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THE smell is overpowering.

It knocks you back almost half a km before reaching its source, a clearing in the bush seething with prehistoric life. It is a combination of decay, faecal matter and ammonia.

Scores of workers here perform a myriad of tasks not pausing to contemplate the overpowering stench. They have no choice because the source of the acrid smell is the reason for them being at Nuanetsi.

Piet Rautenbach or Baba James — a Karoi rancher — is the boss here. His well-appointed office does not escape the stench. He lives it.

It is his lifeblood. He soon takes us to a large warehouse, the largest sauna I have ever seen. For the 10 minutes we stood in the hot humid room, four baby crocodiles, almost a foot long are helped out of eggs by bare hands which have over time been schooled to tell which egg to hatch and which one to discard. The process is a full-time vocation played out throughout the day.

The hatched crocs are placed in a plastic dish before being transported to another section to be examined, weighed and given a thorough medical. There are personnel waiting to hand-feed them before they are placed in pens where for three years they are put on a special diet of meat, carrion, fish and grain before they are harvested for their skins.

Rautenbach explains that there are about 60 000 crocodiles in the project and there should be about 100 000 by year-end. This is an orderly operation which at full capacity should yield 200 000 skins a year for export.

“Everything is recorded here, the costs of the feed and the amount we feed to each croc is weighed so that at the end we see if we are making money,” he said. It will cost roughly US$180 to raise a single croc whose skin will fetch between US$200 and US$300 in markets in Southeast Asia. Multiply that by 100 000 and potential revenue of US$30 000 000 is forecast.

Piet is the younger brother of controversial mining magnate Billy whose name is often mentioned in the same breath with Zimbabwe’s top political leadership. He arrived towards the end of last year in Nuanetsi with a group of investors under the banner Cutstart to initiate what should be the largest agro-industrial investment project in the country in a tie-up with the Development Trust of Zimbabwe (DTZ).

They have formed Zimbabwe Bio-Energy (ZBE) to execute a grand project whose size and capital injection is matched by the controversy it has courted. Billy Rautenbach and his colleagues are now in control of land that is more than 350 000 ha in extent; that is almost 1% of Zimbabwe’s total land area, most of which is virgin bush.

Of that hectarage there are plans to put 60 000 ha under sugar cane to produce 500 million litres of ethanol per annum in 10 years. The company says the spin-off from local usage and exports should translate to US$500 million per year — the benefits for the fiscus will be derived from these volumes of trade. The company has 5 000 head of cattle and hopes to double this figure to 10 000 by end of next year. The ultimate vision is a herd of 40 000 cattle.

ZBE MD Paul Smith said the idea of the sugar project was to start a green energy revolution in which the company should produce 100 million litres of ethanol annually and generate 100MW of electricity.

The large sugar cane project however depends on the company securing water for irrigation. At the moment there isn’t any. Mwenezi River which passes through the estate is dammed further up to form Manyuchi Dam which is owned by Triangle Ltd, a rival in the sugar business.

Triangle has said it has absolute rights to the water and will therefore not allow Zimbabwe Bio-Energy to access the water. Triangle is currently using water from Manyuchi Dam on the Mwenezana cane project which is 150 km from the mill in Triangle. ZBE are proposing a swap deal, where Triangle releases Mwenezana in exchange for a piece of land on the Mtilikwe area which is closer to the mills. As a result, Triangle will no longer require water from Mwenezana.

“When we commenced operations in Nuanetsi we approached the water authority Zinwa and they sold us water permits for Manyuchi with the blessing of Triangle,” said ZBE in a statement to the Zimbabwe Independent. “There is lack of clarity over water rights on Manyuchi but we are in talks with Zinwa for an amicable way forward to benefit both sides.”

It added: “Initially players in the sugar industry were concerned that we would have a competitive effect on the market but now the stakeholders understand that our niche is energy — consisting of power generation and ethanol — not table sugar… Our relationship with Triangle has tremendously improved and we have bought our seed cane from them to start our project.”

ZBE have now set their sights on completing the long-stalled Tokwe-Murkosi Dam and Greenfield project in the form of the Runde-Tende Dam. The company has said it is seeking investors for the project.

With the investment on the ground, the project is now irreversible but its acceptability to the community in Masvingo will now depend on who picks up the dividend tab. Expectations are high and the queue of would-be beneficiaries looks long at the moment.


Vincent Kahiya

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