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.

 





The import issue

17 04 2014
  1. Deirdre Holcroft shared a link.
    4 April
    Hi Deirdre,
    I did have mixed feelings about this when I first heard of it. Generally I am not in favour of protectionism which I presumed this to be. However, a lot of my customers complain that they just cannot compete with the South African imports that this was supposedly targeting. My seed supplier tells me that the carrots that come into this country (yes it does seem daft that we import carrots which is something we grow perfectly well) are grown by a South African farmer who grows 900ha. No, there are the correct number of zeros there. On this scale he can afford to take a very small markup and it would be difficult to compete. Of course there are some things such as cabbages which would be impossible to get here economically due to their weight. Having said that there is a shortage this season and prices are sky high. This is largely due to a major producer being kicked off his farm and to the abnormally heavy rains in February that trashed many crops.
    I was chatting to someone I know on the weekend who works for Selby Enterprises that produce quite a lot of fresh produce and import what they cannot grow. He was of the opinion that the ban was designed to take the small cross border traders out of the market. They buy cheap,  poor quality produce then import it and bribe the customs not to pay duties and sell it off very cheaply to the informal markets. Then he added; “Of course you can still get an import permit if you pay a bit extra”. No surprises here really; nearly anything is available in Zimbabwe for a price.
    Apparently in Botswana they have a system whereby the government meets fresh produce suppliers weekly and issues import permits based on expected shortfalls. This is a model that should have been adapted; if the purpose of the scheme was actually to protect local suppliers and not give those with contacts preferential access to import permits.
    I have heard people question the need for a lot of the luxury produce that comes into this country (I have commented on Egyptian grapes in the supermarkets elsewhere in this blog). No, we don’t NEED luxury produce but it is really a miniscule part of our already massive import bill and our problems run far deeper as anyone who has followed the link you provided will have realized. I heard that at last year’s CFU (Commercial Farmers’ Union) Congress the guest of honour was a Zambian woman who is the chairman of the equivalent organisation in Zambia. In her address she commented that Zambia is now an exporter of maize for the first time in many years. She stopped short of saying it was thanks to the Zimbabwean farmers who fled the land grab exercise and settled in Zambia, but the inference was there. As you know, we now need to import maize to meet our requirements of this staple food; an undesirable situation if ever there was one. Zambia did say earlier this year (or was it at the end of last year?) that it would give us maize on credit but then they changed their minds. Such is our credit rating. Maize production was subsidized for many years in this country just to avoid this sort of situation and this is one of the few instances where I think a subsidy is justified.
    So, this morning I found myself in Borrowdale Village shopping centre and went past a fish shop that I’d passed many times but never entered. Curious, I went inside and in the spirit of this post bought myself two pieces of Scottish salmon. No, I will not divulge how much they cost. But it was delicious!




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!