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.

 

 

 

 





The notorious MAPpers

27 11 2018

Making a plan with the blender

Zimbabweans are famous, some would say notorious, for being able to Make A Plan. You could say we are champion MAPpers.

When Zimbabwe was Rhodesia and under sanctions for Ian Smith’s UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) from Britain, ingenuity thrived – it had to as precious little could be imported – so the tradition of MAPping was developed. We are no longer under sanctions and just about everything is imported thanks to the regime of the ousted Robert Mugabe who mismanaged the economy so effectively that very little is now produced in the country. The new government of Edison Mnangagwa has shown itself to be even better at spending money we don’t have so we are still furiously MAPping. The photo above is my effort for today.

1. The fertilizer. We use single super-phosphate fertilizer at the nursery as the supply for phosphorus in the coir growing medium. It’s much cheaper than the soluble forms so it’s mixed into the coir after the former has been expanded and washed by means of a locally made drum mixer. Because the cells in the seedling trays are small, a powdered form of the single supers as it’s known is preferred to ensure that it’s mixed uniformly into the coir so some will end up in every cell. The powdered form of the single supers is no longer available but I did manage to buy  some of an imported granular version which is more normally used for field applications as the granules are easily and uniformly distributed by machine. So I had to get creative with a blender/liquidiser.

2. The quantity. This is more important than one might think. Two of the plastic tubs seemed to be about right. More than this and the fertilizer was too heavy for the blender and it got hot and took a long time to shatter the granules into powder. Less and a large proportion of the granules were knocked out of the way by the blades and didn’t shatter.

3. The end product. Not as uniform as  the bought powder form of single supers but it will do.

4. The blade speed and time. The slowest setting for a minute worked well as did the highest speed for 30 seconds. It was interesting to watch the granules flow up the inside of the glass and then back down to the blades in a slow motion vortex. Not sure what this will do to the blades long term. They are not naturally very sharp but the single supers is quite dense and will definitely wear them down quicker than the average soup for which the machine was intended.

5. Cocoa. Essential drinking on a coldish, wet day.

Yes, the exercise was effective MAPping but it’s not viable for a lot of fertilizer – I think there’s another 150kg or so to do. I will have to ask my landlord, when he gets back, if he thinks a hammer mill (normally used for milling maize) will do the job. I did ask the ART Farm manager if he thought it would work but he was sceptical. There’s no rush – we are not remotely busy.

Ah, I nearly forgot, why do some consider us notorious MAPpers? Because instead of getting onto the streets and protesting about the appalling bad governance we just get on with Making A Plan to survive.





Open for business – sometimes

12 10 2018

Well I never, photo ops on stamps

The price spike when it came was as sharp and high as it was short. Last week a surprise announcement by the finance Minister triggered a slump in the exchange rate between local currency and the US dollar.

By Wednesday the value of the local dollar was 4 : 1 with the US dollar. Panic  buying spread to the supermarkets and taxi fares jumped 50%. I had managed to squeeze a pre-payment out of the company for whom we grow a large number of gum trees and dashed off to spend it. I was relieved to find that the fertilizer I bought had only doubled in price and I wondered what to do with the rest of it.

Yesterday I went shopping for roofing nails that we needed to finish off a carport for the new tenant in the cottage. The first hardware store I visited was shut. There were notices stuck to the doors but I did not bother getting out of the car to read them. The second store in the same shopping centre as the local Spar supermarket was also “Closed for Stocktaking” but they opened up when they saw me. The didn’t have the nails and were only accepting US dollars cash. The supermarket was closed

Closed for business

Only in Zimbabwe can one get a 90% discount

and Marianne told me that the previous day they were limiting items to one per customer – including toilet rolls. Panic buying was rife at other supermarkets that were said to be struggling with the influx of shoppers – nothing proliferates panic buying like panic buying.

On the way to work I visited another hardware store. They didn’t have quite what I wanted but we made a plan and I was given a 90% discount for using US cash. This is of course not comparable to the comparison between the local currency and US dollars in November 2008 but that had been years in development, not days.

On the way to the Central Sorting Office this morning to collect a parcel I attempted to get past a queue for fuel on Glenara South Avenue. Just as I thought I was making progress cars started to pass on my right and soon there was 4 lanes of traffic going one direction on a road designed for 2. Fortunately there was a road to a field on my right and I managed to get turned around and take the longer, but quieter, route.

The ladies at the sorting office asked me how I was. Resisting a facetious reply I answered in one of the few Zulu words I still know which translates to “I am here”. We agreed it was appropriate.

Getting back to the nursery I contacted Tony who has the keys to the fuel tank where I store the diesel I bought earlier in the year when there was another fuel shortage scare that didn’t develop into much. He told me his son, who follows these things, had told him the rate had dropped to 2 local dollars  to 1 US dollar and the whole spike had been driven by the government buying US dollars to pay off a debt the country owes. By 5 p.m. this afternoon my staff told me that the rate was 1.9 local to 1 US, down from 4.8 yesterday. Perhaps a sense of normality has returned but I suspect rates as reflected in the shops will not be this low – people will be very jittery and will want to maintain a buffer. I strongly suspect that some outlets will continue to demand US dollars.

Zimbabwe’s president, E D Mnangagwa campaigned with the slogan that “Zimbabwe is open for business”. I was unaware that he’d gone so far as to get the slogan put onto stamps with him schmoozing at Davos earlier this year with the likes of Christine Lagarde and the Chinese premier, among others. Investment has been slow in coming, not least because of the violent repression of protestors after the recent general election that was heavily slanted towards the ruling party, ZANU-PF. The past 10 days of chaos are unlikely to convince anyone that now is the time to invest.

On Wednesday there was a small horticultural expo at a local hotel. I went along hoping to pass out business cards and make a few useful contacts. It was a very small affair geared mainly towards the export flower market but I did have an interesting conversation with a French representative of the rose breeding company, Meilland. He recounted a meeting with the local French ambassador the previous day where he was told that there was considerable interest in Zimbabwe but potential investors were not ready to commit just yet. We may be open for business but investors are not convinced.

 





The Zim dollar is back (déjà-vu again)

7 10 2018

Who wants to look at picture of cars queuing at a fuel station?

“The bottom borehole is not working” is not the most encouraging announcement I want to hear on a Monday. The borehole in question is some 500m from my office and has  been a headache ever since I started my business. Originally it used a 3 phase motor which are more efficient than single phase motors but I got so fed up with the transformer dropping a phase to a low voltage that I swapped it out for a single phase motor. This means that if a phase goes low I can switch all critical motors onto a good phase relatively quickly with some simple wiring changes on the distribution box by my office (farming in Zimbabwe requires a good deal of DIY expertise). The cable to the borehole is not really large enough for the distance so if the supply voltage drops it can spell disaster for the motor. A quick test ascertained that the motor was drawing far too much current and probably was burnt out. We got it out the hole and I took it off to the supplier along with the warranty card that showed the it was to expire by the end of the week. I was advised that if I wanted a quick response to whether the motor would be replaced under warranty I should take it to the workshop in the industrial sites. Yes, they still had that model in stock and it was $380. The workshop people in town said they’d get back to me soon. On Tuesday there was a surprise announcement from the new finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, that bank accounts would be split into FCA (foreign currency accounts) i.e. real US dollar accounts earned from exports, and local money accounts. This is a tacit admission that the local money accounts are not in fact the same as US dollars even though they are listed as such. The local money immediately lost 10% on the unofficial market – the rate is now around 2.2 local dollars to US$1. Ncube also announced a new transfer tax on all electronic transfers of 2% starting at $2 to replace the old flat rate of 5c. Given that some 96% of all money transactions in Zimbabwe are electronic it is estimated that this will bring in some $4bn extra per year. This has already changed as of the time of writing with a lower limit of $10 being imposed. He also fired the entire board of ZIMRA, the local tax authority. There was no mention of how the government was going to reduce the budget deficit. By Wednesday we were running low on water at the nursery so I had to go and buy another motor for the borehole pump as I still hadn’t heard from the workshop. It cost me $430, up $50 from Monday. I decided I had to raise my prices at the nursery by 50% – still short of the estimated exchange rate but better than we had been. I have a lot of competition so I’ve been wary of hiking prices to realistic levels up until now. Other businesses around town have been less circumspect to the point of profiteering. Marianne went to buy some pharmaceuticals this week and they’d gone up 40% – US dollars cash! I priced a cordless drill at a local hardware outlet that had increased from $380 to $1030 in about a year. Some shops are no longer displaying prices on the shelves – you have to ask at the checkout or consult and easily changed list on the end of the shelf. Bread is now short and so is fuel. Pharmaceutical companies have stopped trading due to shortages of raw materials. Queues at fuel stations are blocking traffic. Apparently international trucking companies are taking advantage of the disparity between US dollars and local money by sending their trucks through Zimbabwe with just enough fuel to get into the country, buying local money with US dollars at 2:1 and then buying fuel with the local money. Do it this way and diesel costs about US65c per litre – way below what it costs to import. On Friday I got a call from the workshop – the motor had burnt out likely due to low voltage. Did I have one of their voltage protection units on the borehole? No I didn’t. Then the warranty was invalid. I was not surprised – like all forms of insurance they will look at ways to get out of paying. I have since put a 3rd party protection unit on the switch box – hopefully it will work. My seed supplier is not returning my calls. His secretary tells me he is trying to decide whether to charge US dollars cash for the seed or hike the local price. The former will be a disaster for my business which is already in the doldrums. We have a lot of gum tree seedlings for a local company charged with reforesting farmlands that have been denuded by farmers cutting timber for curing tobacco but we negotiated the contract in April. By the time we get paid in November and December the payment is going to be very small indeed. The future is not looking bright.

A very miniature mantis

                    And the roses at the top of the post? Like I said, it beats looking at pictures of a fuel queue. There is a neighbouring nursery next to mine that specialises in roses and over the weekend they had their annual charity open day. The roses were stunning – worthy of a diversion. The mantis? Well, it just called by this afternoon at tea time. The comparison with the hyper inflation of 2008 is obvious but this time the collapse has been much faster. It’s Tuesday now and over the weekend cooking oil (much used by Zimbabweans) prices have doubled and in some areas tripled. The public transport system is unreliable as many of the mini buses that ply the trade are in fuel queues. A friend who supplies agricultural chemicals has asked me if I want to trade diesel for chemicals I need. Yup, déjà-vu indeed.