Province no longer on the hind Tete

Tete is booming. A battleground between the ruling Frelimo party and Renamo rebels in the 1980s, today the landlocked Mozambican province is the focus of fresh investor interest in African commodities.

More than 4km of trucks on either side of the Ponte Samora Machel patiently wait to cross the Zambezi. Poverty is officially nearly 20% lower than it was last year and there is much new wealth visible in the shops, petrol stations, new hotels and motels, and in the population, from the wares of touts to the shoes of kids.

Even the tiny, once somnolent Chingozi airport, long used to one weekly flight from Maputo, is heaving with planes and passengers, including a direct flight from ­Johannesburg.

Tete shows what $1,7-billion of foreign direct investment by the giant Brazilian Vale in the nearby Moatize coalfield can do, with an additional $1-billion earmarked by the Australian Riversdale in another contiguous coalfield.
Tete is sitting on about 2,4-billion tonnes of coking and thermal coal.

Vale’s mining operation, planned to start next year, will extract 11-million coal tonnes (80% ­coking) annually from 26-million tonnes of run of mine in phase one.

Yet exports will be constrained to just six million tonnes annually via Beira unless there is agreement about who will pay for the railway linking the Sena line with the port of Nacala.

Indeed, the queue of trucks for the Ponte Samora Machel, the 720m suspension bridge spanning the Zambezi and linking Malawi with Zimbabwe and Beira, tells its own story.

Involving 20 000 workers and finished in 1973, the Edgar Cardoso-designed masterpiece has suffered from a lack of maintenance and the abuse of its 50-tonne limit by Portuguese colonialists, who used huge trucks in the construction of the upstream Cahora Bassa hydro project.

By the 2000s the bridge could not accept more than one lane of traffic and one heavy vehicle at a time.

Although it is undergoing a major rehabilitation by a Portuguese company due to be completed in March next year, there are plans to build a new Ponte 6km downstream at Benga.

Vale alone employs 5 000 Mozambican workers in the building phase, 60% of them locally recruited. While Tete scarcely had any public bus transport before Vale started in 2008, today 130 buses regularly ferry ­workers to the site.

However, it is agriculture that may hold the key to job creation on a scale that Mozambique requires for its 23 million people. In addition to mining, Tete has another, perhaps even more important success story.

Mozambique Leaf Tobacco (MLT), which has been operating its $70-million Tete-based factory since 2004, sources its tobacco from 110 000 farmers countrywide, including 55 000 in Tete province alone.

Based on a 10-to-one dependency ratio, its operations have positively affected the lives of more than half a million of the province’s people, or one-third of its population.

Employing 380 extension officers for these outgrowers, MLT provides all the inputs, including tobacco and maize seed, fertiliser and technical help. The average farmer, tilling about 0,6 hectares, sells $500 worth of tobacco a year, money that they could never have dreamed of five years ago.

There is a similar story with cotton in Cabo Delgado province, where 76 000 outgrowers work for one company alone. Cotton, however, has suffered from price fluctuation, partly because of state interference.

Poverty alleviation and wealth creation
Government policy should be aimed at the two golden requirements of poverty alleviation and wealth creation in farming: the improvement of yield and scale.

This requires finding the means to make finance cheaper, clarifying land title and transfer, reducing the tax and bureaucratic burden, especially on smaller farmers, allowing the repatriation of foreign investment and ensuring that the country remains ahead of the infrastructure game.

On a hillside on the south-bank of Tete overlooking the Ponte Samora Machel is the Why Not? bar, a somewhat seedy expatriate watering hole. That many of the clientele look like extras from the Dogs of War is sadly not that far from reality. The bar was started by a former American Vietnam vet who had fought in the Rhodesian army.

The Rhodesian Army came within an hour of being ordered to “drop” the suspension bridge in its war against Robert Mugabe’s Zanu and its Frelimo supporters. The airfield was not so lucky; its hangars were destroyed. Soon afterwards the state-run Carbomoc coal mining concern was crippled when Renamo cut the Moatize-Beira rail line.

Proving that the period of decline is much longer than that of recovery, now, 30 years on, finally the province is emerging.

Dr Greg Mills directs the Brenthurst Foundation and is the author of Why Africa is Poor—and What Africans Can Do About It (Penguin)

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