Where is the covid-19?

14 04 2020

The message is clear

Officially there have been 3 deaths due to the covid-19 (the causative virus is called SARS-COV-2) in Zimbabwe. Nobody really believes that – testing is sketchy at best but the point remains; the deluge has not arrived and nobody really knows why.

South Africa has a much more robust medical service than Zimbabwe and it’s top medics are also puzzled by the lack of a tsunami of covid-19. Their containment policy has been much more rigorously applied than Zimbabwe’s and testing has been widespread. Nobody is prepared to say that this has worked just yet, and planning for widespread infection goes on regardless.

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe we are taking precautions on a number of levels. I don’t do the shopping even when it’s not restricted but Marianne tells me that all the shops she goes to, which is just the food markets and pharmacists, have hand sterilizer for customers and it’s not always optional to use it. At the doctors’ practice I use it’s prominently displayed (picture above) and although its use wasn’t being enforced I’m pretty sure that someone would have called me out if I’d avoided it. It’s a sensible precaution along with the advice to social distance.

Having left the doctor with a script for my asthma control I went to a local pharmacy. On the way I passed by a noisy crowd outside the side entrance of a local supermarket. They were queuing for mealie meal (maize meal), the local staple food. It was a scrum of pushing and shoving – social distancing was the last thing on a hungry person’s mind!

There’s much we don’t know about this virus. The mode of transmission is assumed to be mainly by droplets and aerosols from infected people coughing or sneezing and to a lesser extent contact with contaminated surfaces. We don’t know if it will follow the seasonal pattern of the common ‘flu – there are indications from outbreaks in the southern hemisphere which is now coming out of summer that it won’t be.  This could be bad news for Zimbabwe or good news. We are just going into our winter which is characteristically cool and dry. We tend to be an outdoor economy and work in well-ventilated office spaces as there is no real need for heating or cooling, so virus transmission by aerosols is likely to be low. Indeed a study in the online journal PLoSCurrents indicates that influenza in the tropics is much more sporadic (not seasonal) in nature and the most usual mode of transmission is by contact not aerosols which are sensitive to temperature and humidity. Not good news for Zimbabweans for whom social distancing is an alien concept.

“There really is nothing else that can prevent this virus from spreading in the population outside of public health interventions like social distancing. It’s the lack of immunity in the population that is making people so susceptible.” (Andrew Pekosz, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins University, USA.)

There is of course the possibility that the lock-down has been effective in preventing the covid-19 from really getting going. I don’t think that really is the case. While the roads are relatively quiet they are not as quiet as in South Africa – I have yet to encounter a road block. A friend in the USA who’s daughter is a doctor working in Liberia has commented that they covid-19 hasn’t really taken hold there either. Whatever the cause I see a real issue here if it doesn’t take hold like expected; the general population will become contemptuous of the warnings and let down their already low guard for the next time.

“Public health measures can only succeed if there is a high degree of social solidarity, which requires trust in public health agencies and their leaders.” (Mark A. Rothstein is the Herbert F. Boehl Chair of Law and Medicine and Director of the Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and a Hastings Center Fellow.)

And there will be a next time. It could take the form of another novel virus or a resurgence of the covid-19. The virus that caused the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed around 17 – 50  million people took 3 years to abate, so we should expect the covid-19 to be around for some time and a possible resurgence in the northern hemisphere winter is a real possibility. There’s also a possibility of a resurgence at the end of lock-down – a problem that South Korea may already be experiencing.

The tuberculosis vaccine, BCG, is mandatory for children in Zimbabwe and other African countries. There has been speculation that it could explain apparent anomalies in the spread of the covid-19 as it may confer resistance to other viruses. My friends in the medical profession are sceptical that it will be of much use to my generation as the vaccine is thought to be effective for a maximum of 20 years though that is hugely variable depending on, among other things, geographical location.  Trials are underway though it will be several months before the results emerge.

World UV intensity map

We have plenty of sunshine in Zimbabwe and are heading into the sunniest time of year; winter. It’s long been known that patients exposed to sunshine and fresh air recover quicker. UV light, which is also in abundance here due to our altitude and latitude, is an important sterilant and vitamin D generator which is also important for the immune system.  This all sounds like we should have an easier time of the pandemic, should it arrive, though I think this is far from a certainty. I am not taking chances and as an asthma sufferer I am high risk so will continue to take my medication. And wait.





60 and the bottle of wine

15 12 2019

A fine red wine blend

Marianne bought the bottle of South African Saronsberg Seismic 2009 red wine about 3 years ago; she had fond memories of it and thought it would be a good wine to put aside for a major celebration. The first occasion we earmarked was Mugabe’s death but when it came it seemed a bit of an anti-climax. He’d become irrelevant and it certainly didn’t create a beacon of hope. The current Zimbabwean president, ED Mnangagwa has seen to extinguishing that one before it could get going. So we moved the goalposts to the day when we would have paid off the bond on the house.

We decided to buy a house in 2016. Like anyone who’s ever rented a house long term you soon realize that you are just putting a lot of money into someone else’s pocket. There were other reasons to invest in a house. In Zimbabwe there is little if any sense in putting money into a savings account. If the government doesn’t steal it, inflation will make it worthless. Banking on the local currency crashing yet again, we decided to pool our hard-earned foreign currency savings,  borrow as much as we possibly could, and buy a house. After 6 months of despondent searching we settled with a house with “potential” (a real estate euphemism for needing a lot of work) and moved into town from the farm where I’d been renting.

The asking price was US$225,000 which we considered fair as the house was filthy and needed a lot of work but had a decent 2 bed-roomed cottage on the property that we reckoned we could easily rent out and help pay off the bond. We could also move into it when a bit older and rent out the main house for retirement income. We could only get a bond for $75,000 of the asking price as both of us were over 50 and we had to pay it off over 10 years. It sounds like a lot but I was banking on the currency losing it’s value as it had in 2008 when people had paid off multi-thousand dollar bonds for the equivalent of a few US cents. I was determined not to lose out again as prior to the 2008 currency crash I’d dithered about buying a house and lost out on a bargain.

Luckily the loan contract stated that the money was valued as US dollars or the dominant local currency of the day. At the time there were a number of legal currencies in Zimbabwe including the US dollar, South African rand, British pound and the local currency called the RTGS dollar if it was in electronic format or the Bond dollar if in cash notes. The latter were officially valued at 1:1 with the US dollar but very quickly started to trade at much less on the black market. Although the bank accounts were officially valued in US dollars it was soon evident that they were valued in local dollars (the reserve bank had made off with the US dollars) and nowhere near 1:1. From the point of view of paying off the house, that suited us just fine and in September I borrowed $14,000 of local money off my own company (it was about US$1,000 at the time) and paid off the bond. Somehow it didn’t feel sufficient enough of an achievement to open the bottle of wine. So we set the new goal as my 60th birthday.

I wouldn’t say that the 10 years since I posted Reflections on the first half have passed quickly but they have been eventful. In December 2016 I married Marianne, whom I met through friends who boarded my dogs whilst I was undergoing neck surgery to stop the rot caused by 2 previous surgeries that had gone badly. We moved in together some time later and I bought her a dog to help with the bonding process. It must have worked as we celebrated our third anniversary recently.

I also bought a new pickup. That’s probably not a big deal to many people who read this but it is the first new car I have ever bought and it was a necessity. My disability had been deteriorating noticeably and on at least 2 occasions I’d missed the brake in my old Mazda pickup. I’d recovered the situation without more than damaged nerves but at some stage there were going to be tears and dents. As a physically disabled person I can import a vehicle duty free with the proviso that it is automatic and of course I had to get a letter from a medical specialist stating the nature of my disability and that I needed an automatic vehicle (some vehicles are assembled in Zimbabwe but they are all manual). I chose to go through a private importer (rather than an official Ford dealer) as they were familiar with the system. Money was paid and after a considerable delay the vehicle arrived, complete with a hand-operated foot brake to ease the drama of stopping. It certainly is a pleasure to drive though not hugely economic on fuel use.

My brother, Duncan, came out from the UK to help celebrate my 60th birthday in the middle of November. Unfortunately my sister, who lives in the north-western USA, couldn’t make it but gave me a present of 3 nights in a cottage in Nyanga in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. We gathered some friends, filled up some containers with diesel (it’s still critically short) and headed off for the 4 hour drive. Whilst stopped at a traffic light in the dormitory town of Ruwa some 20km out of Harare we were enveloped by a cloud of blue smoke. By the time Duncan got out to check it had dispersed but it was definitely ours. The truck computer didn’t indicate any faults but we stopped at the next town and changed the fuel filter, which was dirty. The power loss didn’t improve so in the absence of any warning lights on the dashboard we continued to Nyanga.

The cottage, named Rocky Glen, was at the end of a road in a tree plantation. It was very comfortably furnished and the staff ensured that the log fire burned all day and most of the night which irked a bit as it was not remotely cold. It did add atmosphere for the Saronsberg wine which was very good. Nope, there’s no more 2009 vintage – I have checked their website!

In good Nyanga form it rained, though not so heavily that we couldn’t get out and do things which can be an issue in the rainy season. The road to the Gairezi River was surprisingly good, not least because it has been very dry in that part of the country too. The river was low and dirty from the overnight rain but Duncan was not put off and had a ritual swim. The rest of us watched as the clouds closed in and the rain started.

World’s View. L to R: Marianne, Maria Wilson, Duncan, self, Zak

The next day it was time to leave the quiet and solitude of the Nyanga mountains and head back to Harare and stress. First stop was the turbocharger repair workshop.

The news wasn’t good; a new turbocharger was required from South Africa and the currency was US dollars cash, and no paper trail. Whilst such deals are illegal in Zimbabwe one has to accept that for fully imported one-off items foreign currency will be required. I didn’t really have a choice as it was not a good idea to drive the vehicle and I cannot safely drive manual vehicles. A deposit was paid with precious dollars and in due course the vehicle was fixed after parting with yet more. As of writing this it hasn’t been ascertained what caused the turbocharger to fail but this particular engine is prone to having the turbo fail. Thanks Ford.

Fortunately there had been some rain whilst we were away so the swimming pool (also a makeshift reservoir for rain water collected off the roof) had risen a bit. The borehole has been failing since October and finally became useful only for drinking water in early November so the pool has been tapped for non-drinking water. Finally last Friday we had to buy in water as the pool was very low and the remaining water was more than somewhat dirty. Then the following day the rains returned and we’ve had a good week of some 140mm. The pool is back to two thirds full (about 40,000 litres) and we have 2 rain tanks totaling another 10,000 litres. We are self-sufficient for a while. Municipal water supply is erratic in Harare. We have not had municipal water since we moved in and those that do have it say it’s unusable for anything but watering plants. Lake Chivero, Harare’s main water source, is heavily polluted and the municipality has no money for water purification chemicals.

The Zimbabwe government doesn’t have much money for anything which is not surprising considering they stuff their pockets with whatever money they can lay their hands on. There has been a long running junior doctors strike that culminated in more than 400 being fired. They complained that they didn’t even get paid enough money to get to work and when they did get to work there was little if anything to work with. Those that can have left for other countries and the government has backed down and offered to reinstate the dismissed doctors no questions asked.  A very wealthy Zimbabwean businessman living in South Africa has offered to top up the doctors’ salaries with the local equivalent of US$310 per month but it’s not clear how many takers there have been.

It’s not just the healthcare system in a shambles. Air traffic controllers have also been on strike over poor pay conditions and unsafe equipment. Power supplies are still heavily restricted countrywide. The latter has got to the stage where the government is reportedly considering the nuclear power option.  That they are extremely complex to run doesn’t seem to bother them in the slightest – much more challenging than supplying a country with fuel at which they have proved themselves utterly incompetent. Hopefully the cost will keep an African Chernobyl at bay. In the meantime the national supply authority, ZESA, has hedged it’s bets and installed a solar power system in its head office building. Oh the irony.

So what’s it like being 60? Much the same as 59. I did get a set of hearing aids from my brother, courtesy of the National Health Service in the UK. His hearing profile is much the same as mine, though mine is a bit worse thanks to a more extended military service. He just has to pay £50 a piece to replace his “lost” ones. Do they work? Yes. I can now hear the workings of my electric toothbrush but they haven’t cured the persistent tinnitus as I hoped they might. I might be able to get them reprogrammed here but otherwise they will just have to do.

Bette Davis is credited with saying “Getting old is not for sissies”. I know 60 is the new 40 and all that but I think we need a different standard for Zimbabwe. Life here is just difficult regardless of age and of course makes one feel older. Some days I feel like I’m well into my eighth decade (I don’t like to think I’m already into my 7th). Partly it’s a structural issue – an artificial knee is giving a lot of trouble these days and it’s not helped by less than successful neck surgery in 2010 that has exacerbated my disability. Mostly it’s the dismal state of the economy which even our government has said will shrink by around 6% in 2020. The Economist, in its annual predicting the coming year supplement, has predicted it will shrink by around 23%. How can one make any plans in this sort of environment?

I asked Marianne recently if she would opt to stay in this country if we were financially secure. She said probably. I said I would seriously at moving to where I could do the things I really want to namely paragliding. I am now dependent on other people to take off – a critical part of the sport – and there’s only a few people I’d trust to do that. In fact there are about 2 and neither of them are available. One has stopped flying and the other is not interested in helping out – I am seen as baggage. Quite often there is just nobody around interested in going flying anyway – such is the dire state of the sport. France would be good, paragliding is big there and there would always be people around to help and yes, I can get by with the language. Dreams.

Most people at 60 have a retirement plan laid out. No chance of that in Zimbabwe for most people.   There is a national pension scheme but the pensions don’t remotely keep pace with inflation so we are putting as much money as we can into improving the property in the hope that one day we can sell it for real money. So here we stay.

 

 

 





The metaphor

2 02 2019

Looking back where we’ve been?

This photograph is perhaps a metaphor for the future of Zimbabwe, heading back into the darkness from the light. The future is dark – the light of the sunset is the hope we all felt when Mugabe was ousted in a popular coup in November 2016. That is fading and it will soon be dark, just a memory. The rain on the mirror are the tears of the nation, beaten into submission by the current regime for daring to vent its frustration at the deceit and disappointment and cursing its own gullibility.

Or is it just a pretty scene that I saw this evening in my rear view mirror, driving away from Komani Microlight Club where I go with a friend to fly model aircraft and get away from the stresses of living in a crumbling economy?

You choose.

 





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.”

 





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.

 





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.