Gentleman John

21 11 2021

“Look what I’ve been given” Marianne said.

I turned around to see her admiring a large bunch of mainly red roses; she was positively purring.

“I got them from John” she added.

“Because you are my guardian angels” enthused John as a way of explanation. “Thank you for thinking of me”.

I told him that we had thought of him because he does good work which was quite true. He has cut out a number of diseased trees for us over the past five years and always does a good job and is reasonably priced to boot. And of course he is a gentleman too. So I had to think of a way to “get him back” so to speak. More about that later.

We turned out attention to the avocado tree in question. It had grown very big so the only way to get avocados off it was to wait for them to fall. Avocados don’t do falling well, especially from eight metres, and whilst they were not bad as humble grown-from-a-seed fruit of this type are, there are definitely better around. The plan was to cut the tree back to three stems, wait for new shoots to grow out, and then graft on several known cultivars that I like and get a tree that can produce for some 6 months or more.

I showed John where I wanted the main stems cut and with yet more thank yous for thinking of him he got to work.

Our president, E. D. Mnangagwa, or just ED as Zimbabweans know him, is not much like John. He has been at the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow. Not one for scrimping on costs or being environmentally conscientious he took along 100 sycophants in a specially chartered jet. Technocrats were left behind in favour of party buddies. Judging by the videos on social media they know how to party too.

An address by ED to a nearly empty auditorium was picked up by the press, and whilst not that unusual at that time slot, plenty of mileage was got. Apparently ED has committed us to a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Details on how this would be done were omitted. One social media wag commented that since the land invasions of the 2000s the destruction of the economy has already achieved the 40% reduction target – we just have to be careful the economy doesn’t grow. That shouldn’t be too difficult – the current regime is only interested in self-enrichment. He also made claims that the sanctions to which he and other party bigwigs are subjected are stifling Zimbabwe’s economy and hamstringing our economy. One of his sons recently imported, by air, a Rolls Royce car valued at some US$500,000.

The local Zimbabwe dollar continues to lose traction in the economy. ED has buckled to the war veterans’ (loosely defined as those who supported the nationalists in the civil war of the 70s) demands that they get their pensions paid in US dollars. The civil servants saw this as an opportunity and made the same demand which was flatly refused. In other countries it would be unwise to anger one’s voter base but in Zimbabwe elections are predetermined so it’s not a big issue.

Our gardener comes from the rural north of the country and he says that there the US dollar holds sway – don’t bother offering local dollars. My senior foreman comes from the east and there the local dollar is still acceptable in some situations. While it’s not illegal to price in US dollars it is illegal to convert it to the local equivalent at anything but the official rate which is determined by the central bank’s (Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe) daily auction rate. Senior figures at a local company were charged for this infraction and I have noticed that signs claiming the rate of exchange used in their outlets became prominently displayed. Everyone else is ignoring it and the black market rate continues to climb. It’s now around 200 local dollars to 1 US dollar whereas the official rate is 105.

We paid Gentleman John in US dollars because we do like him and he does a good job, this one was no exception. My revenge on him giving him Marianne roses was to give him a bar of Lindt chocolate for his wife who I hoped would to ask why. I haven’t heard back.





Irrigation alley

21 09 2021

I watched Warren closely, fascinated. He took several careful steps intently watching the mostly full water bottle balanced on his left hand. It toppled and he caught it in his right hand. He turned around, retraced his steps back behind the wall and repeated the procedure. He scuffed a mark in the dry lawn with his boot and walked off at 90 degrees then walked back over the spot. The bottle fell again. He was divining for water in our garden.

I am no believer in witchcraft but Warren backs up his dousing with some science and he’d successfully sited a borehole for me at my work, just out of town, so we’d got him in to our garden to see if he could repeat the success.

A couple of months ago one of the two boreholes that my nursery relies on, started to give problems. It has been fine for the 22 years that I have been there so I was more than a bit concerned. I knew it was a water problem because the run-dry electronic protection system kept tripping. I responded by reducing the flow of the water to a measly 1,300 litres an hour. It can run for a day but at night the security guards, who are hopefully not sleeping, report that the ammeter on the switchboard by my office keeps dropping to zero indicating the pump has turned off.

The area where my work is situated is not great for ground water and there are no streams nearby. I rent the property and the landlords sank five boreholes to around 70m each when the land was bought in the early 1980s. One is useless and I have to share the other four with the other occupants who include another nursery, a rose nursery and a small domestic property. The prospects for new siting of holes are limited. Nevertheless, Gill, my landlady agreed to finance a new hole but I would have to pay for the siting and equipment (the latter would remain mine to take with me if or when I leave). Several water diviners, or dousers as they are sometimes known, were contacted and brought in. There was no agreement on where the water may lie. Only one, Warren, used a scientific backup (a machine based on electromagnetism) to what his water bottle told him and both indicated a likely source, so we called in the borehole drilling company that he recommends.

Electromagnetic profile of the rock at Emerald Seedlings. A break, or potential water site, is indicated at point 7 by the V shape. The colours are not indicative of water presence.

Payment was made up front and withing a couple of days they had arrived. Watching boreholes being drilled can be a stressful experience but I wasn’t paying and it was the first one I’d seen up close. The drilling mechanism is mounted on one large truck, about seven tonnes, and the compressor that powers it is on another. There is a lot of noise and dust.

The drilling rig in action.

Each pipe section that makes up the drilling column is six metres in length and mounted eight to a rotating carousel. It didn’t take long to drill to the 60 m that Warren had advised and water was found at 38m, almost exactly where the chart above indicates. It was not exactly a gusher at an estimated 1,000 litres per hour.

Material samples from the hole taken at 1 m depths starting top right to bottom left.

The actual process took only three hours as 60m is not a deep hole by today’s standards. In fact the hole at our house in the suburbs only has a 40m hole which was probably standard for the 1970s and quite adequate at the time when boreholes were unusual and municipal water flowed in the pipes. It never recovered from last season’s poor rainfall and now will only pump for an hour or less before emptying. One of the other diviners who came to my work was quite garrulous and told me he’d recently found and drilled (he had his own rig, or so he said) a “gusher” at 200m. It’s the first time I’ve heard of such a deep hole in the urban areas but 100m is pretty much the norm.

The foreman for the drilling company handed over the drilling report which clearly stated that the hole was an “excellent yielder”‘ and suitable for extracting water. I was surprised that 1,000 litres per hour was considered an “excellent” yielder and gave the drilling company a call. The manager explained that for a domestic hole, which is mostly what the company does, a 1,000 litres per hour was considered good but they did tend to be conservative in order not to disappoint customers and that we should get on and use it as it could take a season of pumping for a hole to unblock all the cracks and reach its full potential. It has taken a few weeks to get all the ditches dug for the pipes and the switchgear put in a box that is reasonably theft-proof, so it will all be turned on in the next couple of days and the moment of truth will be realized.

Warren applying science to his “witchcraft” in our garden.

Meanwhile Warren has submitted his report on the site he found in our garden and is reasonably positive that it’s a good site. All dousers make a point of saying on their report that it’s not an exact science and a good result is not guaranteed. Warren has more faith in his bottle than the electronics and admits that he doesn’t really know how the latter works. He keeps up to date with technology and recently contacted a European company that was advertising a machine for divining. Even at a cool 150,000 euros it was not guaranteed to find water. There just doesn’t seem to be the tech out there to find water accurately.

The profile from our garden. The desired break in the rock layers can be seen at point 2.

I asked the same drilling company for a quote to drill to 100m. They came back with US$4,100 which included the casing but not anything else. It’s not a small sum of money but if we find water it will substantially add to the value of the property and will take two years to cover the cost of the water we are now buying in for domestic purposes. We do occasionally get municipal water but it’s not reliable and goes into the swimming pool and then is pumped onto the garden to keep selected areas alive through the dry season. We certainly wouldn’t entertain drinking it as it comes from the heavily polluted Lake Chivero into which much of Harare’s storm water, industrial waste and sewage drains. The human excrement side of the pollution can be dealt with but not the industrial. Well, not in Zimbabwe where the water treatment works frequently runs out of cash to buy the aluminium sulphate used to settle the particles suspended in the water.

The suburb of Harare in which we live is known as Mount Pleasant. There is no “mount” of which I’m aware and the area is not known for a profusion of ground water. However the road along which I drive to work has some verdant verges that are profusely watered, so some properties do have good water. I’ve named it Irrigation Alley and it’s not unusual to see upwards of eight sprinklers (yes I did count them) watering the verges and the road. In fact this morning there were 14 working along a 1.3km stretch of road.

Marianne is on several neighbourhood WhatsApp groups that discuss these sort of things and appeals to irrigators of verges and roads to conserve water so the rest of us with marginal boreholes, or none at all, don’t have to buy so much water. Their response is “it’s my water and I’ll do as I like with it”. That’s technically true as all of us with boreholes pay an annual licence fee that allows unrestricted usage. Community spirit in this respect is in short supply.

After much dithering we have decided to go ahead with the borehole in the garden. The money has been paid and the drillers have made an inspection and think that the site is a good one. They will be back in due course and I’m not sure if I will stay around to watch. Of course it will make not a jot of difference if I do watch but there’s a lot riding on this.

At work we finished the electrics on the new borehole today and tomorrow we should be able to get the pumping gear down the hole and see if we have something useful or not. No doubt the irrigators of Irrigation Alley will be watering the road and the verges as normal.





Real man uses worms

15 06 2021

Only in Africa do you find signs such as this. I presume the proprietor was referring to the common use of fishing lures and that real men wouldn’t dream of using anything but his earthworms, but I didn’t stop to find out. I was on the way to Mana Pools Game Park in the Zambezi Valley and I was keen to get there.

It was another 41/2 hours along the somewhat hazardous main road to Zambia before I finally arrived and could relax a bit. A lot of the heavy traffic has now diverted via the new Kazangula bridge that links Botswana and Zambia above the Victoria Falls but one still needs to be quick-witted for over-bearing heavy trucks and wheel-rim bending potholes.

I arrived at “Stretch” (real name Andy) Ferreira’s camp on the edge of the Zambezi just as he and a guest were heading out for the afternoon game drive. He’s been working in the Zambezi Valley and Mana Pools area for some 30 years and promises close up encounters with a lot of the game. Many of the elephants have been given names and know his voice. Under absolutely NO CIRCUMSTANCES should inexperienced people approach elephants like you see in some of these photos (it’s also illegal to do so without a licenced guide).

Four nights later, refreshed and relaxed, I was ready to brave the road back to Harare.





A bug on weed

31 05 2021

A stink bug sitting on industrial (hemp grade) cannabis

Glossary of terms:
CBD – cannabidiol – the principal cannabinoid in cannabis
THC – tetrahydrocannabinol – the main psychoactive ingredient of cannabis
Cannabis – hemp, “weed”, “dope”, “grass”, “ganja”, marijuana – not all species are narcotic
GMP – Good Manufacturing Practice – certification required to export pharmaceutical quality products (in the context of this article)

Yes, that really is “weed” on which the stinkbug is sitting. I wouldn’t recommend smoking it, the weed that is, as it’s industrial grade cannabis which is grown for the fibre content and has no narcotic effect. Stinkbugs should absolutely not be ingested – they taste as bad as they smell, which is vile.

The Zimbabwe government has been pushing the various cannabis crops (hemp fibre, CBD oil and THC) as potential export crops and Stewart and I were at the Tobacco Research Board (TRB) to see what research they’d been doing. Stewart works part time for the Commercial Farmers’ Union and was trying to persuade me to write a growing guide, I knew how little I knew and was resisting but was still interested in finding out more about the crop.

The lead researcher was a young, dynamic fellow by the name of Munyaradzi or just Munya for short. He was passionate and knowledgeable about the crop. He quickly explained that they were just looking at the industrial or hemp quality cannabis at the TRB – the CBD oil and THC varieties, which have up to 0.3% THC and more than 0.3% THC respectively required onerous security which was not feasible. Industrial cannabis merely requires a fence and lockable gate so they were interested in getting small-scale growers into growing the crop.

The TRB had imported a number of different cultivars of the industrial hemp from origins as diverse as China, France and the USA. Some were clearly not suited to the relatively short Zimbabwean days though Munya did admit that it was early days and the seed had only been sown in January. Extending the day length with lights is practiced by the growers of the CBD and THC strains which keeps the crop from flowering too early. He told us that they’d approached the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) of the police to see if they could visit areas in the west of Zimbabwe where the THC version of cannabis has been grown illegally for many years to see if they had any selections that may be useful as he felt they’d certainly be climate adapted. Apparently breeding out the THC would not be difficult and yes, the police had approved the idea in principle.

Industrial hemp is quite widely used in the automotive and other industries that required cladding but the real money, Munya said, is in the CBD oil and THC. Unsurprisingly the buyers require the product to be GMP certified which requires stringent quality controls and regular inspections by a certified inspector which Zimbabwe doesn’t have. If it’s to be used for medicinal purposes the crop also has to be grown organically. A neighbour to the TRB who is growing the CBD cultivars has had to destroy his entire product so far as he cannot get it certified. Currently there are not a lot of major players in the industry but Munya predicted that it was going to get going within a few years.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the Zimbabwe government has other ideas. On Thursday this week they introduced a bill (SI 127 of 2021) forbidding anyone from trading in Zimbabwe dollars at anything other than the official rate of 84:1. The legislation has been around for some time but was not enforced. Now apparently it will be, with punitive fines for those who choose to ignore it. Most businesses have been pricing in US dollars and then multiplying by around 125 to get the Zimbabwe dollar price. This makes it attractive to pay in US and then more imports can be sourced. There is a government “auction” in place where one can bid for US dollars but the price is fixed, so it’s not really an auction at all, and there’s no guarantee of getting the hard currency. That there has to be an “auction” at all is indicative of just how short hard currency is. Forcing businesses to trade at the official rate is only going to make goods very expensive in US dollar terms so people will use Zimbabwe dollars and imported goods (most things) will become scarce. This graphic from a local asset management company says it concisely. “Decline in economic activity, stagnation, loss of confidence in local currency, and increased probability of second collapse of local currency”. Yes, we have been here before.





It’s still a beautiful country

23 05 2021
Centenary – northern Zimbabwe

Graeme farms near the very small town of Centenary in northern Zimbabwe. He is one of the few white commercial farmers still left in the area. He and his father didn’t escape the land redistribution exercise in the 2000s unscathed and now he leases back some of his own land from a new “owner”. His philosophical about it – “You do what you have to do” he said, shrugging. He doesn’t let relatively small issues like that get in the way of his larger vision – which is refreshing in the generally downbeat Zimbabwean business environment.

Graeme has 70ha of avocados and that’s just on his farm. He has plans to recruit small scale growers to increase the total area up to 250ha. That will be a lot of fruit. I’m told he’ll reap 20 – 25 tonnes of marketable fruit off each ha. I do wonder where he will find the labour force to do that as driving around the countryside there was precious little farming going on.

The pack-house is not yet built and both he and his father are off on a trip to South Africa to look for a grading machine that will cost something close to half-a-million US dollars. He did admit to me that his marketing programme was still very much nascent but several South African marketing companies had heard of his plans and were courting his business.

On the way back to town we stopped on a very quiet road to take the photo above. There were no other vehicles. The countryside was still beautiful with large trees. Closer to town, in the Mazowe Valley, the bush had been heavily chopped for firewood and there were few big trees.

My covid “passport”

Covid vaccinations in Zimbabwe have been surprisingly well organized. The programme did get off to a slow, erratic start with only a few medical centres offering the service. It has since been streamlined and numerous clinics and hospitals around Harare are open.

I had my vaccinations done at a rather dilapidated clinic in the neighbourhood which has been closed for some years but which opened for the purpose of vaccinations. Curiously there is a large, relatively new, solar panel array in the car-park. I couldn’t find out who’d put it in or what it’s purpose is. Getting the vaccinations was straightforward – all they needed to see was my identity card which all Zimbabweans carry. I didn’t have a choice of vaccine. All vaccines in Zimbabwe are distributed by the government and are free. The government doesn’t have any money for this sort of thing so I presume we are part of the COVAX programme – the various partners of which have logos on the vaccination “passport” that I received.

My neighbour at work, Sue, is a retired public health doctor who spent many years in the local sector. She couldn’t shed any light on who was behind the organisation of the vaccination programme but did say we have a good government laboratory. I took the opportunity to ask her to speak to my staff, none of whom have had a vaccination. My foreman told me there were several rumours doing the rounds of WhatsApp, one of which was a plot to depopulate Africa! Sue agreed, she has vast experience in this sort of thing having been involved in vaccination drives in the 1970s that curtailed measles. All concerns of my staff were answered and I sensed a reduction in the anxiety level but we’ll see if that translates into visits to the local clinics for the vaccination.

Pure delight!

The annual Husqvana-sponsored Mud Run is normally held in February at the height of the rainy season. Proceeds go to a local cancer charity, KidzCan, that sources cancer treatment for disadvantaged children. This year it had to be delayed because of the Covid epidemic so was held last Saturday at a disused golf course near to where I live in Harare. It’s on the edge of a wetland and despite the dry season the course took little water to get the desired muddy conditions.

Anti-covid measures were noticeable in restricted access to the course though masks were optional on the participants (ever tried breathing through a muddy mask?). Participants were sent off in well-spaced batches starting at first light so the photography opportunities were sparse but the delight at being out was noticeable.

It’s difficult to ascertain that status of the Covid epidemic in Zimbabwe. During the last lock-down we all received weekly status reports by SMS but these have since stopped. Schools have been back in the classroom for around 6 weeks now and I regularly see school children on my way to work flaunting masks and social distancing. My staff are certainly wary and I don’t have to remind them to wash hands or wear masks. Will there be a “third wave”? We will have to wait and see.





The end-of-summer garden

11 04 2021

Aerial view of part of our property and house

It is the end of summer as I write this, the rains have come to and early end, and the garden is drying out and losing the vibrant green. The borehole has sadly not recharged enough to offset the previous 2 years of sub-normal rainfall so already we’ve had to start buying in water. This season’s rainfall was about average at just over 700mm so it’s been a good year for the garden.

We have 3 rainwater tanks of 5,000 litres each so for four months over the rainy season we were self-sufficient and the swimming pool has remained full thanks to the water harvesting system from the roof (blue pipes). We are being a bit optimistic by leaving the pipes in place but for the last 2 years we have had significant rain in April. Curiously we have had municipal water this month, albeit only a trickle, it’s been enough to keep the swimming pool topped up to the point where it can be filtered. It’s not to be relied upon as drinkable so it’s just as well that the borehole flow is good enough to supply drinking water.

That’s Zak lying next to the corner of the kitchen garden. He’s my three-legged Rhodesian ridgeback. You can find his blog here. That’s the remains of a cardboard box he’s lying next to – a dog toy. Not his, he’s so over that sort of thing, but Roxy or Tia’s. They are the others in the Roberts’ pack.

The solar panels we added and then upgraded a year after we moved in. It’s a total of 3,300 W which is more than sufficient to power anything we need during sunlight hours and the batteries can easily carry us through overnight if the day has been clear. The mains power supply is notoriously unreliable during the rains which is also the season of most cloud so we make sure we turn the mains on at night, to recharge the batteries, just in case. We use approximately US$1 a day of mains electricity.

The solar water heater is essential for any household in this climate. It’s so efficient that at this time of year the water frequently boils during the day. We do occasionally have to boost the heat with mains during overcast spells but it’s a comparatively rare occurrence – get one if you can.

Fuchsia on the verandah

Fuchsias, ferns and other shade loving plants thrive on the verandah which we added after moving in. The previous owners had zero interest in the garden and the verandah was just a concrete floor and some ugly walls which came down as soon as we had the money. In Zimbabwe we have fantastic weather (contrasted by an equally dismal economy) so it makes sense to spend as much time outside as possible.

Palms were an early acquisition to block out a very ugly electricity supply pylon. They have grown well and mostly fulfilled their purpose.

The veggie garden was also a new development on a vacant piece of the garden previously occupied by the remains of a car port. The garden shed was a car workshop. Veggie gardens are a bit of a luxury given that we have to buy water in and they don’t like waste water as we found out. Still it’s nice to go into the garden and select a succulent broccoli for supper

Mantis on a rose

Most of the roses came with us from the farm. Unfortunately they don’t always get the attention and water they need but can be spectacular.

A swimming pool was not on the list of essentials when were looking for a property. They are nice to have and I use ours regularly in the warmer months but they are a money sink in chemicals and this one leaks which is a pain. Despite lots of excavation and probing I’ve yet to find a leak. It will have a cover on it soon to reduce evaporation.

The avocado tree is a bone of contention. It doesn’t produce very good avocados and I have the means to top work (graft onto the existing tree) some really good quality cultivars. It means that it must be cut back and then for a few years will cast minimal shade. Marianne is allergic to avocados so she’s only in it for the shade but we have plenty of other trees that we planted after moving in (14 though we have cut down 6 that were in poor health) that are shaping up well.

View of the house looking north

Top amongst these is the Acacia (now Vachellia) abyssinica which has grown at least to 8m in the four years we have been here. We didn’t realize that it had been planted in the soak-away from the servants’ quarters and it grew so fast that it its second year it was knocked flat by a strong wind. A strong pole support for a year saw a full recovery and it’s already showing the flat top growth typical of its common name “Nyanga flat-topped acacia”.

The mulberry tree was inherited. It is prolific in production and growth. The latter is easily controlled by pruning and whilst I do really like mulberries, by the end of the season I’ve had enough. There’s only so many one can eat.

If it weren’t for the cottage we probably would not have bought the property. The main house was not in a good state and we gutted it of the lifting parquet flooring, repainted inside and out and re-tiled the bathrooms. The kitchen is still waiting. The house dates from 1960 and was built by a friend’s father and uncle. The cottage is relatively new and was built by the previous owners for their parents. It didn’t need much renovation and we lease it out. We will possibly use it when we retire and rent out the house. That’s a long way off, one doesn’t retire early (or on time by First World standards) in Zimbabwe unless one is financially secure and we are not.

Sabi Star or Impala Lily (it’s not a lily)

The kitchen garden is the site of an old garden shed in which was stored all nature of old engine oils and unknown substances. We tried using the soil but it had been poisoned so gave up and now everything is in pots or a custom-built flower bed of bricks. It’s home to kitchen herbs, lavender and an assortment of annual flowers.

I’ve always wanted a water feature and so the fish ponds were the result. They were stocked with some small gold fish types and various other fish that I sourced from my friend Gary in the border town of Mutare. There are even some sword-tails that can only have got there by mistake as I didn’t buy them. They are supposedly tropical fish but have proliferated in water that can get quite cold in winter.

A succulent of sorts

The fish ponds are surrounded mainly by aloes and other succulents that are hardy enough to survive with minimal watering. They’d better be hardy as they are not getting much water this coming year.

The main succulent garden (top picture) is situated in a part of the garden that has truly dismal soil. It’s full of aloes and other succulents that must do as they can to survive. Aloes are indigenous to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula so they should be OK. This year they have put on quite a show so far.

A showy cluster of aloe flowers

Sunbirds are nectar feeders and normally love aloe flowers but so far we have seen few. Maybe it’s because the garden has only become colourful relatively recently. We wait and hope.

Cosmos

Cosmos are also left to their own devices in the succulent garden. So far they have managed well. They survive well enough in the wild in the higher rainfall areas of Zimbabwe. Apparently they were introduced in horse feed to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. These were snaffled from an uncollected customer’s order at the nursery. One of the perks of being the boss.

Daisy-of-sorts

This is another uncollected order. It’s a daisy of sorts, we’ll see if it has what it takes to survive in the succulent garden.

Hoverfly on a daisy

Perhaps not surprisingly the insect life in the garden is not prolific and yes, I am frequently looking for photo opportunities. This daisy is something of a magnet for hover flies. Superficially resembling a bee it’s known as a bee mimic of which there are several. I do make an effort not to use “heavy” agro-chemicals on the garden to the point that the roses have suffered so I put it down to the newness of the garden.

The lawn is drying off and will in time go completely brown. It isn’t of course dead – come the next rains it will revive remarkably quickly. The kitchen garden will take a knock but be kept going by the waste water from the washing machine. Other ferns and things on the verandah will be kept alive no matter what. We’ll just have to hope the next rainy season is a good one and recharges the borehole but nothing is guaranteed in this part of the world – especially not the weather.

A gazania in the kitchen garden – fate uncertain.

The neighbours – I haven’t mentioned them. The one to the west has a husband who is a retired international cricket umpire. She makes ends meet by growing veggies for restaurants from the seedlings I supply her. We’ve never met the one to the north but I do have his phone number. I cannot show their gardens for privacy reasons but you’ll just have to take my word for it that there’s nothing illegal going on that I could see which was just about everything from the drone’s vantage point.





Dollar creep

28 03 2021

The Optimist – not and easy state of mind in Zimbabwe these days

Slowly and surely the US dollar is creeping back. It’s perfectly legal, as is the local Zimbabwe dollar, but it’s getting increasingly rare to be quoted prices in them. Even the road tolls, which were always quoted in local dollars, have now stated that prices will be in US dollars though one is welcome to pay in Zimbabwe dollars at the official exchange rate. The road tolls are set by a government body.

Fuel stations are more blunt; only US dollars are acceptable and if paying by a foreign currency bank account you have to be prepared to wait whilst it’s ascertained that it really is real dollars you are using.

A visit to Kaguvi Street in the city area known as “the cow’s guts” (it’s filthy, raucous and vibrant) to source a car part was enlightening. I was offered the piece of radiator hose – not the correct one but with a bit of cutting it would do – and told it was $12 and did I have the exact amount? No, I didn’t but suggested I could use my local debit card for the equivalent of $2. Nobody had suggested that I could pay in local currency even though the debit card machine was in full view.

A couple of uniformed police walked into my office a few weeks ago. They were very polite as befitting the public relations department. My first reaction was that I’d be in trouble for not wearing my mask, even though there was nobody else around. It’s required under Zimbabwe law that a face mask is to be worn anywhere outside the home, including your own car even if you are alone. But they weren’t interested in that. They were after donations in cash or kind for building an office at the Borrowdale (my “local”) police station. I was dumbfounded. I was not surprised that they wanted to replace the ramshackle office that they currently use – it’s very temporary and probably wouldn’t last another rainy season. I asked if they’d approached the “powers that be” for funding. They had and had been told to go out and approach the community. I gave them my usual rant that I already paid tax to this government so why should I pay again? They shrugged and looked embarrassed and asked again if I could give them anything, anything at all would be appreciated.

I asked if they knew what it would cost. An architectural plan and a budget spreadsheet were offered. It all looked professionally done and of course the budget was in US dollars. The total was around $14,000 which I thought was quite a lot for what was being planned but they assured me that they’d got the required three quotes. I wondered to myself whose relative had won the contract but decided to keep quiet. I said I’d think about it and promised to get back to them.

I didn’t have to call back as the next morning they phoned me. I said I’d get them five pockets of cement – one of the perks of a farming company is that just about anything can be put through the books so the aforementioned cement could be listed as an expense and come off my tax bill. What would I get out of it? The police at that station would owe me a favour and that, dear readers, is how Africa functions. Indeed, in the past I’ve got off a traffic speeding fine because the enforcing officer used to get cheap meat from the farm where I lived.

Later the following week when I dropped off the cement some off-duty policemen in plain clothes unloaded the pockets from my truck. I’d witnessed them negotiating some after-hours guarding work with an Indian gentlemen. All the figures were of course in US dollars. I didn’t ask what their government salaries were or what the currency was – stupid question really as it was plainly not enough to get by.

A few local stores still quote in local dollars but they are getting few and far between. Where possible I pay in the local money as the majority of my income is in that currency. Customers do pay in US cash (the local cash notes are as rare as they are useless – the biggest note is ZW$50 which is about US50c) so I hoard it to pay at least part of the wages bill. My company also has a US dollar account that I use for importing raw material. One customer does pay me this way and last week I received about $24,000 for a big gum tree seedling contract that I completed last year. The gum trees will eventually be harvested and used to cure tobacco so the initiative is funded by a levy on tobacco sales which is paid in real US dollars. Hence the fact that it can be used to import materials.

I noticed on Monday that the figure in the nostro account, as the US dollar accounts are known, had been reduced by some 20%. At first I suspected there had been a mistake and somehow the depositor had withdrawn the excess. I decided to ask my bookkeeper who is knowledgeable in these sort of things. “Oh no”, she laughed, “the Reserve Bank have taken 20 percent and given it back to you as local currency. Check your other account”.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing but sure enough, when I checked, there was the money deposited in my Zimbabwe dollar account at the official rate which is some 30% lower than the black market rate. Once again, the government is stealing our hard currency.

Still seething the next day, I mentioned this to my neighbour at work. She was not surprised. Her son is an export agent for fresh produce into Europe and the UK – the Reserve Bank takes 40% out of his account and pays him back in local currency. This is especially problematic as he has to book and pay airfreight in advance and they don’t want Zimbabwe dollars.

At the end of every year, along with various tax obligations, we have to provide to the local tax authority a comprehensive list of income, tax paid, allowances and bonuses of all employees who have paid tax over the course of the year. This is purely a fact gathering exercise – it has no bearing on the tax bill  – but if submitted late one can garner a heavy fine.

I haven’t up until now bothered with a specific wages software package as most of the time I employ 17 permanent staff and an Excel spreadsheet copes just fine. Income tax is calculated and paid on a monthly basis using a system known as PAYE (pay as you earn) and whilst a bit tedious there were only a few people paying tax. However, in 2020 the inflation has run well ahead of the PAYE tax tables and lots of people ended up paying tax who were earning less than USD2 a day equivalent in the local currency. This meant two weeks of sifting through spreadsheets and collating tables and filling in the required ITF16 form. This is not going to happen again so I’ve spent the last 6 weeks writing my own wages software package that will do all that with just a few mouse clicks. Writing the software that does the PAYE was enlightening. No surprise that not only is there a local currency table but there’s also a US dollar table! The tax threshold starts at $2.31 per day with a tax of 20% (less a 46c deduction). If you don’t believe me look here.

“The term “absolute poverty” is also sometimes used as a synonym for extreme poverty. Absolute poverty is the absence of enough resources to secure basic life necessities.

To assist in measuring this, the World Bank has a daily per capita international poverty line (IPL), a global absolute minimum, of $1.90 a day as of October 2015.”

Using the above definition (from Wikipedia), and it is a little dated, it might be fair to say that Zimbabweans start being taxed when they are not quite extremely poor. That’s how desperate our government is.

Of course it needn’t be like this. A report from the Daily Maverick newspaper in South Africa is particularly damning.

“The report focuses on business cartels because these are the vehicles used for state capture. One of the experts we asked to review the report pointed out that normally cartels work to undermine the state. In Zimbabwe, however, they are in league with the highest people in the land. #DemLoot, in the now-famous words of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono.” The Daily Maverick

Last week I was chatting to a customer who was looking for advice on what crops he could grow. I gave him my standard spiel on finding a market first and then approaching me. Then I asked him what he’d been doing. “I’ve been in Afghanistan for the past 15 years and I’m tired” he replied. I wished him the best of luck.





The covid is back – this time it’s for real

7 01 2021

Phil is a big man, in all senses of the word. He farms chickens just up the road from my work and pops in regularly to buy seedlings for his veggie garden. I’ve never seen him in anything but a buoyant mood. He was slightly less so on Tuesday morning as the conversation veered to the current resurgence of the covid-19 in Zimbabwe and the newly enforced lock-down.

Zimbabwean ingenuity (or rule flaunting) at work. Petrol being offloaded at as small local filling station, sans safety procedures. The regular fuel tanker had broken down so they “made a plan” Zimbabwe style. The box in the foreground is an old petrol pump, pumping out of the bowser, stripped of its calibration equipment and metering. This to me epitomises the Zimbabwean attitude to rules.

“My father-in-law is in a bad way with covid” he said. “He’s got a heart condition that needs treating in South Africa but travel is out of the question now. I’ve managed to find 20kg of oxygen that should last 5 days or so but basically he’s waiting to die at home. He is 80” he added with a shrug.

In the first wave of covid Zimbabwe emerged mostly unscathed. The truth was that testing was sparse and deaths from the disease largely unreported but I couldn’t find anyone who knew anyone who’d died from the disease or contracted it. Conversations with my staff about 6 weeks ago yielded a complete blank. People were blasé – masks were badly worn if at all, social distancing was ignored, the curfew disdained. The government followed the South African lead almost to the letter and after three programmes of progressively more relaxed restrictions allowed life to return to near normality. We thought we were out of the woods or at least could see the beginning of the treeline. We were wrong.

Towards the end of December last year the indicators started to creep up. I don’t follow the local news and anyway, as I said earlier, testing is sparse, but reports of clinics and hospitals filling up with covid patients emerged on the social media. We ignored it and had a few guests around on New Year’s Day. We relaxed – the tier lock-down system in the UK that my brother and cousin were having to endure seemed very far away. It was a nice sunny day.

On Sunday afternoon the government Minister of Health (who is a former army general and not noted for his rationality) released a statement saying that as of Tuesday 5th January we were back into a 30 day lock-down. All non-essential businesses were to close and others to stay open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (agriculture was to continue as usual so my business is unaffected). Monday was a frenzy of shopping to make sure we had enough fertilizer and chemicals to at least last the next 30 days. A borehole switch control box had been hit by a power surge and needed replacing. It was easily replaced but expensive at US$280. Fortunately there was no damage to the motor.

The first day of the lock-down seemed like business as usual. There were just as many vehicles on the road, just as many people not wearing masks at all (or badly), the tyre shop at the local service station was open as was the taco trailer in the forecourt. The hardware supermarket across the road was closed in the morning and open in the afternoon. Soldiers at the local barracks were slashing grass outside with masks around their chins. Zak, my Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, needed to go to the vet around 10 a.m. Traffic was not light and the vet practice was busy. He’d had a bit of a cough and we were worried that his bone cancer had moved to his lungs as it can do. The X-rays were clear and we kept our social distance. Ant, the vet, snapped his mask on and off his mouth several times and said “I struggle to breath through this thing” but left it in place.

Yesterday I read my staff the riot act. Keenly aware that a similar lecture back in April had in time rung hollow, this time around I could say I knew someone (almost true) who was dying of covid, citing Phil’s father-in-law. They were suitably sombre. I emphasized that if anyone got the disease medical help would not be at hand. Government hospitals are under equipped and under staffed and nurses are recruited voluntarily to nurse patients. They are not forming queues. Private hospitals are full and beyond the pocket of the majority of Zimbabweans. Media reports tell of people with good financial resources who cannot find oxygen for any sum of money. This time the threat is real.

Arriving home for lunch yesterday Marianne told me that one of our guests on New Year’s Day had tested positive for the covid virus. A bit of basic maths and internet research (Harvard Medical School website) indicated that she’d likely been infectious on the day. I’d had no contact with her but Marianne had. A phone call to our doctor and we are now on Ivermectin, vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc and are under instruction to self- isolate. Ivermectin use as an anti-viral is controversial but it’s regarded as a very safe medication and our doctor who is self-isolating as a result of one of her domestic staff developing covid is also taking it.

At the moment we are both fine and whilst Marianne works from home I am house-bound and writing a blog post though I have plenty of other projects to fill the time for the next week (the control box for the borehole motor is already fixed). Vaccination is a non- starter, not because I don’t want it (I do) but because Zimbabwe is utterly broke and the corrupt politicians who rule are far more interested in plundering the state coffers than running the country – they no doubt are hoping for a donation of vaccines so that they can continue looting. It looks like the way to herd immunity will be the natural route with lots of casualties along the way.

Phil, the chicken farmer, claims to have had covid. Some 6 months ago he told me that he’d just finished a lock-down as both he and his wife had contracted the virus. It transpired that actually his wife had submitted a test and received a positive result, Phil had declined to spend the US$65 and just assumed that feeling lousy for 4 days was the result of the disease. I’ve never seen him wear a mask since. He claims “I’m cured”. I keep my distance from him.





No Second Amendment

31 10 2020
Just some of the paperwork for firearms’ licence renewal in Zimbabwe

It’s quite difficult to get a firearm certificate in Zimbabwe. I am in the process of renewing mine and that has been quite demanding. Certificates have to be renewed every three years and in the past it has been relatively straightforward; fill in the form, pay the money and collect the documentation at a later date. That has now changed.

Last year I received an email from the Central Firearms Registry “encouraging” me to take in my weapons, a pistol and a shotgun, for profiling. Three rounds were to be supplied for each weapon, the police armourer would then fire the rounds and distinguishing marks photographed off the cartridge cases and, where applicable, the bullet. This would then be entered into a database to enable future identification of weapons used in crimes. As I was only being “encouraged” I ignored it. Now if one needs to renew certificates the profiling is compulsory.

My certificates are due for renewal on 1st November so three weeks ago I took my weapons and the requisite ammunition into the ballistics department of the CID (Criminal Investigation Department of the local police) in town. The weapons were duly handed over, receipted and I was asked if I could come back in one hour for the certificates. I facetiously asked the police officer if there was any in-building entertainment. I got a ghost of a smile – no, no entertainment was available. I said I’d be back the following week.

Two visits later and much misunderstanding I was in receipt of a cash payment that I shouldn’t have made at this stage and a list of requirements. I felt more than a bit daunted as I had to get the following done in two days before the current certificates expire at the beginning of November:
– a current set of fingerprints.
– two passport size photographs.
– a police inspection of the required safe.
– a letter from a doctor stating that I was in good mental health over the last three years.
– a letter from the government Agricultural, Technical and Extension (AGRITEX) agency stating I am a bona fide farmer and need the shotgun for vermin control. Curiously I didn’t need any letters for the pistol, just saying I needed it for home protection was sufficient.

At the Borrowdale police station I found the relevant department (Police Intelligence Unit) in a hot, cramped office.

Did I have the relevant fingerprint forms, two of them?

No I didn’t but was told I could find them across the road at a small shopping centre. A few minutes later I’d found the forms at a hairdresser’s which had a side business in charging phones too. I was relieved of the equivalent of US$1 for the two pages of poorly printed but legible forms. Curious to find out what the local exchange rate was I approached the money changer outside the corner of the shop. 80 local dollars in cash notes for one US dollar or 90 Ecocash (mobile banking money). Surprised at the relatively low rate I enquired as to why and was told that was what the legal rate was. I laughed and commented that I knew of hardly anyone who was using it. It’s well known that the street money changers are often employed by the fat cats in government but it’s a bit much to believe that they stick to the official rate as set by the Reserve Bank.

Back at the police station the finger prints were duly taken. The police had no transport of their own so we got into my pickup truck and I got chatting to the dour but pleasant police sergeant on the way to inspect the safe at my work. I had to ask if anyone at the police station, which has a sizeable staff, had contracted the Covid-19. Nope, nobody had. I presume that nobody had actually been tested either.

At my office the sergeant gave a cursory tug on the wall safe and pronounced it secure. Then she asked to look inside and gave it another cursory tug. I was glad she’d left it at that as it’s bolted into very soft farm bricks that wouldn’t have stood a serious inspection never mind a miscreant with a crow bar.

Back at the police station the sergeant said that the printer wasn’t working, it was out of ink cartridges and they couldn’t afford new ones. So if she sent me the file of the safe inspection to my phone could I print it out at home and bring a copy back to the police station for signing? And would I be able to help out with some bond paper (plain white A4 sheets) as they couldn’t afford those either? I reflected that things were in a serious state of affairs if the police couldn’t afford printer paper at the princely sum of US1c a sheet.

The next day, two copies of the approval letter in hand, I returned to the police station and handed over a ream of paper. The duty sergeant was delighted and very grateful. I cautioned him not to let his colleagues know as it wouldn’t last long.

The photographs were easily acquired at a local photographic shop and then I picked up the letter from my doctor stating I was of stable mind and I was into the final leg, or so I thought.

The local AGRITEX office is located at the Ministry of Agriculture where I had other business. Whilst I was waiting for another clerk a helpful security guard took my current shotgun certificate up the stairs (access restricted due to the Covid-19) to the AGRITEX office. Some time later an official appeared.

Where was the proof that I owned the land, specifically an offer letter (a letter from the government allowing the farmer a lease on the land)?
I didn’t have any – I rent the land.
Where was the proof that the farm is productive, for example delivery notes to the Grain Marketing Board?
I didn’t have any of those as I only grow and sell seedlings. I didn’t mention that I do sell seedlings to various government concerns as that likely would have necessitated a trip back to the nursery.
So how big is the farm?
10 ha. I could see the official was getting exasperated.
She shook her head and disappeared back up the stairs to reappear some 15 minutes later with the letter approving the renewal of the shotgun certificate.

The Central Firearms Registry is a short drive from the Ministry of Agriculture, I had the renewal in the bag – or so I thought. But I’d reckoned without the civil servant obsession with lunch hour. I’d forgotten the receipt for the certificate payment in my truck, yes that’s it in the photo bottom right. A whole $15 of local money that equates to about US15c. No small wonder the police cannot afford printer paper which costs about US1c a sheet if one buys a ream of 500 sheets. By the time I got back from the car with the receipt the firearms registry office had closed for lunch. There was nothing to do but wait.

Two o’clock and the clerk appeared and I was first in the rapidly growing queue. My finger prints still needed to be verified, would I be prepared to pay US$2 to get it done right away? I took that to mean that the “verification” would be a formality. I didn’t have the $2 and nobody had change so it had to go through the full process. I reflected that I didn’t have a lot of faith in the system as over the years I have given at least three sets of fingerprints to the police for various documents – why couldn’t I just get them scanned and a computer get the verification? I was tired at this stage and decided I didn’t need to labour the point. I accepted the receipt note for the application and left – I was told the documentation would be ready in two weeks or more.

In Zimbabwe there is no equivalent to the Second Amendment as in the USA. There is most certainly no right to bear arms. I am fully in favour of strict controls on firearm possession if it reduces weapons crime. I am sceptical that it will. The weapons profiling system should yield a searchable database of firearms but will it? The computers required need to be powerful and are only as good as the software on them. That is not going to be free and a police force that cannot afford paper is unlikely to afford the specialised software. Maybe it’s being funded by a foreign law enforcement agency.

There won’t be another renewal in three years time, the weapons are going to be sold. The shotgun was inherited from my father and is very old but not enough so as to be valuable. I have never used it. The pistol I bought for my mother back in 1978 when she was alone and vulnerable in a small village when the country was embroiled in civil war. I have fired it twice, at a tree, just for the hell of it. It should be easy enough to sell as it’s a good make.





Spring

11 10 2020

Normally I find going out to Mazowe to get import permits a bit of a chore but not this time. I guess I was just too pleased to get out of Harare and it’s farcical Covid lock-down. I took my time on the 20 minute drive to watch the countryside go by.

It’s desperately dry at this time of year despite being spring. The musasa tree (Brachystegia speciformis) colours were finished, they are spectacular for just a few weeks, and there was little evidence of the fire devastation normally found across the sub-region at this time of year. The image shown below indicates that other countries are ablaze as usual (that’s Zimbabwe in the middle of the image).

Sizeable fires in the sub-region (CSIR AFIS website)

The image comes off the AFIS website and is worth a look as it covers most of the world and offers fire prediction services.

The Plant Protection Research Institute in the Mazowe valley was quiet and had all the usual Covid screening processes in place. The trees in the car-park were in full bloom and were in a frenzy of bird activity.

Schotia brachypetala flowers. Everything loves them!

A member of staff helpfully identified the tree as a member of the Schotia genus (I found out later it was brachypetala species) which is indigenous so I stopped to have a look at the birds. There were at least 3 species of sunbird (nectar feeders) including the scarlet chested sunbird, the amethyst sunbird and the miombo double-collared sunbird and several other species I couldn’t identify. They were having a great old time with not a small bit of squabbling. The flowers were thick with bees and other nectar feeding insects too – not surprising as very little else around was in flower.

Having handed in my application for cotton seed importation from Israel (for a colleague who has business interests in the crop) I set about collecting a few seeds scattered around on the pavement. The gate guard soon came over to see what I was doing and offered to help. Curiously, the trees were in full bloom and producing seed from the previous season at the same time. The seeds have a fleshy aril (not shown) which is attractive to birds and the flowers are also eaten by monkeys. We live in a garden that has space for a few more trees so hopefully I’ll be around to see the tree seed grow out and form attractive flowering trees – apparently they grow quite quickly.

Schotia brachypetala trees in bloom

The gate guard waved a cheery goodbye with her covid mask around her chin. The indifferent police at the roadblock on the edge of Harare were similarly nonchalant – masks in various states of misalignment – along with most Zimbabweans who have shown scant regard for social distancing and frequently don’t wear masks at all. As of writing this Covid-19 has brushed us only lightly and has all but disappeared from the local news. As of 7th October there were officially 229 Covid-19 deaths. Given the disastrous state of the country’s medical health system this is almost certainly a low figure.

Earlier this week I drove past St Anne’s Hospital which was converted at not inconsiderable expense to a Covid-19 specialty hospital. There were all of 4 cars in the car park in the doctors only area and none in the visitors’ area. I’ve heard, unreliably, that there have been all of 7 cases that have gone through the hospital.

I covered possible reasons why the covid-19 impact might not be heavy in Where’s the Covid-19? post. Which aspect, if any, of this prediction might be true I’m not prepared to speculate but in the light of the lack of cases even the government has decided to relax travel restrictions.

It’s not officially over but…

Goodness knows the tourist industry needs all the help it can get but for many businesses it will be too late and I suspect only the most adventurous foreign tourists will travel in the absence of a proven vaccine.

The Zimbabwean economy still faces many challenges independent of a virus pandemic. It is almost entirely self-inflicted. The central bank and the Finance Minister are still trying to manipulate the laws of economics (and by extension mathematics) by controlling the exchange rate of the local dollar with the US dollar. Officially it’s around 81 of the local to 1 US$. Few if anyone is actually using that. It’s possible in theory to buy the hard currency on a government-controlled fortnightly auction (the rate is fixed) but actually getting the greenbacks is a challenge. The company my bookkeeper works for successfully bid for a tranche of US dollars but so far nothing has materialised.

It is perfectly legal to trade in US dollars or Zimbabwean dollars. The foreign ones are well circulated to the extent that they wouldn’t be acceptable in a first world country. However I’m occasionally surprised by the appearance of brand new, sequentially numbered notes.

The real stuff and new to boot!

Small denominations are, not surprisingly, difficult to find to the extent that businesses may ask one to pay the smaller amounts in local currency as they don’t have change.

The jacaranda trees that are ubiquitous in Harare are in full flower right now. They are showy, the bees love them and they care not a whit for Zimbabwe’s economy.

Jacaranda mimosifolia in full bloom

While I do have a preference for indigenous trees I don’t mind the jacaranda. It’s useful to the bees producing a mild, pale honey and is fantastic wood to work with if a bit dull. The flowers don’t do well in the rains and the roads become a carpet of mauve flowers that pop under the car wheels.

There’s rain around at the moment. It’s a bit early for the real season which starts mid November (usually) but it’s still welcome even if the early storms tend to be violent often with hail. So far it’s done a fair job of missing us.

The season ahead is looking promising.

https://iri.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/figure1.png
ENSO – el Niño Southern Oscillation (Columbia University)

If the la Niña forecast comes to be, as is indicated above, we stand a good chance of better than average rainfall over the next 5 months. Goodness knows we need it but it’s never as simple as the charts make out. More than a few times over the past 20 years that I’ve had my nursery business it’s been a disappointment. It doesn’t make that much difference to my business – commercial horticulture in this part of the world is dependent on a good irrigation system for success. Still, we’d like to have a good season to replenish our borehole in the garden. The rain gauge is out on its stand already – here’s hoping.

(el Niño conditions are indicated by warm currents off the coast of the Galapagos Islands (eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean) and commonly cause drought in this part of the world. La Niña conditions are the opposite and indicate wetter than usual conditions – see What is el Niño?)