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”.





It’s all in the picture

15 01 2019

Sniffing around after the rain – there’s a longer story hiding here though.

This picture is not as boring as it might seem at first. There’s a lot of good intelligence to be gleaned from it.

The swimming pool

It’s overflowing – the result of at least 56mm of rain over lunchtime today and a failure to take the overflow pipes off the gutters that feed the rain from the roof into the pool. We need to collect the water off the roof as the borehole is not fantastically prolific – it has been tested at 900 litres/hr which is OK for domestic purposes but not enough to keep a garden attractive and a pool topped up. So the lawn, such as it is, is seasonal and only really gets growing in the rains.

The pool was most certainly not a priority when we were looking for a house to buy just over two years ago. Harare has a mellow climate; not too hot and never really cold though European friends do find the Zimbabwe winter cold as the houses are not geared for heating. The winter only lasts about two months so what’s the point? Winter is also our dry season and the skies are usually clear so it’s easy and pleasant to sit in the sun. Summers are also not very hot. This November it only got to 33° C on a few occasions and while it can be humid it’s seldom humid and hot. Pools are also expensive to maintain especially as all the chemicals are imported and Zimbabweans are famous for price gouging – but more of that later.

So we got a pool with the house, like it or not. I like it – I used to be a good swimmer until the medical fraternity botched two neck operations and I lost a lot of shoulder strength as a result. I still get in the pool when I can but serious swimming is in the past now. I’ve read that getting old is about giving up the things one likes doing – I guess it comes to us all at some stage. The pool also leaks so needs topping up often and being in the agricultural business I could buy the piping through the company, a perk of the work. Yes, I have tried to find the leak and the entire pool piping system has been dug up on several occasions to little avail. The pool is old, built (or should that be dug?) in the 1960s, when the preferred method was to dig a hole and line it with 20cm of reinforced concrete. No doubt there is a tiny crack somewhere which is nearly impossible to find. It also needs painting but that would require complete draining and a lot of confidence in the weather forecasters getting their predictions right for a good rainy season as the borehole won’t handle that volume of water – about 70m³ which is big for a domestic pool. I know the age of the pool because a friend used to come swimming here as a youngster and he tells me that his father and uncle built the house.

The rains this season (it runs from mid-November to mid-April or so) have been erratic and very patchy. That’s fairly typical for an el Niño year which this is. The first rains in this area were about a week late which is significant if you are planting a rain-dependent maize crop. There have been week-long dry spells since and what rain that has fallen has been very localized so this storm was welcome though the pool filter was not in danger of sucking air. We also collect the waste water from the back-washing of the filter and the domestic washing machine and that is used on the garden.

When we moved into the house I bought a small well pump for the purpose but 10 days ago it just stopped working for no apparent reason. It’s been left at the supplier’s workshop where I was told “It’s not expensive so it might not be worth fixing”. They didn’t have that model in stock so I inquired the price of a slightly smaller one and was told $640 (local currency) or US140 cash. Cleaning up my desk on the weekend I found the original invoice from two years ago when all we were using was US dollars – $96. Thanks for the profiteering DripTech.

The grass

Yes it hasn’t been cut for some time. The lawnmower has been making a LOT of noise recently on being started so rather than deal with a permanently dead (I know it’s a split infinitive) mower it was shipped off to the local repair shop to join the queue. Yes, we queue for everything these days. The message came back this past Friday that yes, it is repairable and would be $200 local. We gulped and then decided that it was a lot cheaper than a new mower (around $1,000 at the local hardware store) so gave the go-ahead. This morning Maianne phoned the workshop to be told that they couldn’t source the spares as it was too risky to venture into town with the current disturbances.

At midnight on Sunday fuel prices more than doubled and the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, flew out to Russia and the far east with begging bowl in hand.  The trade union movement, ZCTU, and opposition politicians immediately called for a shutdown for three days this week to protest the nearly impossible cost of people getting to work and violent protest has ensued. Social media has reported numerous incidents of shops being looted, vehicles burnt and an unconfirmed video of a police station in flames. Mainstream media has reported that people have been shot but numbers have not been confirmed.  My foreman tells me that he’s heard of police and army personnel also threatening shops that were open and forcing them to close. Messages have been doing the rounds of WhatsApp strongly suggesting that all businesses, public transport and schools close for the time being. The language suggests that they are coming from the ZCTU but no-one is claiming ownership at this stage (it’s Tuesday as I write this). Mnangagwa has been seen getting off a privately chartered jet in Moscow which cost some US$60,000 per hour. We are talking real money here.

WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter have been blocked but are easily circumvented with a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Curiously, while watching YouTube late last night, I received two automated phone calls – one from a private number and the other from a number I didn’t recognise – telling me that my access code to Twitter was a given six digit number. At the time I thought it was a hack and quickly put my phone onto flight mode. Maybe it was a way of bypassing the block. I’m not sure I’ll ever know now but I do know the grass is going to be uncut for a while longer.

Twitter block in place

 





It’s chaos out there – but we have plenty of fuel

9 01 2019

One of the less congested fuel queues around town

I passed W coming out of the gym this lunchtime just as I arrived. We exchanged the usual pleasantries. I know he works for a fuel distribution company so couldn’t resist asking how business was going, given the chaotic fuel queues around town.

“Oh it’s madness” he replied, shaking his head and laughing at the craziness of it all. “I couldn’t even get past the fuel queue at the intersection of The Chase and Golden Stairs road. Some truck had managed to totally block the road”.

I felt relieved that I’d taken a different route and made a mental note to go back the way I’d come, the road was appalling but free of congestion. “But what’s causing the chaos, the usual lack of money?” I asked.

“Of course. The government is utterly broke. They are insisting that the bond, RTGS or whatever you want to call the local money is equal to 1 US dollar when we all know it’s not.”

“So is there really a fuel shortage?” I asked.

“Oh hell no” and he laughed ironically. “You know all those fuel depots around town?” and he mentioned several though I only knew of the one on the Mutare road to the east. “They are all full, right to the brim. The fuel all belongs to private importers and they are ONLY accepting hard currency”.

“So if someone comes to you with real money you can sell them fuel?”

“Oh yes” W replied. “We are doing quite a lot of business with people who have Nostro accounts (foreign currency accounts holding export earnings). I am sure we can help you out. We can bypass all the nonsense. I must dash, see you around” and he was gone.

I wasn’t actually asking to buy any fuel – I don’t at the moment have anywhere to store fuel as I bought a couple of thousand litres in February last year when we had a similar panic. It didn’t last long but I am glad now that I bought it. Anyway, I’d found out what I needed to know – namely that the government was only half telling the truth when they claim that we have plenty of fuel in the country. We do, they just cannot afford to buy it. The solution has to be a return to the US dollar as the official currency but that is not going to happen anytime soon. There are not enough of them to support the economy. The government would have to admit the local currency is not on parity with the US dollar (current street rates are about 3.7:1 which makes our fuel very cheap indeed) and work out how to demonetize the local money. It’s not going to happen soon and like a customer said to me yesterday – “the future looks bleak and there is no rabbit in a hat to pull out this time. It’s going to be a tough year ahead.”

 





Roses don’t like rain

19 12 2018

Raindrops on roses are – damaging (and kitsch)

Rain is not good for roses, well not on the petals. The leaves tend to get black spot at this time of year too. To say they don’t like it is, of course, a bit of an anthropomorphism – it would imply they have feelings and I don’t think they do have any.

The rains started a bit late this year. The first rain recorded at the nursery was on the 23rd November when the middle of the month is considered normal. So far we have had 192mm which is almost double the  97mm recorded for the same period last year. This does not mean we are in for a normal to good rainy season. An el Niño event remains possible in the Pacific so anything could happen from now on. It usually means we are in for a very patchy distribution of rain though in the past this has also been true for a la Nina event which should mean heavier than usual rain.

It’s easy to be critical of the weather forecasting system but it is much more accurate of late than say 10 years ago. I use The Weather Channel and last year it predicted the start of the rains accurate to the day. That’s a massively useful tool for farmers who generally

Reasonably accurate

plant their maize in Zimbabwe to take advantage of the rains. While some do make use of supplemental irrigation it is generally too expensive. This afternoon thunderstorms were predicted with 100% certainty over Harare at 17h00 and a small one has just passed overhead at 15h00. That’s impressive forecasting though last Monday was also predicted to have a 100% chance of rain and it was bone dry.

The government has, so far, been totally predictable in it’s mismanagement of the economy. We are still floundering hopelessly in a morass of confusion with the currency. Some German friends have just visited in their overland vehicle from Namibia – they park it in Windhoek during European summer. They managed to grasp the absurd situation of having an ersatz local currency officially pegged at 1:1 with the US dollar but accepted by nobody, including the government, at that value (duty on imported cars must be paid in US dollars). Most foreigners I meet remain puzzled even after I’ve given my best explanation.

I really don’t need the rain for my business. The groundwater of course needs to be replenished as we are dependent on two rather mediocre boreholes for all our water but rain on the seedlings promotes leaf disease that I can do without. Most seedlings are under plastic which protects them from the worst of the weather but the high humidity is still a factor. A lot of the plastic needs replacing now but as a totally imported product it will need to be paid for in US dollars that I just don’t have.

Quite a few businesses will now only accept US dollars for payment. That’s doable if one has a near monopoly but I don’t have that luxury. As a result I am charging less than what it will cost to replace my raw materials but I need the cash flow.

Along with the rains comes the power cuts. We’ve already had one of +48 hours. Normally the batteries and solar panels would cope but the the former are now tired after 3 years of use and last two hours just powering the lights, never mind the fridge, freezer and borehole pump. Replacing them is a daunting prospect requiring digging into our real money resources. The power cuts are not nearly as bad as they were when I bought the system – how badly do we want the peace of mind? Can we last out the worst of the rains when the faults mostly occur? Should we save our money for the inevitably rocky ride ahead as the economy is likely to get much worse before it gets better? Decisions. In the meantime my brother arrives from the UK in two days for the Christmas season. Not surprisingly he is not that keen on the rain either but at least it will be warm – of that we are certain. Let’s hope the rains are good and the flowers will just have to deal with it and look a bit tatty.

Frangipani – not normally this tatty





The Zimbabwe economy beetle

1 12 2018

The economy beetle

The Zimbabwe economy and this beetle have more in common than one might think.

They are both lying flat on their back.  Fuel queues have returned with a vengeance just 2 weeks after the last episode faded away and we breathe a sigh of relief. It turned out to be a temporary respite. Talking to a customer this morning he said that he’d pulled into a local filling station to be told that they were only accepting real US dollars (our local version is now known as “bond”) and that would be as international credit cards not cash, thank you.

The government insists that the local bond and the US dollar are still equal value but anyone, or should I say  everyone, knows that it is around 3:1. In a curious twist the local tax/revenue authority has announced that all taxes on revenue earned in US dollars must be paid in the same – even thought they are both officially valued the same. The accounting sector is flummoxed.

Neither has any idea how to get back on their feet.  President ED Mnangagwa’s international charm offensive prior to the recent general election was “Zimbabwe is open for business”. It drew a lot of interest as Zimbabwe is resource rich and potentially attractive to investors – an obvious way to get the economy going again. That all crashed in a bloody mess this past August when soldiers opened fire on protestors at a rally called by the opposition MDC Alliance to give vent at the blatantly fiddled results.

Both are hoping someone will be kind enough to help.  The beetle is pathetically waving its legs in the air, trying to get some purchase on the cement –  it has little chance of success. I don’t see any solution for the Zimbabwe economy either. The finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, has the dubious distinction of being in charge of the local Barbican Bank which collapsed a few years ago. He is also being advised by local economist Eddie Cross. Cross was a vocal supporter of the opposition MDC but now is a ruling party apologist. I have yet to hear him speak any sense. Back in 2016 when the local bond currency (so called because it was said by the government to be backed by a bond from the Afrexim Bank in Egypt) was introduced he predicted that the supermarket shelves would be empty within 2 weeks. They are not.

Everything is very expensive but Marianne (my wife) found Belgian butter on Tuesday at less the the price of local butter and half the price of a South African brand. At the time the Afrexim Bank would not provide details on the purported bond which was later discovered to be non-existent. The currency is based on an illusion. No-one can fathom why it still has any value at all. Perhaps the government is hoping it will collapse and then they won’t have to bother with it. Those people lucky enough to have an essential business with little or no competition are managing to successfully demand payment in US dollars and will likely survive. They are also taking the opportunity for a bit of price gouging.

My business is not one of these. I have a lot of competitors who are charging less in bond currency than I was charging in real US dollars 8 years ago. Given that fertilizer and chemical costs have more than doubled in the last 2 months I have no idea how they are going to replace them. I have had to slash my prices to compete and hopefully out-last them. I have enough raw materials and inputs for another 6 months or so – it’s going to be a nerve wracking process.

I picked up the beetle and put it on a patch of lawn where it quickly scuttled off. The Zimbabwe economy will not be so lucky.