More than 20 years ago, President Robert Mugabe endorsed a move by native Zimbabwean farmers to occupy and forcibly retake farmland that was owned, at the time, by European farmers. Right or wrong, this move set off a chain of disastrous economic consequences, including hyperinflation, massive unemployment, food shortages, and international sanctions.
The United States was one of the nations which imposed sanctions, in the hopes of addressing government corruption, the lack of free and fair elections and human rights abuses. In the two decades since the land seizures of the early 2000s, the US has maintained a strict sanctions program against an evolving list of individuals in Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwe of today is very different from the Zimbabwe back in 2001
Robert Mugabe was forced out of office in 2017, and has since passed away. The European Union was invited to send an Election Observation Mission to observe the 2018 elections. In 2020, the Zimbabwean government announced a program to compensate the farmers who were ousted from their land back in 2001. The new government is not perfect, and many more changes are needed for true democracy and a stable economic position of Zimbabwe. That said, progress is being achieved. The new government has started to do what 20 years of sanctions could not.
Something else has changed in the last 20 years that have rendered the economic sanctions against Zimbabwe untenable for the West. Where agriculture was the biggest asset of Zimbabwe in 2001, the country has now uncovered a far more lucrative export: lithium.
Zimbabwe and Lithium
Lithium is a necessary material for rechargeable batteries that make things like cell phones, laptops, electric vehicles, and solar power storage. In order to reach lofty goals like the Biden administration’s stated target of 80% renewable energy by 2030, the United States needs to find more reliable sources of lithium.
Zimbabwe currently has the largest lithium reserves in Africa and fifth-largest in the world, and President Emmerson Mnangagwa has signaled that mining and refining lithium ore will be a focus of the Zimbabwe government in the years to come. Unfortunately, given the current political climate, it is very difficult for US investors to acquire Zimbabwean lithium for manufacturing purposes. This leaves a gaping hole in the market, which other countries, notably, China, are willing and eager to exploit.
Risks from China and Russia
Chinese investors bring with them billions of dollars to support not only the economy of Zimbabwe, but infrastructure and humanitarian aid projects. Last year, President Mnangagwa delivered his State of the Nation speech from a newly completed parliament building built as a $200 million gift from the Chinese government. Chinese funds have also financed hospitals, universities, transportation infrastructure, water supply projects, and an 80,000-seat sports stadium, built in the 80s but recently refurbished, which hosted a World Cup qualifier match in 2022.
Zimbabwe has also turned to Russia to find willing business partners, although it has been a rockier path. And since 2019, Belarus and Zimbabwe have cultivated a growing relationship, with Belarusian companies involved in agriculture, mining, energy and other industries within the African country.
A Solution for the Future
As eastern countries do business with Zimbabwe, they gain political and cultural influence, in addition to the economic advantages of having access to Zimbabwean resources. So those in the West have to ask themselves, what is the most important goal? To hold on to antiquated sanctions that have done little to advance the cause of human rights, or keep up with the global economy while building bridges with Zimbabwe?
The future is coming fast. If the United States is serious about being a leader in the transition to renewable energy, it is undisputed that, at least in the short term, we need access to more lithium. Strengthening ties with Zimbabwe will allow US companies to invest in mining and refineries, which will bring jobs to the local citizens and put lithium deposits to good use in green energy storage.
Sanctions have failed. Instead of stalling the economy of Zimbabwe by refusing to do business, it is time to try investing in both the people and the resources found there. A strong economic partnership with Zimbabwe could hold the key to both influencing the government on human rights issues and addressing the raw material demands of a new, greener global economy.
[The Bikita Minerals lithium mine in Zimbabwe. Photo: Handout]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Glenn Jakins is a serial entrepreneur with a multi-decade track record of taking creative ideas and turning them into successful products that change lives. In addition to other investment ventures, Glenn heads Humless as CEO, pioneering reliable power systems based on clean energy sources.