The broken economy?

13 06 2019

After visiting the ADMA Agrishow one could be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing much wrong with the Zimbabwe economy. Covering some 12ha at the centre of the Borrowdale racecourse it’s a glut of agricultural machinery, supplies and engineering firms and more than a few “toys for the boys” to boot.

I didn’t get around it all, it was far too big and a map would have been useful, but it was a nice break from the tedium of survival in Zimbabwe and quite inspiring that such a show can still be put on. I wasn’t really sure what the relevance of the Landrovers were (nothing like the Landrovers that I knew as a kid) and I still haven’t found out what ADMA stands for. The weather was good too, I saw a few people I know and scored a free coffee. Tomorrow I’ll go back to the reality and deal with the power line that has yet again been stolen from by my nursery.





The benighted country

9 06 2019

The benighted country under the Milky Way. Half the time there will be little or no lights at this time of night. That’s Jupiter middle top-left and the lights of the Troutbeck Hotel below the horizon.

There are now 8 hour power cuts every day. They usually alternate mornings and afternoon/evenings. The latter are more tedious for domestic issues, the former for work when we are doing most of the watering of the seedlings at the nursery. Power requirements are met with a diesel generator which is big enough to run pumps and office equipment but not the borehole motors which are some 450m away. Those have to wait for the mains power to come back on and run all night if necessary. So far there is enough “on time” from the mains for the boreholes to fill the main 125,000 litre reserve tank but that may not always be the case.

Diesel for the generator comes from a bulk tank that I filled a year ago but that is not going to last forever. Queues at the filling stations have been long and ubiquitous for those paying with the local currency. Got US dollars? No queuing necessary; just drive up to the pump. It’s not cheap at $1.36 per litre but my contact in the fuel industry says he can sell me bulk diesel for 89c per litre with a minimum delivery of 2,500 litres. Given that the unofficial exchange rate is 8.1 of the local dollars to one USD it makes sense to sit in a queue and pay with local money (it’s the equivalent of US60c a litre) if you have the time but one can queue for several hours with no guarantee that the fuel won’t run out.

Last weekend we decided to get out of the stress mire that is Harare and spend a few days in the cold mountain air of the Nyanga mountains in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe with some friends from Mutare, also in the east. Some phone calls and social media research ascertained that the likelihood of fuel being available in the area was good, but not certain, so in the interests of sanity we dug into our reserves of real money, bypassed the queues at the local fuel station and filled up the pickup and a Jerry-can with diesel. It was worth it to get away. Ever hopeful, I packed a paraglider but the wind was not suitable so we spent the weekend sitting in the sunshine and just chilling out. It turned out to be a literal chilling out with a very sharp frost on the first morning we were there but the company was good and the log fire warm. Yes, the power cuts reached us but it did not matter too much and it turned out there was plenty of diesel available, for US dollars only, at the Troutbeck fuel station. Tourists were in short supply though the hotel seemed to be getting by on conferences. Marianne commented that it must be soul-destroying for the staff to spend the week waiting for weekend tourists who don’t arrive.

Mt Nyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest mountain, dominates the horizon. This was taken from the same spot as the starscape but facing further south. The weather was not as warm as it looks.

On Tuesday I was at the local bank to get my online banking password changed (I’d been locked out for too many wrong login attempts) and the bank official asked me how business was going. I replied that it was OK, my business was still afloat which was better than I’d expected at the beginning of the year but the outlook was still bleak with no promise of a rescue by a US dollar in the wings as had happened in 2009. She agreed with me. Any light that was in the tunnel is fading and it is unrealistic to expect any economic recovery with power cuts for 8 hours in 24. The night is indeed looking dark.

 





The rise of solar power and Zimbabwe’s power generation crisis

18 05 2019

The solar power sun is rising

There was little warning of the impending power cuts (called load shedding here). Just a notice from the government owned utility, ZETDC, in the press and the next day we were cut off for 8 hours. That was 10 days ago and they have been very regular since then – alternating mornings and afternoons.

The first one coincided with the demise of a set of lead-acid batteries we’d bought of a local manufacturer in February for our solar system. They’d just been returned under warranty and we’d decided to go upmarket  and more reliable. After a lot of reading up and phoning around and being promised all manner of quality and prices I visited a supplier whom I’ve dealt with in the past and who I know supplies quality equipment.  He also knows what he’s talking about. An hour later and he’d convinced me that lithium batteries were the way to go with their 10 year warranty and superior charging characteristics (3 hours under bright sunlight). Initial outlay is high but lead acid batteries only have a one year warranty for most types.

We duly dug into our savings and paid up. Much to his embarrassment the supplier then discovered he didn’t have any lithium batteries in stock so lent us a set of lead-acid gel batteries that were to be returned to the factory for some minor defect. Going back to the outlet today to get some further information on the new lithium battery one of the senior staff confided that ZETDC had told them that the power cuts were going to get MUCH worse. It was not just sales talk.

Zimbabwe most of its power from Lake Kariba on the Zambezi River on the country’s north-west boundary with Zambia. Both countries have been over-utilizing this water resource for some years now and the lake has fluctuated far more in recent years than in the past. Add to this the fluctuating rainfall and we are into dangerous territory. It should be said that a large proportion of the water that flows into the lake comes from northern Angola and central Zambia which has more reliable rainfall than Zimbabwe.

The dam was finished in 1960 and since then the turbines have been upgraded and the power stations on both banks of the Zambezi River have been expanded. It is the largest man made lake by volume on the planet and such is the mass of water that it is not unusual for the residents in the area to experience minor earthquakes. Such is the volume of water that can be released from the floodgates that it was feared the vibration could cause damage to the wall and it is very rare for more than 4 of the six floodgates to be opened at any one time. The plunge pool, where the spilling water falls, has undercut the foundations of the wall beyond permissible limits and has to be stabilized along with overdue maintenance on the floodgates. This means that the dam should not be allowed to spill until the work is complete so this last rainy season substantial water was allowed to flow from the dam before the flood waters come down from the upper Zambezi, usually in April. It seems that someone got the maths wrong, let out too much water before checking how much rain the catchment had received which was less than normal, and now there is barely enough head of pressure to keep the turbines going. Add to this the fact that one of the turbines at Hwange, the large thermal power plant in the west of the country, is out of commission and we have a power supply crisis. Alternative development projects, such as solar, have failed to come to fruition due to the dismal credit rating of the country.

This of course is not bad news for the sellers of alternative power systems. Whilst it is certainly cheaper to buy and fuel a generator than a solar system in the short term there is also the added complication that we have a fuel supply crisis. This has been ongoing for some months now and is driven by a lack of hard currency to pay for the imported fuel. Fuel queues are long and ubiquitous if one wants to pay in the local currency (now just referred to as ZWL). For those who have hard currency there is no queue and fuel is always available.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this is the death knell for the local currency and it may be, but the vast majority of Zimbabweans just do not have access to hard currency (usually the $US). The country is not earning much hard cash from limited exports and already the government has reneged on it’s promise to pay tobacco farmers at least a portion of their earnings (the majority of the crop is exported) in US dollars. Appeals to South Africa to sell us power is likely to be refused; they too are inflicting load shedding on their population due to a lack of power capacity. In their case, the local power authority – Eskom, is guilty of lack of development to meet increasing demand and corrupt dealings and over-paying senior management. Anyway, they would demand hard currency which we don’t have.

Downstream of Lake Kariba, in Mozambique, is Lake Cahora Bassa. It too is a large lake built to generate hydroelectric power which is mostly sold to South Africa. Not surprisingly it is full thanks to the outflow from Kariba and I’ve heard speculation that Mozambique will be approached to supply us power. Once again, we don’t have the money to buy it. It’s not looking good at all until at least April next year when the flood waters from the upper Zambezi reach Lake Kariba assuming the rains will be good in the catchment area. The government has promised not to cut power to the vital mining sector but its track record on promises is poor.

Meanwhile the local currency is under severe devaluation pressure. Just this last week the unofficial rate (what it can actually be bought for vs the “official” rate as quoted by the central bank) has fallen from 5 to the US dollar to 7. The official rate of 3.5:1 US dollar exists only on paper. Many outlets have stopped quoting goods in local prices and some, such as the accounting firm that holds my company documents, is demanding only US dollars. The ZETDC power utility is owed millions in unpaid accounts and our electricity price has remained at 14c (local) per unit for years despite the falling value of the currency. It has appealed to the government to raise tariffs but the last application was rejected – the government doesn’t want to foment unrest. They may have missed the bolting horse. Today I was shown and anonymously authored WhatsApp message announcing a mass stay-away. Details were sketchy, deliberately I think, but the message was clear; we’ve had enough.

Mass stay-aways in the past have had limited success but have clearly rattled the government which has responded with shutting down the internet and crushing any demonstrations with a very heavy hand. The WhatsApp circular advised people to remain peaceful and stock up on essential supplies. Sound advice for those who can afford to pay for them – a forever diminishing proportion of the population.





John the Baptist was a Zimbabwean

13 05 2019

The Herald in full sycophant form

It’s an old joke; apparently when asked if he was Christ, John the Baptist replied “I am not the one”. It’s also the favorite escape clause for Zimbabweans when faced with a potential penalty for some misdemeanor.

And so it was, two weeks ago, when I discovered that the electronic scale we use for weighing fertilizer and chemicals had been broken by someone overloading it – I got just that response from the person most likely to have been the culprit, “I am not the one”. I’m afraid to say I lost my temper. Then I realised that there were customers with small children in the nursery. I should have been embarrassed except I wasn’t though I did recognize that something needed to be done about my increasingly volatile temper – so now I’m on the “happy pills”.

When I saw this headline on The Herald (it’s a government-owned paper) I was struck by how the President, ED Mnangagwa, is effectively saying “I am the one, I am taking responsibility for what I say, trust me”. Well isn’t that interesting. His slogan for the election last year was “Zimbabwe is open for business”. Then in the troops hit the streets at the first sign of unrest and promptly shot dead 6 people in the back as they ran away. Footage was broadcast of a soldier taking aim and opening fire – clearly identifiable. At the inquest the army said it was very definitely not responsible; they were imposters who opened fire. Later ED Mnangagwa said he had ordered the troops onto the street i.e. he was the one responsible though initially he said he was NOT the one.

Back in the mid 1980s when the Ndebele people in the south-west of the country were being persecuted and massacred for supporting the then president Robert Mugabe’s nemesis, Joshua Nkomo, guess who was in charge of the Central Intelligence Organisation whilst North Korean trained 5th Brigade was committing the massacres? You guessed it, ED Mnangagwa. He hasn’t quite said he was not the one but he does claim that he didn’t know anything about it.

The Gukurahundi Massacres (around 20,000 victims) as they are known are back in the news and the President has said that justice must be seen to be done. Victims are being given proper burials and a commission has been set up to investigate what happened. I am sceptical that anyone will be held accountable, least of all ED or the then commander of the 5th Brigade, Perence Shiri, who happens to be the current Minister of Agriculture. So I think it should be quite likely that “the investors” in the article might also be a little cynical when the President “gives his word”. No I didn’t read the article. It wasn’t my newspaper – it was lying unopened in my local bank and I didn’t feel inclined to wade through what was bound to be a lot of sychophantic guff.

A friend of mine always used to buy The Herald; “you have to know your enemy” he’d admonish me when I asked him why but even the happy pills I’m taking don’t fortify my patience to that level. I don’t think they are meant to. But they might actually be calming my temper – I haven’t lost it since that day but then nobody has claimed they “are not the one”.





VAWZ and Gerry the cat

1 05 2019

Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe (VAWZ) is one of the more active animal welfare organizations based in Harare. They take animal welfare to the rural areas in the form of education, neutering and general clinics and like a lot of welfare organizations in Zimbabwe at the moment are having a hard time raising cash. It’s not surprising, the much vaunted slogan of the President, E D Mnangagwa, “Zimbabwe is open for business” has turned out to be empty of any meaning. He continues to squander hard cash on hiring a private jet for business whilst the economy tanks and the local currency dives in value. Hyper-inflation looms once again.

The Rescue & Release fund raiser was held at a local pub recently. Volunteers (with a bit of coercion) were face-painted and dressed up to represent various animals and “locked up” in a cage and were only allowed out once they’d raised there release/ransom fee of $10,000 (that’s local currency). Some of the more socially connected had raised the money even before being locked up. The evening went well with some $45,000 raised.

 

This last Sunday there was another VAWZ fundraiser in the form of the annual Scruffs Dog Show. Open to all and sundry it was a fun morning with lots of categories to suit all breeds and sizes of dogs. Sadly it was not as well supported as in the past though the sponsors certainly stepped up to the plate. Please support VAWZ if you can – they do such good work.





Easter break on the Turgwe River

23 04 2019

It’s not often that we both manage to get away together over Easter but this year we were lucky. Despite the kennels that we trust being full we managed to find someone to come and house-and-dogsit over the weekend. We have  been to the Humani Ranch camp on the Turgwe River before in December 2014 but this time we had downgraded from the rather expensive chalets to the glamping section with a group of friends from Mutare on the eastern border. It was comfortable enough.

It was a long 6 hour driver to the camp in the south-east of Zimbabwe but there had been recent rain and the countryside was greener than it had been a few months earlier. The recent cyclone Idai had expended most of it’s force before getting to this part of the countryside so a few bridges had experience damage but had already been fixed. The bush was thick and water plentiful so we didn’t see much game and that we did was very skittish. The Savé Valley Conservancy, of which the ranch is a part, is also a hunting area and most game did not wait to see if we were friendly or not. Still, it was good to get out of Harare for a while and enjoy the bush.

 





A productive morning

26 03 2019

Life and business are difficult in Zimbabwe at the moment – fuel queues, shortages, excessive prices – so it’s nice to be productive even if it’s purely to satisfy oneself. I got up early this morning to take photos on ART Farm where we run the dogs. I’d seen some potential photos yesterday when the mist was down and there was dew on the fence and the spider webs were glistening jewels of water drops. I was lucky. Not only was the mist there again but the fence had insects on it and because of the cold they were still! Movement is the enemy of macro photography so I was really lucky.