A bit of marketing

19 10 2013

The economic climate in Zimbabwe has changed substantially over the past 4 years. Not only do we no longer use our own currency (just about any hard currency is acceptable but the US dollar and South African rand are the most popular) but we are all fighting for what little business there is. This was not always the case for my business. I used to just rely on word of mouth for the customers to come to me. So when a few weeks ago I got an email from a local farmers’ union asking if I was interested in advertising at their annual congress (for a small fee of course) I decided it was time to do a bit of marketing.

So for 2 days this last week I went just east of Marondera to a government technical college where the annual congress of the ZCFU (Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union) was being held. I had little idea what to expect, or even who the ZCFU is, so borrowed a gazebo tent, took along some examples of seedlings that we grow and brought the senior foreman/clerk along too. There was a LOT of waiting. Finally on the last day just as we were packing up the delegates came out of the congress and we got quite a lot of interest. Just how much will translate into business remains to be seen.

A very basic setup

That’s us -a very basic setup

All quiet

All quiet

These photos were taken on the first day when there were just a few students around. The second day there were quite a lot more exhibitors.

The convener of the congress is a relatively small-scale farmer and long time customer of mine. Quite what was discussed I don’t know but he was pleased with how it all went. Most exhibitors were of the usual agricultural supplies and input type but there were even some representatives of the local tax revenue authority there “trying to persuade the farmers to pay their taxes”. I kid you not – this is what one of them told me! We had quite a long chat discussing how to get agriculture going in Zimbabwe again (access to finance and all that implies) though I was quite circumspect on the political aspect. We both bemoaned the dearth of Zimbabwean produce on the local market. So when I went shopping yesterday and actually saw some local fresh produce I just had to take a photo.

Finally some local produce

Finally some local produce





Waiting for the right moment

10 10 2013
Kindly donated by...

Kindly donated by…

I have always wondered how condoms are electronically tested (the red arrow on the box is mine). They have been tested this way as long as I can remember which is long before Google and the internet. For those who are interested this link will tell you how. They certainly haven’t been free in the National Blood Transfusion Service toilets for more than a few years which is where I photographed this box. I should know; I am such a regular donor that this last time my blood was marked for pediatric use. I did ask the nursing sister, who took the blood, why not just test the blood and rely on the test results but got a vague answer. Are regular donors less likely to have risky lifestyles and are therefore less likely to be HIV positive? I don’t know. I DO know that the HIV tests are not infallible. But it was time to head out to the customer in Marondera South, some 2 hours south-east of Harare who’d placed a large order of tobacco seedlings through my nursery and check up on how things were going.

I have never smoked. I did try really hard in the Rhodesian army as it had benefits in keeping the mopani flies (actually stingless bees) out of one’s mouth, nose and eyes but I could never finish a pack of 20. I did smoke occasionally at school but that was just to be a bit of a rebel. Tobacco also played a major role in killing two of my friends so it is a bit ironic that my company has done well this year, largely from growing tobacco seedlings and related business.

Driving east out of Harare I got onto the new section of four lane highway not far from town and breathed a sigh of relief. It is part of a $500 million upgrade of the major roads in the nation and not before time too. They were in a disastrous state with negligible maintenance done in the last 10 years. It’s being funded by the South African Development Bank and a South African company has got the contract. I seriously doubt if any local companies have the capability to undertake a project of this size. It was also evident in the speed of which the resurfacing has been done. Curiously the main road from South Africa to Harare and from Harare to Zambia has not been included in the current project. I know this from a friend of mine who plays tennis with one of the senior management figures in the aforementioned company. Such is the small town nature of Harare.

There were three sections on the road to Marondera where the traffic was controlled by solar-powered lights with a radio link to the lights at the other end. Definitely not a Zimbabwean setup. The hawkers had not wasted any time and were gathered at the traffic controls to see if anyone was interested in various fruit or drinks. Very Zimbabwean.

Turning south in the middle of Marondera I headed off down a road which I have never travelled and within the hour was lost. Not a problem; I simply phoned the farmer I was visiting and got directions. This is something that would have been unheard of just 2 years ago but now the nation has 95% cellphone coverage. That is not to say it is particularly reliable and one company has a stranglehold on the market. It is into just about every form of telecommunication around and is behind the laying of a LOT of fibre optic cable in the suburbs this year. No living in the suburbs I have to rely on a 3G link into town which is OK most of the time but not what would be termed broadband in the developed world.

I eventually arrived a good hour late at the farm. The farm manager was delighted with the seedlings. So much so that he wants to grow them himself next year and use me as a consultant. I guess success has its cost.

This tobacco had been planted the previous day. I was told there is a pack of heyena that live in the hills in the background.

This tobacco had been planted the previous day. I was told there is a pack of hyena that live in the hills in the background.

The farm was bought by its current owner in the late 1970s but has not seen a lot of use. A lot of the infrastructure will need to be rebuilt but it has a lot of potential in good tobacco soils and access to plentiful water. I see it as a metaphor for this country that has extraordinary resources but is just waiting for the right moment to take off. But for the moment we seem to plod along with modest growth largely in tobacco farming (though we are a long way off the peak production before the farm invasions). Food production is still dismal and this year a lot of people will go hungry in the rural areas. The outlook for the coming season is apparently good but even so, there will be at least 8 months before the crops are mature enough to eat.





Appropriate technology

24 08 2013

Freightliner truckThis is a Freightliner truck. An American brand they are popular in Zim ever since a number were imported from the Middle East quite a few years ago. This one arrived at work yesterday to take a modified container to Hwange in the South West (the landlord’s son converts them into liveable cabins). I got chatting to the driver. He admitted there were rather a lot of electrics that had once stopped him on a weigh-bridge because of a faulty oil pressure sensor. They’d also disconnected the automatic greasing facility – trust Zimbabweans to “make a plan” to get around inappropriate technology.

Growing up on a forestry estate in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe my father had a Peugeot 404 pickup truck. It was definitely more comfortable than the Land Rover it repaced and it lasted well on the less than perfect roads – not least because my father maintained the roads AND the pickup! I haven’t seen a Peugeot 404 for some time now but they were made to last – appropriate technology at its best. They were followed by the Peugeot 504 which was definitely more luxurious by the day’s standard and didn’t last as well.

Other appropriate tech cars included the Renault 5 with the gear stick on the dashboard and yes, you do still see a few around. A physiotherapist friend and her twin sister had one when I was at the St Giles rehabilitation centre in 1979 which they had to hire from their father who happened to be the managing director of Anglo-American in this country (Anglo-American is a VERY big company in Africa!). Somewhat thrifty was Mr Carey-Smith!

I own a seedling nursery business that is definitely appropriate technology orientated. Nearly everything is manual with a few exceptions, one of them being the clipping of the tobacco seedlings for which we use a Husqvana hedge clipper. It works really well for the purpose and requires little maintenance. Unfortunately it does require 2-stroke oil to be put into the petrol so when the operator came to me yesterday and said the machine had just stopped I had a pretty good idea what had gone wrong. Now I’d really like someone to come up with foolproof technology but maybe that’s a contradiction in terms.





The price of business – part 2

18 07 2013

Zimbabwe is expensive. This is largely due to us producing little of anything so most goods are imported through and from South Africa by road. It is also due to the Zimbabwe business attitude which can roughly be summarized; “If at first you don’t sell anything, raise your prices”. It was against this background that I went looking for polystyrene seedling trays in which to sow tobacco seed for a customer who decided at the last-minute he actually did want me to grow his entire tobacco crop!

“Phone me back in an hour” said the responsible person at the Tobacco Research Board which usually manufactures expanded polystyrene trays for tobacco seedlings. This I duly did and was told that they had plenty at the princely price of $2.75 each. Expensive but I didn’t have much choice. The only other outlet in town is just as expensive and the quality of their trays is dismal. I went and got the cash and drove out to the TRB near the airport.

“We don’t have any” I was told on arrival at the TRB that afternoon.

I explained that I had transport hired by the hour and that I’d got the cash specially. A few phone calls later and some trays had “appeared” and  I was told that I could get them at the warehouse.

“We have no trays!” the warehouse manager told me. “Have a look”. There were no trays. The injection moulding machine had broken down 2 weeks previously and the South African technician had yet to arrive. I explained that I HAD already paid for the trays, and I HAD got transport waiting and WAS being charged for it. “Let me make a phone call” the manager replied.

It seemed there were some trays available on farm and I was directed over to the seedling production area. It was an education. There were indeed trays to be had there and they were new. The ponds were set up and looked quite presentable. But over the fenced area was an old crop of commercial tobacco – a clear violation of plant quarantine. Oh dear, what has happened to the premier tobacco research facility in the country that was once world-renowned?

Loading seedling trays, old tobacco in the background.

Loading seedling trays, old tobacco in the background.

Prior to this little escapade I had ascertained that seedling trays of good quality (we’d used them before) were available from Johannesburg. The catch of course was the transport – expanded polystyrene is mostly air which makes it expensive to move. However, even factoring in the transport and  other costs, I could get them landed at my business for 75% of the cost of locally produced trays. And the return load was empty – another sign of the state of the economy – making the transport doubly expensive. It took a while to find a transporter who had the right sort of trailer to move a bulky load such as this but eventually one was found and the trays have now arrived.

Trays arriving

Offloading the seedling trays from Johannesburg

As a Zimbabwean I am willing to support my local businesses but the product has to be of comparable quality and price to the imported option. Our local economy is in a dismal state and of course there are many factors outside of our direct control (read politics here) that are making it difficult to do business but really, Zimbabweans need to wake up when it comes to being competitive.





The perfect cup of coffee

22 06 2013

This is my Moka Express coffee maker.

Made to last - a VERY long time!

Made to last – a VERY long time!

It has been around as long as I can remember. As a child I was forever lifting the lid to see if the coffee was coming out of the central spout. I also remember that my parents didn’t seem to use it very much, perhaps it didn’t make enough coffee so it was replaced by a percolator which made a lot more and was also interesting for a six year-old as it made interesting noises and splashed coffee against a clear glass top. And made awful coffee.

My little, very old espresso “machine” (can it be a real machine without moving parts?) to my mind makes very good coffee. No, it probably isn’t perfect, and in the morning I don’t have time for making the perfect cup but it is important that I have good coffee to start the day. NO, INSTANT WILL NOT DO and we do still have one good brand of local coffee called Farfell produced here which I keep well stocked up.

Anyway, the filter thingy that holds the coffee was looking like it had come to the end of it’s life, the gasket I’d replaced with a silicone one of my own imperfect design and the handle – well, nothing one couldn’t fix with a bit of epoxy and a paper clip!

We are famous for making do in Zimbabwe but now it’s the era of the internet so I set about seeing if spares were to be had. Oh delight! They still have spares for my 6 cup (I get just one mug out of it) Moka Express made by the original Bialetti company! Yes, there a loads of new designs in stainless steel and different colours to boot but my old aluminium version is still there.

For some reason Amazon won’t ship direct to Zim but my long-suffering postal master in the UK (brother and sister-in-law) divert the package to me and the Moka Express is almost back to new (wrong handle).

And the coffee tastes just as good as ever!





Relics – an old tractor and the CFU

13 02 2013

Agriculture House is situated on Marlborough Drive in the suburb of the same name on the north-west of Harare. It was once the home of the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU), the union that in its day represented the majority of commercial farmers in Zimbabwe. It was a powerful organisation that was a thorn in the side of the government for many years. But that was a long time ago and today my footsteps echoed in the large, silent entrance hall where I’d come on anything but agricultural business. I walked around the tractor on the plinth and up the stairs to a long, dark corridor.

Yes, that is 1917 on the front of this old Fordson tractor!

Yes, that is 1917 on the front of this old Fordson tractor!

Finding the door I needed I knocked and entered. I’d come to collect a tripod mount that I’d ordered from the UK through a small company based in the building. I got chatting to the woman who’d served me. It seemed that the CFU had sold the building some months previously and now it was now administered by a government company that let out offices to anyone who had need of them. This was not a new development – the CFU had the same practice when it was there but it had been busy and bustling then.

Once the farm invasions had started the CFU membership dried up and it became a relic of its former glory. I’d been a member through my company but got fed-up with the lack of service and did not bother to renew my membership some 8 years ago. At one stage it had a very good technology section that in itself made membership worthwhile but when I phoned the Agricultural Labour Bureau up with a labour problem and was referred to the National Employment Council (a refereeing body between employer and employee) I realized it was time to go.

Walking out of the sprawling complex I wondered why the tractor had not been taken. It has 1917 on the front so it might be worth something. Now it was also just a relic of a bygone era when Zimbabwe’s agriculture industry had held the region’s respect for its farming skills and exports.





Rural visit

7 02 2013

“They didn’t pay their electricity bill” Archie replied to my question as to why the Mhangura mine had closed. I thought there may be a bit more to it than that but there was no doubt as to the impact the collapse of this copper mine in northern Zimbabwe had on the town of the same name. I’d picked up my guide, Archie, at the local GMB (Grain Marketing Board depot) for the trip into the surrounding farming area to see a customer who had problems with some seedlings he’d collected.  The GMB, once a cornerstone of the nation’s agricultural economy, was now very run down and the signpost was a hand-painted piece of metal propped up by stones at the side of the road.

It had been a long trip out of Harare on the road north-west of the capital towards Lake Kariba but I’d been interested to take a trip back to the area where I’d worked on returning from my travels abroad in 1990. Turning off at the township and GMB depot of Lions’ Den (yes, there really were lots of lions here in the early part of the 20th century!) I got onto the very quiet Mhangura road and put my foot down – there was little to miss apart from the occasional herd of cattle being driven along the side of the road. The rains had been late coming to this part of the country but the crops were still dismal – small, yellow and very uneven. This was a far cry from the area I’d known 20 years ago when the area was populated by mainly white commercial farmers.

I wasn't going fast when I took this - promise!

Long, straight and uncongested – I wasn’t going fast when I took this – promise!

Having picked up Archie we made our way east towards the Raffingora area and got chatting. Of Zambian descent he’d grown up in Harare and worked for a while as a farm manager for a number of black farmers but got fed up being given half the inputs he needed and then told to “make a plan” so he’d set himself up as a commodity broker. He didn’t go back to Zambia much but said if things got much worse in Zimbabwe he might have to.  We bumped and crashed along a truly appalling road that had clearly not seen any official maintenance for quite some time. The countryside was still beautiful despite the collapsed tobacco barns, power cables lying in the fields and the dismal maize crops clearly not suited to being grown in an area once famed for its tobacco.

It took the better part of an hour to do the 20 or so km to the customer’s farm. I dropped off Archie at the rather decrepit farm workshop area (clearly there was protocol involved here as he was definitely not invited to accompany us) and went with the farmer to the lands. Also of Zambian extraction he was an engineer by training but preferred to be a farmer. The cabbages were not in good condition, largely due to unsuitable soils so I dispensed what advice I could before collecting Archie and making our way back to Mhangura.

The bush was looking good, much better than the road!

The bush was looking good, much better than the road!

It was a long slow drive back to Harare along the congested Kariba road but I’d fuelled up with biltong from the renowned Lions’ Den Butchery which was just as good as I remembered from 20 years back. Getting back home I noticed a missed call on my cellphone from the farmer; he was just checking to see I’d got home safely. Clearly I’d made a good impression!