KEN Sharpe’s Augur Investments and its associated companies have been in countless court battles over their vast land acquisitions around Harare. Part of the land was acquired through the controversial Airport Road construction deal. In an Interview with The NewsHawks reporter Bridget Mananavire (BM), Sharpe (KS) and West Property chief marketing officer Marilyn Mosha, said despite the court battles, their projects are still ongoing.
BM: There has been a lot of controversy around the Airport Road construction deal that has resulted in several legal contests around the land that Augur Investments got. How did you get here?
KS: There are things that we can discuss, but there are certain things that relate specifically to the court cases that are out there that we cannot comment on. For the record, I detest corruption, it’s one of the causes of poverty in our country and mismanagement of resources.
In terms of our dealings, I am a serious businessman and only get involved in transactions that are legitimate to the letter of the law and stand by the agreements that have been signed, the agreements that drive the transaction.
At times, unfortunately, in life, you have to resort to agreements, relationships are not necessarily based on agreements, they’re based on, you know, the relations between the two parties, or sometimes many parties, and we tried to have cordial relations with everyone we work with.
But at times, it does get to a point, you know, when there’s a disagreement, and you need to rely on the contents of what was signed. And we have continuously been to the courts to seek recourse for many of the transactions we’re involved in.
I’ve never taken a cent from anyone that I have not worked hard for, you know, everything that I own is through hard work. So my transactions and the dealings of our companies are bonafide, legitimate, legal, and to the letter of the law.
BM: Why do you feel like there has just been this controversy around the Airport Road deal with the Harare City Council? Did something go wrong somewhere?
KS: You know, I’m not a politician. I don’t get involved in politics, I’m a businessman. And my interests are connected to the businesses that I am involved in.
When we went into the transaction, some 14 years ago, with the City of Harare, as our partner, we went in with faith into a public-private partnership into a triple P arrangement where we as the as the private investor would invest capital, resources, skills, and the city would provide land for us to enhance value on that land.
So to give you an example of the relationship it is complicated. When you enter into agreements with government, because they are governments and they take time, they have more of a character of service delivery to the citizens, than of maximising profits for the stakeholders. So there’s a difference of philosophy to start with, and that takes time to marry or to align.
However, in this case, there was a further complication, and that’s one of the dynamics of the politics in Zimbabwe. You know, when we entered into the agreement, the MDC council had just been put together in terms of the recent election. And the councillors were new people on the block, the council that was there prior to them coming in, that was actually dissolved and they were new management as well.
So, there was a whole mix of new people in the council and we started our relationship way back then.
On top of that, you had an MDC-controlled council, but the ministry, the parent ministry, was a Zanu PF-controlled ministry. So right away, you’re caught in between, you know, two big lions. And as I said, I’m not a politician, we’re not involved in politics, we are just there for the business.
So it took an abnormally long time to have anything done. An example is, our projects with the City of Harare are really in three areas.
The first location that we built on is Mbudzi market, which is Tariro Park in the south of Harare. We invested US$5 million into constructing that market, it’s a thriving centre of commercial activity, thousands of jobs that have been provided to the people there. And the city is now delivering a service that they were not delivering before, in a clean environment that has a roof cover for people to be able to go and do their shopping. So that project was successful.
And the reason why it was easier to complete that project was that the zoning and the EIA (environmental impact assessment) were easier to obtain, because the City of Harare had already done the change of use.
And the other two areas where we have a joint venture, this is Warren Hills and Mukuvisi, the City of Harare up to this day, which is 14 years later, I’ve still not finished all the statutory requirements for changing the use, for zoning for issuing development permits and building plans and so on. And we won’t touch the ground until all the permanent permits are in place. Because as a developer, that is a risk, and I’m not a dealer.
And we rely on the papers that we’ve signed, on agreements. And if I had anything to hide, I certainly would not be going to the courts. So for us, the legal recourse is through the courts, and it’s a public fact that we sued both previous ministers of environment both minister Nhema (Francis) and minister Kasukuwere (Saviour) because the land we were given by government, other than that piece of land that I’ve mentioned (the Mbudzi market), all had issues on them of environmental concerns.
Some of them were wetlands, and these pieces of land, we had to fight hard through the courts to get relief, that we could develop them and it took years, you know, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal fees and lost energy. So, you know, to be fair to ourselves, the question that must be asked is why we were not given the right land to start with.
If this was not the right land for us to develop, why was our partner not giving us the land they wanted us to genuinely develop?
We have been accused of not putting money in. That question has not been dealt with in terms of the audits of the companies, the joint venture companies. And it is transparent that we put all the money in that we needed to put in.
The question is now the permits, the permits have to come out because we can’t develop without the permits. So I think that’s the first, you know, issue of why things went wrong.
The other issue of some of the other cases relates to, let me put it this way, that the parties involved have alternative agendas, whether it’s an overzealous competitor who’s tried to prevent us from developing our projects in the past, whether it’s a politician who is too hot headed and has some political agenda, whether it’s a businessmen who did wrong and doesn’t really want to face the consequences of their wrongdoing.
Ultimately, things do go wrong. And when they do go wrong, you seek recourse in the courts. So that’s why we have several cases. And I’m sure it’s definitely not the first cases we have been you know. I’ve been several times through the Supreme Court.
It’s not easy to fight any government in the world, and we had to fight government to get what is rightfully ours and government eventually awarded us. We have been to the Supreme Court three or four times over matters like this. So we are not set back and distracted by the people that are out there to stop us. We are committed to seeing our vision through and our project through.
BM: So, is this why you then entered a deed of settlement (signed between Local Government minister July Moyo and Augur Investment representative Tatiana Aleshina in May 2019 with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s blessings) , which is also the subject of dispute at the courts. You got immunity over the (273.29 hectares) Pomona stand?
KS: My comments there is, firstly, there was no illegal immunity. We don’t have any immunity over the land. What happened was the transaction that we were involved in became contentious and ended up in the courts. And both parties were dissatisfied with each other for various reasons.
We had pending litigation both on the civil and the criminal courts, from both sides. And we agreed that at the end of the settlement agreement that the parties would withdraw from those cases, which is normal in any settlement.
When you’re going through a divorce, and it’s ugly, the parties agree to settle, you become amicable, and you get on with life. So we agreed that we would settle our differences in court and move on. And that’s exactly what happened. So to me, there’s no immunity, this subject of immunity keeps coming up.
And no one is immune from the law or above the law. But the parties are free to agree on whatever parameters they want. Prior to the settlement at the Supreme Court, we were in lengthy negotiations for many years, we had a contract, we spent US$20 million on that road. And we were paid land for US$20 million.
The contract was terminated, there were damages and penalties for the termination. And the city paid, eventually, that money that they owed. So as painful as it is, we move on, and we’re moving on to develop the land, we can never remove the land from Zimbabwe.
It’s a permanent asset that belongs to the country. We can only improve the land if we are responsible developers or we can make a mess of it. And so far, I think we did a good job of improving people’s lives, of developing this land that has been lying idle for decades, you know, no one did anything on this land for the last 50 years.
We are the first people that have the courage and boldness to come and take on such an extraordinary project to develop US$500 million worth of properties.
There’s no other company in Zimbabwe that’s even attempted this. I’m a committed Zimbabwean. I love my country. I’m patriotic. And I’m there to see this through and I will work with any Zimbabweans in any foreign investors who are willing to work with us.
BM: You say there’s no immunity, but in the agreement, it says cannot be sued by any other parties, including third parties, on that land. Does that not make you immune to any legal contestation?
KS: No, I think when parties settle with each other, they withdraw all claims, current and past, they cannot withdraw claims that are not yet there.
So, if there’s some wrongdoing, or if something was to go wrong in the future, the parties are still free to approach the courts and the enforcement agencies for any remedies that are required. But as at that point in time, when we settled, we agreed to withdraw the various cases against each other, which is the normal situation.
BM: People call you a land baron and so how much land do you have in Harare?
KS: Again, unfortunately, this is a question that is before the court, it is sub judice. We have had an application recently launched by a member of parliament, Rusty Markham, and there’s been some very untruthful allegations raised in those papers we have for the record responded and your question can be answered from our papers, because we’ve answered that exact question. So I would refer you to the papers.
BM: Moving on to the Mall of Zimbabwe, is the project ongoing, what has stalled that project?
KS: I think our partner McCormick’s track record speaks for itself. They now are a publicly listed entity in South Africa. And they’ve developed close to 100 shopping malls in the South African region. They are just as committed as we are.
We have all the approvals in place for that development, including the EIA, and the development permit.
We did the servicing of the roads. And we’re now at the stage of timing, everything in life is about timing, the mall will be built, it will be the biggest mall in Zimbabwe.
And it is the flagship of our city, in Millennium Park, where we are building houses at the moment and office blocks, the mall is going to be the big ship that drives and the mall is coming. The question is timing, we wanted to see the economic recovery of Zimbabwe, it started to happen, but it’s been a bit slow.
You know, the dollarisation of the economy was good.
And then when local currency was introduced, it did affect our confidence and the confidence of the foreign investors that would come in with us.
For such a project we’re talking about US$100 million price tag, we need to have long term security and long-term confidence that takes time to develop. So with the last year during the pandemic, COVID, things came standstill, but we’re taking it up. So we should have good news to announce next year.
BM: There has been word that you are fugitive and you’re not in Zimbabwe because you are hiding from prosecution. Where are you? And why are you not in Zimbabwe?
KS: So let me explain to first, we’ve all faced Covid, various countries were locked down, the island I have been on, the airport was closed for six months, so it was impossible to travel anywhere. But prior to that, and generally speaking, one is not restricted to their citizenship by where they base themselves or where they decide to travel to.
You know, I’m a Zimbabwean, but that doesn’t mean I need to be based in Zimbabwe to do business in Zimbabwe.
In fact, I’ve been working remotely for the last five years. So let’s go back to that point. As much as it’s personal, my wife had a health issue and we had to travel. One of the disadvantages with Zimbabwe is our healthcare system.
And this is one of the things we have to rectify in the future. Why should we have to travel to solve issues that could be solved locally, but it was a complicated issue and we went to several countries for advice and treatment. And that got us into the travel mode.
So in the last four years prior to Covid, we had been in 70 countries, 200 cities. I invest in a lot of places, my investments are not limited to Zimbabwe, my wealth was created not from Zimbabwe alone.
I have wealth outside of Zimbabwe and I have decided to invest in many places including my wife’s country, Ukraine, where I was welcomed as an investor.
You know, of course, my heart is in Zimbabwe, I prefer to invest back home, the circumstances of that investment is determined by the larger environment, the macro environment, the socio-political environment and how well the economy is doing.
So those are factors that drive me and where I make the most money that’s where I spend my most time, so I have no reason not to be in Zimbabwe but I don’t have a big enough reason yet to base myself back there permanently.
BM: With all the investments, and what you were saying about Zimbabwe not being an easy environment to operate in, would you say you are getting any favours from the government and the local authority on these projects?
KS: Maybe one day, you will meet our project manager, he almost sleeps at these government facilities. He wakes up there when he is on his way home, he goes there. So, we always try to engage them to push our papers through, because we don’t want to have any shortcuts.
And we have to bear in mind that we have to go at their pace. Currently, for example, the Surveyor-General has not opened since the lockdown this year. And when the lockdown measures were lifted, they are moving offices.
We are still trying to find a way for those who are working to assist us to push our paperwork and our project but we still have to work at their place.
If we didn’t have the challenges of the government institutions, pace of work, Pomona City right now would have been sold out, our developments in Millennium Heights, we would probably be building the third block because we’re currently just in the process of finishing the first block, so our main challenges are the delays in terms of approval, and there’s nothing we can do but to sort of work with them and just keep on knocking at their doors every morning and every evening before we knock off.
So no favours, we are very prayerful, and we work hard, we knock on their doors every day.
If I may just add that the name is the E team.
I call them the E team because they achieve the unachievable and we are proud to say that our gender equality is 50% in the management team, 50% a woman. So we really believe in empowering women and giving them the opportunity.
Even in the field you’ll find engineers that are women, project managers that are women. We don’t have a problem even giving a woman the job as a machine operator, women are equal, so we treat them like that.
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