora remittance and investment flows are going to be crucial.

In Zimbabwe because of the different relationships between the diaspora and those in Zimbabwe, and the shorter time these interactions have evolved, these sort of interactions are not so common. More frequent have been the usual Western Union mediated remittance flows to elderly relatives or for the payment of school fees, the purchase of fertiliser and seeds or the buying of animals. Alternatively support has existed for opposition groups and other political activism, but wider collective development has not been a big theme.

Perhaps this initiative signals a change, involving both the maturing of the diaspora community, and a recognition that the relationship with Zimbabwe must shift to a longer term local developmental investment rather than the expectation that political change will deliver this. And of course as time passes, the diaspora communities have a different age profile (see some of the excellent 'diaspora studies' focusing on Zimbabwe, for example here and here). Some of those in their twenties involved in the Leeds-based group were small kids when they left Zimbabwe, and their experiences and associations are more in the UK than 'home'. They thus link with others from the UK and other diaspora communities in churches, community groups and UK-based development charities to work on such efforts.

For Zimbabwe such initiatives may offer a next generation alternative after the crisis and isolation of the 2000s, and the aid and state dependence of the post-Independence period.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland