By our special correspondent
“The Brazil of Africa!” It was the slogan used to promote Angola and Mozambique in the 1960s: big, rich, Portuguese-speaking, with Angola holding the continent’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria.
But it was the Angolans who, in a kind of sibling rivalry, billed Mozambique as “the poor sister”, even though its economy was more diverse. South Africa and land-locked Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) used it as their playground, with casinos, bullfighting — unlike Spain, the bull was not killed — and prostitution, all tolerated by a Catholic dictatorship in Lisbon.
Take out oil, and Mozambique had the larger economy.
The rest of the empire hardly mattered aside from Macau, a tiny enclave across the water from Hong Kong and returned to China in 1999 where it remains one of the world’s richest territories.
There was East Timor, just north of Australia, stranded 9 000 miles from the motherland, and Guinea Bissau, wedged between Senegal and Guinea-Conakry where more than half the Portuguese army was tied down in a war against guerrillas fighting for independence.
Angola and Mozambique had their own battles but nothing on the scale of Bissau.
In spite of this, the empire was an economic success, with Mozambique the world’s largest grower of cashew nuts and second only to Brazil in sisal.
Cashew apples with the seed or nut at the base
The cashew tree is related to poison ivy, and native to South America. With its seed produced at the base of an apple or fruit, it is not a true nut and enjoys a global consumption of almost a billion tons a year. And before independence in 1975, Mozambique led the market.
But for more than a century, the big earner was a Mexican cactus closely related to the plant whose leaves are distilled for tequila.
Sisal — with sword-like leaves ending in a single thorn sharp as an arrowhead — is used in rope, sacks and, especially, rugs.
Strong and hard-wearing, what sets the fabric apart is more to do with physics than botany: unlike other fibres, it doesn’t hold static electricity. Starlets don’t want their frocks riding up which is why the Hollywood red carpet is always rich in sisal!
By 1970, Mozambique was Africa’s biggest producer and second only to Brazil. A decade later this had fallen almost 60 per cent and, in 2020, the country ranks 18th, with Brazil still in the lead followed by Tanzania and Kenya.
A sisal plantation west of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and, inset, harvesting a plant
Cashing in on the past
When Samora Machel died in 1986, his successor, Joachim Chissano, wound back the devastating policies — including nationalisation of land, banks and business — that had destroyed the economy and fueled the war with Renamo. First among these was a return to the past with a mass planting of cashew trees. Nurseries were established and small-scale farmers encouraged to join the sector.
Mozambique’s dominance had been such that its fall in production from 1975 raised the world price. China, Vietnam, and Brazil moved in, the moon-shaped nut became fashionable across the US and Europe, and sales grew from just $300m in 1970 to a projected $5bn for 2020.
Sadly, Mozambique accounts for less than five per cent of that (roughly the same as Nicaragua); even Finland grows more.
Then, in 2000, things looked up in the wake of a spat next door. When Robert Mugabe drove white farmers off their land in Zimbabwe, Africa recruited them to open plantations in Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria and, especially, Mozambique.
Today, Zimbabwe must pay hard currency to import maize from its own farmers across the border in neighbouring states.
Chimoio is Mozambique’s fifth-largest city with close on 400 000 people, and 20 white farmers nearby. Less than an hour’s drive from the Zimbabwe border, it has become a hub for tomatoes and tobacco, now one of the country’s top five exports.
A new leaf. Thanks to Zimbabwean farmers, tobacco plays a major part in the economy
A hundred miles north is Vanduzi, another growth point thanks to former president Chissano’s welcome for those dispossessed by Mugabe.
Kevin Gifford moved here almost two decades ago and leases a thousand acres where he raises cattle and sheep.
“I feel good about the place,” Gifford said in a recent TV interview. “Of course we have had our problems. Everybody does. But I’m comfortable.”
He employs an entire village of staff who had been out of work for years.
But it could be better. Farmers, both black and white, complain about things the state could fix in a flash:
- Clinics are run down and this means a journey to town when staff are sick or injured.
- Malaria, largely under control in the 1970s, has returned and while other parts of Africa use sprays to kill mosquitoes, there have been only faltering efforts, and malaria was the leading cause of death in 2019.
- A monopoly by the state airline, LAM — locals say it stands for “Lost Above Mozambique” — keeps fares high, and farmers in the north pay up to a thousand dollars to visit the capital.
- Permits are required for even the most basic activities, with officials demanding bribes or imposing fines when papers are not in order.
- Poor roads cause damage to trucks taking goods to market, and spares are either not available or must be imported, with delays and duty at Customs.
- Loans are exorbitant (up to 120 per cent interest).
- Poverty and unemployment leave the average citizen unable to buy food as basic as potatoes, reducing the market for crops. Farmers who sell for export can survive, but bad governance has left the majority living on less than $2 per day.
At the 2019 election, President Filipe Nyusi promised to fight corruption and reduce poverty, but gave no details on how this might be achieved. However the prospects of that happening do not appear that great. As shown in our report on his first term of office, according to Transparency International rates that graft has worsened by over a quarter since he came to office in 2014.
At just $15bn, Mozambique has a GDP smaller than the town of Sheffield in Northern England, and a population touching 30m (Sheffield has 580 000). And scandals over missing money and loans linked to the purchase of a tuna fleet have scared investors.
Africa is urbanising faster than any other continent, with young people moving to cities in search of work.
Those who stay must find a way to feed themselves. Subsistence agriculture may be sound in theory, but doesn’t pay for clothes or school fees. And when crops fail due to pests or a cyclone, people starve and yet another cry goes out for aid.
By contrast, cashews and sisal put cash in the bank. Nut trees are on the rise and experts predict Mozambique could match its 1970 output in a few years. But small-scale farmers say they are hampered by corruption, red tape and the high cost of inputs. Trees must be sprayed several times a year to ward of pests, and chemicals are not always available.
Sisal — declared an invasive weed in Hawaii and Florida because it spreads so fast — could be the answer, but having slipped so far down the world market, the economy of scale no longer exists, and the transport and processing systems in place before independence are gone.
Kenya, Tanzania and, increasingly, South Africa, have filled the gap, but top spot is firmly with Brazil, employing close on a million people to grow more than half the world total.
Could Mozambique take back its crown as the sisal king of Africa?
It would need a mix of both commercial farms and small-scale growers, creating jobs and reducing poverty in areas with little or no industry.
The president declared at his inauguration for a second term that agriculture was a top priority. But, for now, there is no policy in place other than words to make this happen and, after 45-years in power and yet another dubious election under its belt, the ruling Frelimo party doesn’t seem to care.