Zimbabwe and Japan continue to deepen their diplomatic relations. The Japanese government, through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), has bankrolled several developmental projects in Zimbabwe over the years. Our reporter EMMANUEL KAFE recently engaged new Japanese Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mr Satoshi Tanaka, who spoke about Tokyo-Harare diplomatic and trade relations and support being given to the Zimbabwean education and health sectors.
Q: Can you outline the current state of relations between Japan and Zimbabwe?
A: Zimbabwe and Japan have been building a good relationship for a long time and the year 2020 marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Zimbabwe-Japan diplomatic relations.
Japan is one of the major donor countries in Zimbabwe and has been providing development assistance in a number of fields such as infrastructure, education and health.
The volume of our economic cooperation from 1980 to 2020 amounts to about US$346 million, and US$627 million in grant aid, US$177 million in technical cooperation, which includes the acceptance of more than 2 000 trainees to Japan, dispatch of experts and research teams to Zimbabwe and activities of over 500 Japan Oversees Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV).
Regarding cultural exchange, the number of students accepted to study through the Japanese government scholarship programme has been increasing in recent years.
In 2020, a total of 17 students went to Japan under the programme, although unfortunately the process was stopped due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Finally, the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic games are scheduled to be held this summer in Tokyo, and I heard there are several Zimbabwean athletes who will be participating.
Although we still have the Covid-19 pandemic, the Japanese government, the International Olympic Committee and other stakeholders are preparing to make the event safe and secure.
I look forward to working with the people of Zimbabwe to make this event a success.
Q: Coming in as Ambassador, what are your top priorities during this tour of duty?
A: I arrived in Zimbabwe in the midst of a pandemic.
As such, I have been continuously working with Zimbabwe in helping address the Covid-19 pandemic, through closely following up on the latest situation reports and control measures.
Japan has assisted Zimbabwe through both bilateral and multilateral channels.
For example, support through provision of medical equipment, food and other necessities for vulnerable people.
In terms of development cooperation, our basic principle is to help Zimbabwe achieve its developmental goals.
I believe support from multiple sides is necessary, including social and economic development with medium- to long-term focus, as well as humanitarian assistance with more short-term focus.
Given the above, Japan has identified three priority areas in its cooperation policy.
These are: the facilitation of integration into the Southern African regional economy; the effective utilisation of abandoned resources through human capital development in the industrial sector and promotion of agriculture and tourism development; and thirdly, the support to ensure humanitarian security for vulnerable people.
Based on the Vision 2030 and the National Development Strategy 1 (NDS1) policies, Japan will continue to provide support to the Government of Zimbabwe in its reform programme.
Finally, I would like to encourage Japanese companies to enter into the Zimbabwean market.
Q: What is your assessment of the current socio-economic and political environment obtaining in Zimbabwe?
A: It is almost impossible to not look at the current political and economic situation without taking into account the effects of Covid-19.
It was really unfortunate that many lives were lost due to Covid-19, including some ministers — my sincere condolences.
However, the situation with the pandemic in Zimbabwe seems to have calmed relatively, thanks to the Government’s efforts, including introducing strict lockdowns.
In terms of the economy, despite the fact that Zimbabwe was affected massively, there are some areas of trade and business that are showing significant resilience, such as the early recovery of the supply chain in the manufacturing sector.
Covid-19 also seems to have heightened and intensified vulnerability for many families.
Japan, other donor countries and the international organisations will continue providing humanitarian assistance in the areas of education, health and social protection.
I appreciate the efforts that have been made to improve the political and economic environment under the policies of engagement and re-engagement and the ‘open for business’ policy.
I, however, really look forward to strong leadership for further reforms as it will help achieve this ambitious development agenda.
Q: At the centre of President Mnangagwa’s foreign policy is the ‘Zimbabwe is open for business” mantra. Do you consider the environment in Zimbabwe conducive for investment?
A: I am aware that ease of doing business reforms are a priority under NDS1 and that there are a number of initiatives for promoting trade and investment such as the establishment of the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency (ZIDA) and the setting up of Special Economic Zones.
While I highly appreciate the highly ambitious and comprehensive development objectives and targets clearly stated in the development strategy and policy document, the key challenge I believe is how to implement in reality.
In this context, I believe that rigorous actions will really be helpful in the areas of, for instance, finance and banking sector such as international money transfer.
Q: Which sectors of the economy do you see Japanese firms developing interest in?
A: As a matter of fact, from 1980 until around 2000, a considerable number of Japanese companies from trade, service and manufacturing sectors were based in Zimbabwe.
Japan is a country with high-quality solutions based on advanced technology; therefore, the Southern African region, including Zimbabwe, is certainly attractive.
Strengthening business relations between Africa and Japan is also one of the critical areas due for discussion at Tokyo International Conference of African Development (TICAD) in 2022.
As for investments, taking into account the strength of Japanese companies and the development potential here in Zimbabwe, there are many promising areas.
I believe Information Communication Technology is one area, and environment and climate or green technology is another, and of course, quality infrastructure, especially transport sector, is really an important area. At the same time in strengthening bilateral trade, there is a possibility of increasing exports to Japan of Zimbabwean-made products from agriculture and mining sectors.
However, there is need to improve the business environment in order for Japanese investors to come in.
I have heard that Japanese companies are faced with hurdles regarding the banking system, uncertainty of regulation or institutional system and various governance issues.
I know that the Zimbabwean Government is addressing these issues in order to create a better and more favourable business environment.
Q: Can you give us a brief outline of the US$1,3m support for maternal health services that you pledged towards the local health delivery system?
A: In Zimbabwe, the Covid-19 pandemic has weakened the health system, particularly maternal health provision.
This has negatively impacted on the achievement of universal health coverage, particularly in urban centres like Bulawayo and Harare.
Against this backdrop, the government of Japan decided to extend a US$1,3 million partnership grant through (UNFPA), in a process that will save the lives of pregnant women in Zimbabwe.
The focus is on the strengthening of the referral system and ensuring the continuity of assisted delivery care in Harare and Bulawayo.
The support includes the procurement of medical equipment and expandable supplies to manage obstetric emergencies, prevent and control infection, including personal protective equipment and, lastly, procurement of ambulances for several hospitals in order to strengthen emergency care and training of maternity care providers in emergency obstetric care and management of Covid-19 during pregnancy.
I hope this will contribute to the improvement of maternal health service delivery.