Waiting to see – as we usually do

26 07 2018

Heading towards the worst month in the nursery since 2009. Will it change after the election?

We’ve done a  lot of waiting and seeing in Zimbabwe but this is arguable the most crucial one. There’s a general and presidential election on the 30th of this month and the outcome really will define the foreseeable future of the country.

After a slow start the campaign for all concerned has got into high gear. Trees, lampposts and walls everywhere are festooned with posters for the hopefuls – and there are many of them. Not surprisingly politics is seen as the path to easy wealth and everyone wants a share. By far the most expensive campaign has been by the incumbent party (ZANU-PF) and the current president E.D. Mnangagwa who is usually just known as ED. His visage is on billboards throughout Harare often with the slogan “Zimbabwe is open for business”. Indeed, he has been saying all the right things that might interest investors including scrapping the 51% indigenous ownership of foreign based companies, compensation for commercial farmers (mainly white) who were kicked off their farms by the Mugabe regime and a free and fair election. Anyone is welcome to come and observe the elections and indeed on Wednesday I saw an EU observer team vehicle parked in town. ED has come across so far as supremely confident that he and his party will win the election without any obvious subterfuge. The key word of course is obvious because, as always in Zimbabwe, all is not as it seems.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) which is responsible for organizing all aspects of the election is most certainly partisan to the ruling ZANU-PF. Among their transgressions have been not releasing an electronic voters’ roll to the opposition parties, not listing presidential candidates in alphabetical order (ED’s name and photo is top thus biasing his chances), making the voting form a double sheet of paper (it should be single) and saying they are not answerable to anyone. The head of the ZEC has also been photographed wearing ED’s trademark Zimbabwe colours scarf and wouldn’t say when the photo was taken. Ghost voters abound on the roll some of whom are evidently the oldest people in the world. Whilst the bio-metric voters roll was put together in a rush and errors were bound to crop up people are wondering if they will be corrected in time for the poll.

The most credible opposition is the MDC Alliance. Once the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) was a single party but I have lost count of how many factions there now are. For the moment they seem to have patched over their differences and their presidential candidate is one Nelson Chamisa who has impressed me not at all so far. He seems prone to making silly campaign promises such as a high speed train that will link the capital Harare and Bulawayo the second city in the south of the country. Given that is 450km that will make it the fastest train in the world. That aside he has been touring the country and if the pictures are to be believed the stadiums have been packed. The colour of choice for the MDC Alliance is red which does rather remind me of the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) party in South Africa which is known for it’s extreme views on taking land without compensation. It’s headed by the firebrand Julius Malema who has a very thin grasp of economics and models himself on the late Hugo Chavez. I hope that the colour is the only thing in common between the MDC and the EFF.

What I have not heard from any political party is any coherent policy to alleviate the critical cash shortage. The head of the central bank has stated that after the election he will flood the country with US dollars to put the black market traders out of business. Quite where the money will come from has not been stated.

The currency black market is flourishing at a level reminiscent of the Zimbabwe dollar days. My friend Shelton, who is also my French teacher, tells me that the currency traders are openly trading in the centre of Harare (he also tells me that the marijuana dealers are also trading openly but that’s another story). There are several rates depending on what is being traded. Bank transfers for US cash commands about 1.8 or more to US$1 cash. Bond notes, the Zimbabwe equivalent to a US dollar but only valid in the country, trade at about 1.6 or 1.7 to US$1 cash. Mobile banking on a cell phone is about the same as a bank transfer. Apparently there is no shortage of of either type of cash which is curious given that it is vanishingly rare in the shops and banks.

About 2 weeks ago a rumour did the rounds suggesting that the central bank was going to start issuing Zimbabwe dollars again. This started panic buying of US dollars cash and the rate, which had been stable for about 8 months, started to run. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rumour was started by those with the cash (both types), who are known to be the political fat cats, to force a run on the rates before the election.

All my accounts, both company and personal, are in US dollars – it says so very clearly at the top. We all know that they are not US dollars as we cannot go to the banks and get any and the “street rate” is fast closing on 1:2. This is going to pose a major problem for whoever wins the election. Zimbabwe imports a lot of goods, mostly from South Africa, and prices have gone up because those who are doing the importing are doing so at inflated rates. I bought a sheet of plywood this week to put in some extra cupboards at the office and it had more than doubled in a year. I paid by debit card so that would go into the seller’s bank account and immediately be registered as US dollars. Assuming that we do revert to “real” US dollars after the election those who have been charging at the street rates stand to have made a lot of money. I deal in seedlings and when the rates started to run towards the end of last year tried to put up my prices. My customers raised merry hell and I had to bring them down again or risk losing customers. That they put up with increasing prices elsewhere for chemicals, hardware and general cost of living didn’t seem to bother them as odd.

The public’s mistrust of the banks and the banking system is profound so that any cash released into the banking system will soon be mopped up by withdrawals that most certainly will not be redeposited and we’ll end up with a cash shortage of the type we’re experiencing now. I don’t see how this can be solved in the short term. The nation has made significant progress towards becoming “cashless” – payments are made using debit cards and a number of mobile phone platforms. As a result I have little need for cash but I would like to have the choice of using it if I want to.

As I write this the election campaigns are running furiously. The incumbent president, ED Mnangagwa, has gone so far as to woo the white electorate with a purpose-designed rally at Borrowdale racecourse in Harare. He must be feeling a bit nervous to go to that effort; there are very few whites left in the country and their vote is all but inconsequential. I predict a close result. Quite what the military, who were instrumental in removing Mugabe from power and installing ED will do if the opposition wins remains to be seen. Will they throw their lot in with the MDC and Nelson Chamisa? They must be only too aware that should the MDC win they and others in ZANU-PF may well be held accountable for their sins in violent election fixing in past elections. As usual, we will wait and see.





Hopeful signs?

29 03 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ART field day looking north-east

 





Loadsa funny money

1 02 2017
Funny money and the real stuff

Funny money and the real stuff

 

Ok,  I wasn’t quite truthful, there’s not LOTS of funny money – there’s just more than we’ve had in the past.

Once upon a time there was just Zimbabwe dollars and we got by. Then they crashed, and people were sad, so we got US dollars because that’s how economics works and everyone was happy again. Now there are not so many US dollars (as notes but there’s plenty in accounts which we can’t use to import anything) because lots, really lots, have been stolen.

So when things started to change again the Zimbabwe Reserve Bank in its unfathomable wisdom saw fit to introduce Bond Notes and everyone panicked and withdrew their cash and mobile (phone) cash became king, dominated by one Ecocash who saw fit to charge extortionate fees so banks saw fit to introduce their version of mobile cash. These are debit cards that can be managed on phones and we got a swipe card machine and people were happy again (but only sort of).

Not many bond notes came across my desk and I was happy too (again only sort of). I did get lots of text messages on my cellphone confirming that people had used their cards to pay direct to my bank so I don’t check messages that much and miss the important ones. Now the funny money (top of the pile in the photo) is coming across my desk in much larger quantities as people try to get rid of it, pass the hot potato if you like. The government has decided to tax potatoes, before they can even get hot, and other basic foodstuffs too so everyone is unhappy again. But nobody is going to do anything about it.

Banks have said that if we deposit cash (the real thing in the photo – not the funny money) then we can import stuff to keep going but I haven’t found out if my cash, assuming I have it, is going to be flown to India to buy more raw materials or it’s just a ruse by the Reserve Bank, that in it’s wisdom (again), wants to mop up all the real money for the government to spend on paying employees or, more likely, on itself (which some people might be suspicious of).

It’s not looking good. Not at all.





Moving on

31 01 2017
final-view

Probably the best view near Harare

We moved, my wife and I, at the end of December into suburbia. It was not a move for me born of desire but one borne of necessity. The house where I’d been living for the past 14 years was not for sale and even if it were there was no guarantee that it would have been a solid investment situated as it is on a farm outside of Harare which will eventually be incorporated into Zimbabwe’s capital city.  Water supply might have been an issue. Currently it comes from further down ART Farm nearly 1,500m away so a source on the property would have had to be found.

I’d been happy there planting 15 indigenous trees on a property of around 1ha (yes that is a measure of contentment to my mind) but I knew that eventually I’d have to invest in a more solid property in town. So when Marianne became a permanent fixture in my life I suggested that we pool funds and look for a house. With the Zimbabwe economy sliding to a near comatose state we reckoned, and were told, that house prices were in a buyer’s market and the time was ripe to start looking. It has been a slow process – some 8 months to be exact.

Area was a concern as my work is to the north of the city and of course we were hoping to find somewhere easily accessible for exercising the dogs. We got on the internet and started looking. We were not flush with money and I insisted that we borrow as much as possible as we didn’t want to leave ourselves destitute should Zimbabwe totally collapse and we needed to find refuge elsewhere. Yes the loan would be expensive at 16% interest but worthwhile to risk someone else’s money rather than our own.

Having ascertained that we could get a loan for $75,000 we started the search. There were not a lot of houses on the market and what was there was often in very poor repair and over-priced. With the increasingly dire water shortage in the city a borehole was a prerequisite so any properties that didn’t have one didn’t merit a visit. The list of potential properties shrank and then became zero. Finally we saw a property that had some potential, or so Marianne thought. I was less enthusiastic but there was nothing else. The law had changed recently so that owners living outside the country could no longer repatriate their money from a house sale so were deciding to keep their properties – or so we were told. We paid the deposit, signed the agreement of sale and started looking for contractors to start the renovations.

By the time we started the move we were hopelessly over budget and of the firm opinion that artisans were in very short supply in Harare. And the rains had started on time (that’s a big storm in the photograph) and I’d got a policeman to admit that the new bond notes weren’t real money and didn’t make good toilet paper. Now 3 weeks later the rains have not let up, the contractors are still clattering around, we are even further over budget and my dear sweet Ridgeback, Kharma, has developed full-blown bone cancer and doesn’t have long to live. Yes, welcome to the suburbs.

This was only predicted to be a mild la Nina season but so far it’s been anything but. ART Farm where I used to live has already had more than its average annual rainfall with the wettest month, February, still to come. Major rivers in the east of the country are in flood and Lake Chivero,  Harare’s main water supply, is spilling. The roads are dreadful – it’s no longer possible to dodge all the potholes so one just has to slow down and accept that it’s necessary to drive through some. The tobacco crop will not be great quality – with all the rain the leaf becomes thin and light once cured. The maize (the staple diet) is at risk from poor pollination as it is wind pollinated and needs to be dry for that.

And the policeman. Yes, that was different. A removal company did the major moving but there were still pot plants and other assorted items collected over the years to move so I borrowed a trailer and made many trips without incident past an illegal roadblock of 2 policeman (there have to be 3 or more) who couldn’t have looked more bored. Then one day there was an altogether more professional bunch there complete with patrol car.

“I am <name given> of the Highway Patrol, this is our car” he added pointing to a small, newish police car with POLICE in 20cm high letters on the side. “You have not got a light on the number plate of the trailer”.

“Oh, really?” I replied knowing full well that I didn’t have one.

“I can show you if you like”.

“No that won’t be necessary. How much is the fine?”

“$20”. Right, $20 for no number plate light. Ridiculous but I’ve researched this before and had no intention of arguing the point.

“So you will accept bond notes even thought they are like toilet paper?” I countered instead.

“Ah, but you must embrace them” he said  parroting the official line.

I looked in my wallet and to my horror noticed that I had only a $50 note and a few $1. “If I give you real money I want real money change”.

He laughed, took the proffered note and counted out my change in US dollars and green bond notes. On handing me the US notes I asked “So this is the real money?”.

“Yes” he admitted.

“So you are admitting then that the bond notes are like toilet paper. Have you ever tried them for that purpose?”.

“Yes, but they were too hard!” he joked.

Well, at least he had a sense of humour.

We had a big storm last night and on the way to work there was grass caught on the railings of the bridge over the Gwebi River, near it’s source on the Borrowdale vlei. It had been over the road in the night. The nursery had received 80mm of rain but speaking to others it emerged that the eastern suburbs of Harare had received nearly double that. Despite the fact that this is a neutral el Niño/la Nina year we are having exceptional rains. Or maybe it’s just a normal rainy season like I remember from my youth.

The renovations to the house are almost complete and we’ll all breathe more easily once the contractors finally clear out. We still find badly painted doors, taps not centred over the bath, tiles with HUGE  gaps behind them and of course a monster pile of rubble and trash to dispose of. The swimming pools is clogged with leaves (we should have drained it but were worried about being able to refill it) and we had to replace a burnt-out motor on the filter.

One day it will all be sorted but poor Kharma will not be around to see it. She did not cope well with the move and still panics a bit when she cannot find me. Her leg that was healing so well with the assistance of a dog physio took a turn for the the worse just as we moved. We called in the physio again but she could find nothing wrong then last Sunday she stopped eating. Panic. Thinking it might be biliary (a fatal tick-borne disease) I rushed her to the vet but he could find nothing wrong and asked that I take her back the next day for X-rays and blood tests. The results were bad; the cancer had proliferated in her leg and had also moved to her lungs. When she’d broken the leg last year the vet had been suspicious but could find no sign of cancer but now there is no doubt; she’s on borrowed time. The anti-inflammatories are helping control the pain and yesterday I found someone who could supply cannabis “oil” which has certainly brightened her mood (yes, the supplier said, it really did have THC in it as she’d tried it) and she eats with gusto and is pleased to see me but I know that each day is a bonus. Poor girl, she’s been such a good friend and companion and I dread the day she tells me she’s had enough.

Today I received a copy of a new Statutory Instrument from my ZIMRA (tax authority) account manager. The government has put VAT on basic foodstuffs; meat, fish, rice and maize meal. They really are desperate and it should provoke a riot but it won’t.

 

 





Health and safety Zimbabwe style

12 12 2016
A new style in eye protection

A new style in eye protection

James is a house renovator’s dream. He gets the job done and he will go the extra distance to do it. He also spent some 7 years working in the USA and Canada so he has a clear idea of what health and safety is about. In the end he had is immigration application turned down so ended back in Zimbabwe.

“This PVC piping on the outside of the building is not up to standard” James said. “We’ll have to replace it with copper at some stage”.

I fixed him with my most concerned expression “Yes, James, and what country are we in James?”.

He gave me a wry smile “Zimbabwe”.

I confirmed with the electrician that the reason for the copper piping was to provide an earth for the house. “We’ll put in an earth spike” he said.

A few days later whilst checking up on progress I noticed the welder was hard at work on the gate in the fence to keep the dogs away from the electric gate. His eye protection was um, innovative to say the least.  Curiously he did not have arc-eye (an excruciating condition similar to snow blindness) the next day. Maybe sunglasses are more effective welding gear than I’d expected!

Yes, we have no earth protection

Yes, we have no earth protection

At the same time they were welding the fence gate another artisan was constructing a simple gate for the kitchen wall. His angle grinder was plugged into the kitchen socket, line and neutral wires the wrong way around and the earth left dangling. There was a light rain falling and he had no eye protection whatsoever!

Ah, Zimbabweans, always making a plan…

 

 





It’s all legal tender

9 12 2016
New notes and a coin. All real, apparently...

New notes and a coin. All real, apparently…

Earlier this year we decided to take the plunge and buy a house. We reasoned that with the economy in tatters there would be lots of cheap, good value houses on the market. Well, yes and no.

There were lots of houses on the market but most were unrealistically priced and the owners were inflexible on the prices. Seven months later we agreed on a house, circa 1960, that needed substantial refurbishing but was solid and had a good quality 2 bedroom cottage in the garden which made the asking price a lot more palatable.

Some $10,000 later it’s almost habitable and we are due to move in 2 weeks time. The rubble pile has grown substantially and the old parquet flooring (original 1960s teak) was clogging the garage. Then on Tuesday this week a buyer arrived in the afternoon as I was preparing to leave. Of course I insisted on cash and then the bargaining started, or so I thought it would. It seemed I’d come across the only Zimbabwean who didn’t know how to negotiate. Eventually I asked him how much he was prepared to pay and agreed to his offer of $250 – I had things to do. That evening he arrived back with the money bought at the Roadport in town, where all manner of buses and taxis congregate and devious deals are done, with the required amount in old $10 bills. I thought it odd that there were no larger denomination notes available but it was real money. The old parquet tiles were piled into the back of a pickup, the passenger seat of the pickup, a Honda Vitz and a Nissan 1/2 tonne pickup.

Yesterday my senior foreman asked if I could find some small change, even the much reviled bond notes would do. I managed to find some $1 bond coins at a hardware store and the clerk was happy to give them to me as change. My bank was also happy to oblige but the teller misheard me and said I could have my day’s allocation of $175 of which only $25 could be bond coins or notes. I opted for the coins and was more than a bit taken aback to get 6 brand new, sequentially numbered US$20 notes. Are we not in the middle of a full fiscal meltdown with US dollars being plundered at a frantic rate and the dreaded bond money taking over and doomed to follow the Zimbabwe dollar into oblivion? Well, most likely that is the case but where did the new $20 come from? Were they bought recently? By whom? Or had they been stored in a bank vault somewhere? Is this an attempt to emulate India whose government, in an attempt to curb rampant corruption, recently ruled that the larger denomination notes were no longer legal tender? That would be wishful thinking indeed. The larger denomination US$ notes have already fled the country.

 





A country on the brink of disaster

1 11 2016

We in Zimbabwe are apparently teetering on the brink of disaster. The much-dreaded bond notes alluded to in the previous post have been signed into law by President Mugabe (yup, Bob notes are real guys!) and it’s all down hill from here. We are still not sure where they are coming from as the German company behind the printing of the now defunct Zimbabwe dollar refused to print these. Never fear, someone will step up to the plate where there’s money to be made.

Marondera air day. Fun in the name of fund raising

Marondera air day. Fun in the name of fund raising

Going out to an air day organised for charity at Marondera, a small agricultural town 3/4 hour from Harare, on Saturday there was little sign of impending disaster. Vehicles clogged the road and drivers drove badly. There were no queues at filling stations but I’d had to search out low sulphur diesel the previous day as my regular supplier didn’t seem to have it anymore. When we arrived at Marondera aerodrome there was a fair collection of aircraft  both ancient (see the Cessna 182 in the foreground) and brand new – a 2 seat helicopter. I guess it was all small fry compared with a similar event in the civilized world but hey, it was actually happening! The Air Force had even been roped in (camouflage aircraft back left) to supply parachutists for entertainment and paid rides for the public. The parachutists certainly were entertaining with some spectacularly hard landings and bad approaches through trees to the LZ. And yes, I mean THROUGH trees! The inevitable party after the show was over was not well attended and the music was not great either but hey, we could still buy imported beer.

The man in charged of the local parachute school said he was still very busy though it seemed that paramotoring, which is why we were there, is not so attractive as we didn’t have any inquiries. The next day the wind was too strong for us to fly so we packed up, had a late breakfast with our host the other side of town and headed home along a busy road.

Today I am breaking news to my employees that they will no longer be paid in cash and like the rest of us will have to get themselves a debit card. It’s not going to be a popular move but they were warned 2 months ago that this was coming. Cash can now be bought for as much as a 15% premium which can make for a useful bargaining tool when buying. My partner and I have decided to embrace the crisis and have bought a house in a suburb that needs considerable refurbishing before we move in. Surprisingly not all the companies we’ve got quotes from are that interested in cash and only offer a 5% discount but with the bond notes now inevitable that might change. Who knows, we might be able to pay off the mortgage with a few bond notes and actually save a lot of money as they rapidly become worthless. (People who had mortgages in the Zim dollar days were often able to pay them off for a few notes as they became completely worthless.)