Sir Richard Branson championed Zimbabwe as a new destination for investors yesterday, saying it was time to get the nation's shattered economy back on its feet.
While much of the international community has long withheld development assistance, citing the political situation, Sir Richard said the time for "wait and see was over".
"In life, people have got to take risks," the billionaire said in New York, where he introduced some of the world's richest people to his investment venture, Enterprise Zimbabwe. "If everybody waits on the sidelines, it will be the people who suffer. The present state of politics in Zimbabwe is by no means perfect, but it's a great deal better."
The initiative has been running quietly for a year already but was unveiled only yesterday to major philanthropists at the Clinton Global Initiative forum on the sidelines of the UN's anti-poverty summit.
Sir Richard aims to reassure private donors who want to invest but are concerned with how the funds will be used. Concerns remain that foreign investment will go to politicians rather than ordinary people. "The idea of Enterprise Zimbabwe is to have a sort of safe haven for people to invest through," Sir Richard said.
The enterprise was given a cautious welcome by David Coltart, Zimbabwe's education minister, who is one of several cabinet members from the two opposition factions. "I think it is a good moment for private charitable funds to consider supporting the sectors like health, water, transport and education and the private sector," he said.
Zimbabwe was once among the most affluent countries in sub-Saharan Africa but under President Robert Mugabe, the economy has been gutted and international confidence in the nation has been destroyed. In 2008's presidential election, Morgan Tsvangirai beat Mr Mugabe in the first round of voting despite a brutal campaign of intimidation against the opposition. But Mr Tsvangirai was forced to withdraw from the run-off as violence escalated.
Some fragile progress has been made since and Mr Tsvangirai's group was pushed by regional leaders to join a coalition with the ruling Zanu-PF party. The US and EU have also been urged by South Africa to drop targeted sanctions against individuals in Mr Mugabe's regime.