But a visit last week at two of the estates, Chisumbanje and Middle Sabi, shows a different picture. Massive projects are being rolled out with 40 000 ha of land at Chisumbanje under sugarcane production earmarked to produce fuel, while wheat is being grown on a large scale at Middle Sabi.
“A year ago it was a fair argument (that nothing is being done at Arda) but as you can see the same cannot be said about the estates now,” Arda chairperson Basil Nyabadza said. “We are now extracting value from the land. It is history in the making.”
About US$50 million has already been spent on the two projects and in turn Arda expects to recover US$30 million by year-end.
“We are using the most up-to-date equipment to develop the projects,” Nyabadza explained. “The projects are being done in phases.”
According to the Arda boss, the Chisumbanje project will produce fuel for the country, with some of it exported.
“Due to the tight fiscal conditions prevailing in Zimbabwe at the end of 2008, Arda designed a programme to unlock the potential of its various estates,” Nyabadza explained.
The investments in Chisumbanje and Middle Sabi are between Arda, on the one hand and, on the other, Macdom (Pvt) Ltd and Ratings Investment on a Built-Operate-Transfer (BOT) basis.
Macdom and Rating are groups of local investors led by Billy Rautenbach whom Nyabadza said had the capacity to bring in foreign currency.
Under a BOT arrangement, a contractor develops a project for a time sufficient to recover the cost of the establishment and gain profit before handing it over to the project owner in working order.
Over 5 000 people would be employed under the two projects when they reach their peak.
Nyabadza said the Chisumbanje project would be able to contribute over 18 MW daily to the national electricity grid.
“The Chipinge community should take up ownership of the project as it will put Zimbabwe on the world map. We are taking a cue from Brazil after I visited the place with minister (of energy) Elias Mudzuri,” Nyabadza said.
Brazil is currently the world’s leader in ethanol production. Because of government subsidies, large sugarcane crops, and high sales taxes on gasoline, Brazil has built a profitable national ethanol industry. Sugarcane is grown in the country as the climate presents perfect conditions for its cultivation and production.
It converts very easily to ethanol, and provides Brazil with huge supplies of ethanol-based fuels.
Coimex Trading, a subsidiary of Brazilian conglomerate Grupo Coimex, is the largest producer of ethanol in the world.
Water has been rehabilitated at the Chisumbanje estate which has made all operations easier.
According to workers at the estate, the two investing entities have repaired pumps and installed new irrigation equipment and planted a 1 000-ha crop of wheat at Middle Sabi.
In Chisumbanje, the companies have re-constructed roads, cleared and levelled land to facilitate sugarcane plantation.
Arda has also embarked on development initiatives in Chisumbanje and Middle Sabi to empower local farmers.
Over 8 000 ha of sugarcane have so far been planted with the farmers saying the project would stimulate development initiatives in the area and transform their living conditions.
“This is a massive investment for the past year. We (Arda) could not undertake rural developmental initiatives because of various factors, chief among them, sanctions,” Nyabadza said. He did not explain.
Under the first phase, 17 000 ha should be under sugarcane by the end of 2012.
“The cane will feed the ethanol factory capable of processing 7 500 tonnes of cane per day, producing 525 000 litres of ethanol and 18,5 MW of power daily, sufficient to power Mutare city,” he said.
On allegation that Arda had leased vast tracts of land to the two companies for a song, Nyabadza said everything was done above board.
“We have since invited the parliamentary portfolio committee in charge of land and water to visit. The development is in three main categories, namely plantations, livestock and cropping as well horticulture and processing,” he said.
Irrigation facilities at the two estates have been rehabilitated.
Arda was set up to spearhead agricultural and rural development with increased support to smallholder farmers to facilitate the production of sufficient high-quality food for the nation and generate employment and income on a sustainable basis.
The parastatal used to produce major crops and contributed immensely to the national economy. It produced cotton, seed maize, wheat and beef, among other operations. In the past, it produced a third of the milk consumed in Bulawayo.