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.





And on the positive side…

14 07 2018

Will McNicol, acclaimed guitarist, entertains.

We don’t have a lot to celebrate in Zimbabwe at the moment; the economy is barely existent, cash is a fond memory and the weather is unusually cold and dull. But we have just spent the afternoon listening to the top class acoustic guitarist Will McNicol in the gardens at Amanzi restaurant, thanks to Music Every Month  who brought him over from the UK. Oh, and the wine wasn’t bad too if rather pricey – but as my dear departed mother liked to say; money was designed to be spent! It was just what we needed. Thanks Will and to all those who made this possible.

And he even used his mouth – inspired by Jimi Hendrix perhaps?





The uncooperative spider

11 05 2018

Nope, just not a good photo

The spiders are back in the nursery after a 2 year break. I’d noticed the decline for a few years prior to this and I’d put it down to erratic and decreasing rainfall over the past 5 years. So last year after an unusually heavy rainy season, I was expecting to see at least a few. Nothing. I was disappointed. In a normal year they festoon the nursery with their golden and incredibly sticky webs. I like to think that they catch all manner of pests that are eating the seedlings but I never really see much in their webs. They must eat something as they do grow. I don’t really mind what they do or don’t eat as I just like seeing them there; I guess I have to admit that I just like spiders. Maybe it’s an underdog thing – lots of people don’t like spiders but they can have my support.

Maybe it’s the same thing with snakes as I also quite like them. Friends at school kept harmless snakes and I admit they are fascinating creatures to handle – cool and silky to the touch. In the bush I am a bit wary of them. So long as we meet on my terms, i.e. I see them first and am not surprised by them, then we can be friends.

The first job I had back in Zimbabwe after I’d finished my backpacking travels was with a flower growing company in Lion’s Den, the other side of Chinhoyi from Harare about an hour and half north-west of the capital. It did not go well and after 2 years I threw the towel in and we parted best of enemies but I did get to live in the bush and that aspect I really enjoyed. On several occasions I saw a herd of kudu (a type of antelope) by the road, there were lots of birds on the local dams and lots of snakes to watch out for and they were not necessarily harmless.

One morning I walked out of my office in the flower pack-shed to use the toilet. I opened the door to see a lizard like head watching me from behind the water pipes. I paused as it moved and revealed itself as a snake. I couldn’t make out what type so moved a little closer. It opened it’s mouth and spat but nothing hit me and there was no typical cobra hood. I wasn’t going to take a chance so went back into the office to get some safety glasses kept for when using an angle grinder. Calling a foreman to bring a sack and a broom I went back to the toilet whilst the women packers vacated the pack-shed with shrieks of excitement. By now the snake had decided to make a break for the door but being a smooth cement floor it couldn’t get any traction and did not so much slither as writhe. It even made an effort to strike at me but I easily side stepped it. Brushing the snake into a clear area of the pack-shed, I trapped its head with the back of the broom and picked it up by the tail. In this part of the world the only snake that can climb back up its tail is a boomslang (tree snake) and this was most certainly not one of those. Snakes will try to lift their heads up from this position but all one needs to do is jerk it up by the tail and the head will drop down again (this is not the recommended way of handling snakes!).

Now I had to get the snake into the sack. The foreman was holding the sack at arm’s length and wouldn’t come close enough. I shouted at him for being daft whilst the rest of the labour force giggled nervously from the safety of the shed door. Finally he came close enough, I dropped the snake into the sack, grabbed the top and tied it off with some string. I could just see the snake waving around inside. Nobody could tell me what it was and I had no other means of identifying it – it was just a metre long, brownish snake. I did know it wasn’t a black mamba which were common in the area and certainly not a snake I’d have tried to pick up. They are also quite nondescript in colour but aggressive and highly venomous.

Later that day I showed it to a local farmer.

“Sounds like a cobra” he said. “Let’s have a look”.

“But it didn’t put it’s hood up” I countered.

“Maybe, but now it has” he said, pointing at the distinct silhouette of a cobra in the bag.

Despite several brushes with snakes in the area that included nearly standing on a puff adder walking out in the bush, one of my dogs being bitten by a puff adder (she survived and lived another 13 years) and getting repeatedly bitten by a mildly venomous grass snake that didn’t appreciate that I was trying to heal the cut on it’s back (it too survived and was released) I’ve never lost my appreciation for snakes. I won’t handle them like I did as I am not nearly as agile as I used to be but I’ll let them be and defend their right to exist if I can.

So where was I? Yes spiders, that’s what started all this. The golden orb spiders that weave their webs in the nursery are completely harmless to humans and have fascinating blue and yellow patterns on the base of their abdomen. I’ve been trying to get a decent photo of one for years so when I saw this one on an aloe in the nursery car park I thought I was in luck. The light was good and the spider was in a good position but all I had was my cellphone. The camera is not bad as cellphone cameras go but it’s not a patch on my SLR. So I snapped the photo at the start of this post and thought “I’ll be back to get you”.

So today I was back with SLR camera and tripod but would the spider cooperate. Oh no. It sat contentedly in the middle of its web and would not be coaxed back onto the aloe. The light was also wrong; I’d been distracted by my landlord and missed the 5 minute window of sun on the aloe leaf that I’d seen yesterday. This evening I checked up on it again. Its magnificent coloured abdomen was perfectly lit by the late afternoon sun and it was nowhere near the aloe but no matter. Just as I got up to grab my SLR the sun slipped behind a bank of cloud. I’ll be back.

Who’s a pretty girl then?





Penhalonga revisited

29 04 2018

I used to live in Penhalonga, a small gold mining village in eastern Zimbabwe, named apparently from the Portuguese for long rocky mountain. I grew up on Sheba Estate, a forestry plantation some 15km further to the north and moved to Penhalonga with my mother after my father was murdered on Sheba in 1979. Sheba Estate is part of the Border Timbers group of forest estates comprising Sheba, Imbeza, Charter and Tilbury scattered along the eastern border of Zimbabwe which total some 40,000 ha of mainly softwood pine trees.

Imbeza Estate is in the next valley to the south of Penhalonga and despite its proximity I never actually visited the estate except once in the Rhodesian army as an escort for an engineer who wanted to look at the source of an explosion in the minefield that the Rhodesian military laid along much of the eastern border to restrict the inflow of Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA guerillas from Mozambique where many of them were based.

The old guest house on Imbeza estate where we spent the weekend with Stewart and Nicole Goss. The trees in the background at right are on the border with Mozambique

This last weekend Stewart Goss and his wife Nicole invited us down to Imbeza for a weekend. I’ve known Stewart all his life from when his mother June, and father Gary, moved into the top end of the Penhalonga valley in 1980. They had a small farm there from which they were evicted in the early 2000s as part of Mugabe’s disastrous land reform policy which saw the majority of white commercial farmers evicted from their land countrywide and crashed the Zimbabwe economy. Now in a delightful twist of irony Stewart and Nicole are living on Imbeza and have been contracted to do much of the forestry silviculture (planting and management of trees), road maintenance and fire fighting for Border Timbers. Their house is the old guest house on Imbeza and has a commanding view of the valley and countryside to the north. The minefield has mostly been cleared in the proximity of the house which is very close to the Mozambican border though we drove past stretches of red and white tape that demarcate areas still to be cleared.

Looking north and east from a fire tower. The Mozambique border runs along the skyline at the centre. Parts of the minefield still have not been cleared of mines.

Morning view from the front garden. It was as peaceful as it looks.

Evening sky from the front garden. The road to Nyanga runs the other side of the hills in the distance.

The aloes were in full bloom and the sunbirds, (a Miombo double-collared in this case) were all over them.





Those were the days

26 04 2018

Those were the days of lots of zeros – my claim to multimillionaire status!

There is not much to do at work at the moment – business is very quiet – so I got down to bit of clearing out old accounts and invoices. I’m told that paper records only need to go back 7 years so this printout going back to 2008 was fair game for the rubbish bin. Look at all those zeros! In August 2008 the hyperinflation was really heating up but we still had another “resetting” of the zeros to go and another 12 to gain before we ditched the ludicrous Zimbabwe dollar in February 2009 and became what is now known as “dollarised” i.e. we adopted the US dollar as the main currency. One hundred trillion Zimbabwe dollar notes are still sold as tourist souvenirs!

Given the dismal state of business I decided to get “proactive” (ghastly word) and go looking for business out of town. The small rural mining town of Bindura an hour to the north of Harare was the target. I’d been invited there by the manager of the agricultural showgrounds who’d met me a the ART Farm field day last month. He thought we might be interested in setting up a stand for August’s show and maybe selling seedlings from the grounds on a weekly basis. I was a bit sceptical but given that the town served a vast agricultural area thought there was merit in at least having a look. So I got hold of a former foreman that I’d employed some years ago, who’d decided to go farming on his own but was now looking for work, and we set out this past Tuesday.

The showgrounds were not in a great state. Although the location was reasonable the grounds were badly overgrown and the buildings dilapidated. I asked for a guided tour of the town. It was smaller than I remembered from my last visit in 2001 when I’d got into political trouble for lending a pickup truck to the opposition MDC in the general election (see this link Reflections on the First Half). We stopped at the offices of the local branch of Agritex – the government agricultural extension service responsible for the Mashonaland West province of Zimbabwe.

The man in charge came out to the car park to chat to me and upon hearing that I wanted to get a bit of exposure for my company suggested that I do the rounds of the field days in the province. I was surprised to hear that there was nearly one a day but it is a large area. He kindly wrote down the names and phone numbers of people who he thought would be most relevant for a seedling business and suggested I contact Mrs Hungwe on the route past Trojan Nickel Mine that would take us back on another road to Harare. He assured us that the road was fine.

Trojan mine appears to be doing much better than the rest of Bindura. There was certainly plenty of activity that we could see and the road was well maintained – until we got past the mine gate. For 3 km it was better to drive off the tarmac than on it. I did get quite passable after that.

Mrs Hungwe met us at the Bindura Rural District Council offices. Small and dynamic she is the chairman of the Muunganirwa-Chakona irrigation scheme some 40km from Harare. She was delighted that I was interested and invited us back today to their field day. So this morning we loaded some seedling samples to give away and headed back along the picturesque Domboshava road to the irrigation scheme.

Picturesque rural scene on the Domboshava road with a classic clear autumn sky. Yes, it really was that blue!

It turned out to be a longer day than I’d expected but the turnout was good with around 70 people of whom some 50 were members of the irrigation scheme. For once I felt that I was around the average age of the audience and commented as such to one of the officials. Like many developing countries the youth are not interested in farming and have largely departed for the cities. On the return trip I chatted to the young man in the foreground of the picture above – he spoke perfect English and was on his school holiday. I commented on his good English and he said he’d learnt it at junior school in Harare but was going to secondary school nearby. I suppose it was possible that his parents could no longer afford to send him into Harare. I asked him if he’d been working over his holiday. The predictable response was that there wasn’t any to be found.

The presentation

Whether the effort will pay off remains to be seen but the audience was attentive to my former employee’s presentation and the free seedlings were certainly appreciated.

This painfully thin old man appeared to be lost in his own world for the duration of the field day. He was unaccompanied but his clothes are clean and freshly pressed so someone must be caring for him.





Autumn

19 04 2018

A misty autumn morning

It’s been a strange rainy season. The rain has finally petered out and the mornings are crisp (9 degrees in the photo) but the clear April skies have yet to appear. Of course, here in Zimbabwe, we don’t get the autumn colours of the higher latitudes – we have a sub-tropical climate and what colours there are appear with the new leaves in spring.

The rains arrived pretty much on time in the middle of November and then we had 2 very dry months in December and January. The maize in the foreground of the photo above was starting to look stressed and the general manager of ART Farm where the photo was taken was getting distinctly stressed about the state of the soy beans. Then in February the rains came back with a vengeance and by the end we’d had an almost normal quantity. Distribution is important too and because of the prolonged dry spell yields will not be fantastic. Some parts of the country got excessive rain and others did not plant maize at all.

The economy continues to stagnate. This is not that surprising as it is after all broken and broken economies are not quickly fixed. In the case of Zimbabwe we, and presumably potential investors, are waiting for the general elections the date of which still has to be determined. If the elections are deemed to be free and fair then the money will come. We hope.

The elections have to happen before September. I don’t watch television much and local television not at all but even I have noticed a dearth of campaigning by the parties concerned. The opposition MDC alliance (the original MDC became hopelessly divided  but they seemed to have cobbled together an agreement to stand as a single party) have been holding rallies which apparently have been well attended but the governing ZANU-PF don’t seem to be doing anything. This has made people very suspicious. Either they are super confident that they don’t need to campaign or they are “up to something”. Their track record favors the latter. Newspapers have reported that the military have been dispersed to the rural areas to do the campaigning but nobody actually seems to have evidence of this.

Mary Chiwenga, the wife of the ex-general and now vice president who was key in deposing Robert Mugabe last November, has been reported as helping herself to a government owned farm recently. This seems at odds with the “new dispensation” of president Emmerson Mnangagwa who has promised compensation to commercial farmers evicted under the Mugabe regime and has appealed for the self-same farmers to come back and help rebuild the economy. This may not sit well with prospective investors who shied away for just this reason; a lack of property rights. The story has faded quickly from the local papers who have a notoriously short attention span. When I told my foreman of this latest land grab he commented that this was a “problem with older men who take younger wives that they cannot control” – a clear reference to the profligate land grabbing antics of former president Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

Yesterday was a public holiday – the holiest of holy – Independence Day. In the past crowds would be bussed, sometimes under duress, into the National Sports Stadium to hear then president Robert Mugabe drone on about perceived injustices the rest of the world was inflicting on us. Sanctions was a favorite culprit for the economic mayhem he’d wreaked even though everyone knew they were targeted sanctions against ruling party (mainly) individuals. The crowd had mainly come for the high profile soccer match afterwards.

Sometimes there was a military display and fly-past by the air force. The jets used to practice their run over my workplace but this year they were absent and I’m not even sure there was any sort of celebration at the National Stadium. This did not stop the local branch of ZANU-PF asking me for a donation for their regional party. In the past there had always been an implicit threat that if I didn’t cough up there might be a consequence – farmers have long been a soft target. It says a bit for the changing political atmosphere that this year I turned them down when phoned with “not this year, I have too many financial problems to deal with”. True enough if a bit overstated; it’s been the worst first 3 months of a year for business since we adopted the US dollar as our currency back in February 2009.

We are so used to hearing about the dire state of our economy that I am often mildly surprised to hear about agricultural enterprises that are doing well. Avocados and macadamias are riding their healthy food status wave and those who can are exporting to a near insatiable Chinese market to the extent that macadamia nuts are nearly impossible to find locally. Another horticultural company that I’ve dealt with in the past exports canned cherry peppers in bulk containers and I know an export agent who is concerned about the vast area of blueberries that will come online in 5 years or so – he told me that we lack the infrastructure to export them!

Export markets are highly sort after as the foreign currency earned can be used to import goods. Unless one has a priority requirement such as medical, seed or some other “essential” service it is nearly impossible to import using local currency. A way around this is to purchase the US dollars cash on the market, take it to the bank who will then effect the importation. This is what I did last year to import the coir pith we use in the nursery as a growing medium. I paid a 40% premium at the time – apparently it is now 50%  – and landed the product cheaper from India than I can buy the local equivalent the quality of which I don’t trust.

Medical cannabis is also being grown but is very much a closed market. An email call to someone in the know got me a curt “I’ll contact you when the way forward is clear” reply. I guess I’ll just have to keep looking.

 

 





The (orchid) show must go on

8 04 2018

The local Zimbabwe Orchid Society, in existence since 1947, had it first show of the year this weekend at its place in the Mukuvisi Woodlands nature reserve in Harare. This is for what I’d call true orchids, the show for cymbidiums (or are they cymbidia?) is in September. Marianne remarked that there weren’t as many displays as she was expecting and I asked someone in the know who confirmed that was the case and a lot of people’s plants had flowered early. Such is the way of horticulture. Still, it was a spectacular display in it’s way even if the majority of the plants were exotic hybrids.