Zimbabwe is in talks with China Railway Group Ltd. to help modernize the state-owned National Railways of Zimbabwe.

“We believe that we could make use of their expertise and financial muscle to improve the NRZ,” Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube said in a weekend interview. “It needs an upgrade in the fixed stocks as well as rolling stocks and signaling.” The southern African nation has lagged behind the rail improvement of neighbors including Mozambique and Zambia and wants to catch up, he said.

The NRZ and China Railway have signed a memorandum of understanding to commence studying the project and a feasibility report is planned by the end of June. “It is our expectation that in the upcoming Forum for China and Africa taking place around August and September that the deal between the NRZ and China Rail will be announced,” said Ncube.

China Rail already has a big footprint in the region. In the 1970s it built the 1,860-kilometer (1,156-mile) rail line that connects Zambia’s copper heartland with the Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaam in neighboring Tanzania. More recently it constructed the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway in Ethiopia, according to information on its website.

Zimbabwe Railways estimates it needs about $533 million for the overall revamp, even as freight volumes have declined. NRZ transports about 3 million tons annually down from peak volumes of 5 million, said spokesman Andrew Kunambura. 

The railroad moves a range of goods for export including lithium, coal, chrome and granite, with most of the mineral exports sent to Asia in particular, China.