Those were the days

26 04 2018

Those were the days of lots of zeros – my claim to multimillionaire status!

There is not much to do at work at the moment – business is very quiet – so I got down to bit of clearing out old accounts and invoices. I’m told that paper records only need to go back 7 years so this printout going back to 2008 was fair game for the rubbish bin. Look at all those zeros! In August 2008 the hyperinflation was really heating up but we still had another “resetting” of the zeros to go and another 12 to gain before we ditched the ludicrous Zimbabwe dollar in February 2009 and became what is now known as “dollarised” i.e. we adopted the US dollar as the main currency. One hundred trillion Zimbabwe dollar notes are still sold as tourist souvenirs!

Given the dismal state of business I decided to get “proactive” (ghastly word) and go looking for business out of town. The small rural mining town of Bindura an hour to the north of Harare was the target. I’d been invited there by the manager of the agricultural showgrounds who’d met me a the ART Farm field day last month. He thought we might be interested in setting up a stand for August’s show and maybe selling seedlings from the grounds on a weekly basis. I was a bit sceptical but given that the town served a vast agricultural area thought there was merit in at least having a look. So I got hold of a former foreman that I’d employed some years ago, who’d decided to go farming on his own but was now looking for work, and we set out this past Tuesday.

The showgrounds were not in a great state. Although the location was reasonable the grounds were badly overgrown and the buildings dilapidated. I asked for a guided tour of the town. It was smaller than I remembered from my last visit in 2001 when I’d got into political trouble for lending a pickup truck to the opposition MDC in the general election (see this link Reflections on the First Half). We stopped at the offices of the local branch of Agritex – the government agricultural extension service responsible for the Mashonaland West province of Zimbabwe.

The man in charge came out to the car park to chat to me and upon hearing that I wanted to get a bit of exposure for my company suggested that I do the rounds of the field days in the province. I was surprised to hear that there was nearly one a day but it is a large area. He kindly wrote down the names and phone numbers of people who he thought would be most relevant for a seedling business and suggested I contact Mrs Hungwe on the route past Trojan Nickel Mine that would take us back on another road to Harare. He assured us that the road was fine.

Trojan mine appears to be doing much better than the rest of Bindura. There was certainly plenty of activity that we could see and the road was well maintained – until we got past the mine gate. For 3 km it was better to drive off the tarmac than on it. I did get quite passable after that.

Mrs Hungwe met us at the Bindura Rural District Council offices. Small and dynamic she is the chairman of the Muunganirwa-Chakona irrigation scheme some 40km from Harare. She was delighted that I was interested and invited us back today to their field day. So this morning we loaded some seedling samples to give away and headed back along the picturesque Domboshava road to the irrigation scheme.

Picturesque rural scene on the Domboshava road with a classic clear autumn sky. Yes, it really was that blue!

It turned out to be a longer day than I’d expected but the turnout was good with around 70 people of whom some 50 were members of the irrigation scheme. For once I felt that I was around the average age of the audience and commented as such to one of the officials. Like many developing countries the youth are not interested in farming and have largely departed for the cities. On the return trip I chatted to the young man in the foreground of the picture above – he spoke perfect English and was on his school holiday. I commented on his good English and he said he’d learnt it at junior school in Harare but was going to secondary school nearby. I suppose it was possible that his parents could no longer afford to send him into Harare. I asked him if he’d been working over his holiday. The predictable response was that there wasn’t any to be found.

The presentation

Whether the effort will pay off remains to be seen but the audience was attentive to my former employee’s presentation and the free seedlings were certainly appreciated.

This painfully thin old man appeared to be lost in his own world for the duration of the field day. He was unaccompanied but his clothes are clean and freshly pressed so someone must be caring for him.





Hopeful signs?

29 03 2018

Last week I attended the ART (Agricultural Research Trust) annual open day with the senior foreman at the nursery to keep our name recognisable (it’s Emerald Seedlings if you need to know). We’ve been feeling the pinch a bit this year – it’s  been the slowest start to a year since Zimbabwe adopted the US dollar as its main currency back in February 2009.

ART is the last agricultural research centre in the country where any significant research actually happens (the other government farms are broke and little if any research is done on them) and they too have fallen on hard times now that the commercial farmers on whom they depended for tariffs are largely gone.

It was evident that there were quite a few more exhibitors than last year (we pay for space) and there were more than 250 visitors. That’s not a lot by agricultural show standards but most likely had some sort of connection to agriculture. There is a bigger agricultural equipment show later in the year but it’s open to anyone.

So was this good turnout symptomatic of a renewed enthusiasm for agriculture and the future of the country in general? It’s difficult to say. The new president, E D Mnangagwa has certainly been making all the right noises, including asking evicted white commercial farmer to return to help feed the nation. Few are likely to take up the plea. Most are now too old to start over or are established elsewhere – Zambia profited handsomely from the influx of farmers displaced by former president Mugabe’s disastrous land redistribution policy. The economy remains moribund but at least the government has resisted the temptation to print more of the infamous bond notes that curiously command a premium of 20% over cashless transactions in many parts of the economy.

Last week there was much anticipation over the name and shame list, published by the government, of people and organizations that had externalized money over the years. Names and quantities of money (to the dollar) were listed making me think that it was simply a lack of paperwork by the central Reserve Bank, after all who would export money through official channels if they knew it was illegal? Tellingly is was only a name and “shame” list, not a name and prosecute list and there were no current members of the ruling ZANU-PF party listed. Anticipation quickly became cynicism.

Last week my staff workers’ committee asked for a meeting. Cash was hard to come by; would I consider paying them more if there was no cash available for their wages because they could get a 20% discount for cash (which I do pass on as and when I get it). I don’t think they honestly expected me to say yes so I did not surprise them. Zimbabwe remains expensive and prices of imported goods (one has to wonder how grapes from Holland get a green light to be imported) continue to escalate. I did tell them that nothing was going to change before the elections scheduled later this year and even then it was only going to be incremental. I’m not sure they understood or even cared.

Yours for a cool $175,000. Comes with GPS enabled steering, air conditioning and enough lights to keep going all night. Requires an operator (drivers need not apply)

Zimbabwe ingenuity – a battery powered knapsack sprayer mounted on wheels with a spray boom adjustable in height for various crops

A storm on the way from Harare city. Trial plots line the road down the centre of the farm

ART field day looking north-east

 





Insults and injury

19 05 2016

From today’s papers:

The injury. Whilst farmers evicted from Zimbabwe who have settled in Zambia have ensured that country has a surplus of maize around 500k tonnes, we are going hungry here.

The injury. Whilst farmers evicted from Zimbabwe who have settled in Zambia have ensured that country has a surplus of maize around 600k tonnes, we here are going hungry.

 

 

And the insult. Not only are bananas perishable but the gift also included yams which are not eaten here. And it was all imported from Equatorial Guinea just when we are restricting imports of, among other things, foodstuffs.

And the insult. Not only are bananas perishable but the gift also included yams which are not eaten here. And it was all imported from Equatorial Guinea just when we are restricting imports of, among other things, foodstuffs.

 





After the fire

23 10 2015

Agriculture is not an exact science and sometimes things go wrong. The tobacco seedlings we’d sent to a customer near Headlands, an hour and a half to the east of Harare, had been well received until he informed me that we were some 160,000 seedlings short out of a total of some 500,000. I was more than a touch bemused. This warranted a visit to try and ascertain what had happened.

Leaving early this morning before the traffic had got going I arrived at 8h30 after a rough 20km south of the main Harare-Mutare road. The lands were impressive and well farmed in contrast to the derelict farms I passed along the way.

Not a lot happening

Not a lot happening

The farmer, young by my standards, had recently been allocated the farm by the government meaning that sometime in the past another farmer had been kicked off it though there was no evidence that I could see of habitation. I had to give the new farmer his due – he’d worked hard to get his project going starting pretty much from scratch and had got a substantial loan from a Chinese farming company that wanted his tobacco. The company has apparently been in the area for about the last 10 years. Of the missing seedlings there was no sign. Whilst we have absolutely no legal obligation to seedlings once they leave the nursery I did feel bound to meet him half way on the cost as I’m pretty sure he’ll be back next year. I made it clear that I expected him to check the quantities when they arrived (he admitted they hadn’t) and I made clear that this was not going to happen again.

On the way back I noticed a small burnt area near the main road and stopped to take some photos of the flowers that had bloomed after a recent fire. They didn’t need a loan to make the most of life; just a fire!





Passing on the knowledge

9 10 2015

Every year at about this time in October the local University of Zimbabwe 2nd year agriculture students come on a tour of my nursery. Every year I give them what is by now a well-rehearsed talk. Sometimes it’s an interactive visit that I enjoy with a lot of pertinent questions. Sometimes I could be talking to a herd of mombes (cattle in the vernacular). Last Monday I was starting to despair; I just could not get more than single sentence answers and discussion was just not going to happen. Then somebody did it.

We were standing at the tobacco ponds where tobacco seedlings are grown in polystyrene trays floating on a shallow pond containing fertilizer. Did I take notice of the regulations concerning planting dates of the seedlings? For a moment I was incensed but I very quickly realised that it was a serious question. So after a “I cannot believe you asked that” response (that the lecturer chaperoning the students found very funny) I told them why the regulations existed and why flouting them was a very bad idea no just from the legal consequences point of view. It’s all about pest carry over for the non-scientific; separating sequential crops with a fallow period breaks the pest/disease cycle. Tobacco crops in Zimbabwe must be destroyed by the first of May, new plantings can only be sown from the 1st of June and seedlings planted out from the 1st of September. There are numerous examples of how pests have been introduced into the country by people ignoring phytosanitary requirements. But why was the question asked in the first place?

Sadly corruption is pervasive in Zimbabwe. Earlier this week the Swedish Ambassador expressed frustration with the level of corruption in the NGO sector. Now that is something coming from the Swedes who have a history of being very helpful to Zimbabwe. We are in the current financial mess in no small part due to financial mismanagement and corruption and when the people see the top echelons misbehaving they must assume that it is OK to do the same; Zimbabwe is very much a patriarchal society. Why would my nursery not also be cutting corners? Yes, I have seen these corners cut by farmers who should know much better.

Towards the end of the tour I pre-empted a question that I was hoping to be asked; do we take students on attachment? We do but few are enthusiastic once I tell them that we don’t pay them. Once in a while I am pleasantly surprised and for those I make an exception and at least pay their transport as they are genuinely useful. Moses is one. A student in last year’s batch he worked for at least 6 weeks going around all three nurseries on the premises. He even came back in his vacation.

One morning soon after starting his attachment he approached me as I was taking measurements from the tobacco ponds.

“Morning sir” he said.

“Morning Noah” I replied, genuinely having forgotten his name.

“Actually it’s Moses, sir” came the reply.

I liked that. Not so much in awe of me that he cannot express an opinion. He is also very ambitious and hopes one day to become a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. So he almost certainly will not stay in Zimbabwe along with so many others who are fed up with the mismanagement and corruption. Our loss.

“I knew it was something biblical” I replied, and he laughed..





A tentative start

27 06 2015

It was not very well attended but Geoff, who is naturally optimistic, said “Yes, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen something like this and that is good news”.

I had to agree. It was not a big agricultural machinery show by any standards but it was most certainly a start.  The really big combines were privately owned and on loan for the show. There were some very high tech irrigation systems and all nature of sprayers including a Brazilian made battery powered knapsack sprayer that caught my fancy. But who has the money to afford these systems and where are the farms that need them? Mostly gone in the chaos that peaked in the early part of the century when government backed “war vets” evicted most of the white commercial farmers. And the country is very nearly broke.

It continues in a smaller way today. I was chatting to the owner of a smaller nursery near Karoi in the north west of the country. She and her husband rented a farm and co-existed with 7 small scale farmers. A year ago they were kicked off the farm and today there is only one small scale farmer left and very little evidence that it was ever a productive farm.

So will there be another farming equipment show next year? I cannot answer that but a lot of people are hoping there will be and it will be bigger.

 

show

Not a big show but a start.

local spuds

Local ingenuity – a potato lifter. Not high tech but it works.

high sprayer

Now that’s what I call a tall sprayer!

demonstration

Field demonstrations

big combine

A combine harvester worthy of any first world farm. This one was on loan for the show.

diesel pump

A diesel powered pump. Useful when the power is unreliable

centre pivot

High tech irrigation system

big john deere

One careful owner.

banners

Well, the advertising banner industry seems to be healthy!





Perspective

14 09 2014

We descended below the clouds some 20 minutes out of Harare airport. A bit of mental arithmetic made that some 100 km or so depending on the speed of the aircraft. I wasn’t in a window seat but had a reasonably clear view of the countryside and kept an eye open for irrigated crops, their intense green easy to spot at this time of year against the brown of the veld. Nothing. One or two old centre pivot irrigation fields were detectable by their characteristic circular pattern but now they were derelict. Plenty of dams though and they were mostly full in this, the dry season. Yes, I was definitely home.

congress

The keynote address at the first day of the International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane

The International Society of Horticultural Science holds a International Congress every 4 years in a different country.

This year it was in Brisbane, Australia and I decided it was time to go and see just where horticulture was going. It was impressively well organized in the modern conference centre on the south bank of the Brisbane River. More than 3000 delegates attended over the 5 days that it was run and the range of topics covered by the symposia necessitated a fair degree of choosiness. Presentations varied from excellent to hopelessly technical with a few mediocre thrown in for good measure. While I didn’t find anything directly relevant to my business it was worthwhile and my curiosity was well satisfied (or more precisely – saturated) by the end. The final dinner was a festive affair with a good band, dancers, magician and plenty to eat and drink. Rather depressingly I found myself to be of the average age – where was the future of horticulture which as one of the keynote speakers pointed out will be the future of feeding the world (horticulture is defined as being intensive agriculture)?

After the congress it was time to catch up with friends – some of whom I hadn’t seen for 25 years when I was last in Australia, doing the backpacker “thing”. I made some last minute changes to the itinerary and needing to book a flight to Canberra from Sydney I pulled out the smart phone in Brisbane airport and 3 hours later in Sydney got onto the plane to Canberra. Australia works. First world (not sure why I was expecting anything else but it really works). Of course first world functionality comes at a first world price and my friend Peter whom I visited in Orange (also in NSW) told me that Australia is now officially the world’s 4th most expensive country to live in. I can believe it. A small (by Harare standards) 3 bedroom house in Orange will go for some 5-600,000 Aus dollars and the gardens are miniscule! A meal for 3 of us at a good restaurant, though certainly unexceptional, in Brisbane cost $160 without alcohol. It would have been about $75 in Harare. It’s all to do with high labour costs I am told. That and the vast mining industry that powers the Australian economy.

Pasture land around Orange

Pasture land around Orange

That is not to say that agriculture is insignificant either. Australia has some 13 million ha of wheat production, mostly for export. Zimbabwe was once self sufficient in wheat and exported maize. Now we import both. Unlike Australia where most extensive agriculture is going the corporate farming route with vast tracts of land being farmed, Zimbabwe is heavily reliant on the small scale producers. The mostly white commercial farmers were kicked off their land in the early 2000s – hence the idle dams and land that I saw coming into Harare. In Australia most extensive agriculture relies on rain whereas in Zimbabwe irrigation is essential, especially for winter/dry season production.

canola fields

Canola (oilseed rape) near Orange, NSW

Oilseed rape (Canola) was abundant in the short trip we did around Orange, again mostly farmed by corporate organisations. This is not a crop we grow in Zimbabwe and unlike Zimbabwe, most states in Australia have embraced GMO crops. With labour costs that high GM farming is very attractive (most of the GM crops we saw were of the Roundup Ready® variety – i.e. weeds can be controlled by herbicide sprayed over the crop but the crop is unaffected). GMOs are banned in Zimbabwe though I know that they are imported illegally from South Africa where they are commonly grown.

Back in Queensland with another friend also called Peter we did the rounds of the farming area. The soil is much more fertile in the Darling Downs region than in most of Australia and it is used to the maximum. Again, mostly without irrigation and the maximum use of mechanization to keep labour costs down.

A few people at the congress in Brisbane asked me how many staff I employed. 14 labourers, 2 foremen and 8 contract labour. They looked stunned especially when I explained the size of the nursery. A nursery of similar size in Australia would employ perhaps 4 people. We are still third world here.

Being driven back home from the airport I couldn’t help but compare the filth of the Harare streets with the immaculate ones of Brisbane. BrizVegas, as the locals like to call it, is spotless. Like any modern, first world city, there is also lots to do there. There are two art galleries, a library that offers evening courses in, amongst other things, film making and of course lots of shows that are booked out months in advance. We don’t get much in the way of quality international entertainment here in Harare except perhaps for HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts) once a year and it’s relatively easy to get tickets there.

Brisbane from the river - there's real money here!

Brisbane from the river – there’s real money here!

BrisVegas from the south bank of the Brisbane River

BrisVegas from the south bank of the Brisbane River

A sculpture at the Gallery of Modern Art. I got this one, a lot was less comprehensible.

A sculpture at the Gallery of Modern Art. I got this one, a lot was less comprehensible.

Back home the dogs were ecstatic, the lawn was dead from lack of water (it regrows in the rains), there was dust everywhere and the nursery was just fine. It had been good to get a perspective on the real world out there but it was also great to be home.