Who’ll start the rain?

5 12 2021
Part of last season’s bumper harvest of maize, though these are heirloom maize seeds used for ornamental and breeding purposes.

Last year most of the country experienced good rain with some regions receiving record falls. This was largely influenced by a strong la Niña effect. We, in the suburbs of Harare, were not among them and recorded a sub-normal rainfall. This year the whole country is dry and rains are late despite there being another moderate la Niña effect off the coast of Ecuador. We had some good rain in the middle of November, pretty much when we expect it to happen, but nothing since. The maize that was planted with the rains has germinated but is going to be stressed in the heat of this coming week.

As the owner of a commercial seedling nursery I am not that keen on getting rain on the seedlings in what amounts to perfect conditions for disease to spread. Accordingly we make use of what are known as Colombian greenhouses which are a simple structure of poles that support a plastic sheet which keeps the rain off the seedlings. In winter part of the nursery has plastic sheet sides put in to assist the cold sensitive crops but most goes without – we have a relatively mild climate and frost is rare around the nursery. But we do need rain to replenish the boreholes (wells) that we pump for the seedlings.

This year both of the existing boreholes had to be restricted – the run-dry electronic protection system kept turning them off and we were struggling to keep up with use. The new borehole that was drilled is not great. There are some very big housing developments not far from the nursery that will almost certainly negatively impact on the ground water table in the foreseeable future and the rainfall has become increasingly unreliable. Last year, whilst most of the country received record rainfall and excellent maize harvests, we receive some two thirds of what we’d normally get, whatever “normal” means these days.

The staple food of Zimbabwe, and much of southern Africa, is maize (or corn as the Americans call it). It is a poor choice for a region beset by drought – the millet family is far better adapted to the dry conditions but to say that Zimbabweans are besotted by the mealie crop, as it’s known locally, is a fair assessment. Come the first rain every square metre of available ground in the urban area is tilled with enthusiasm and planted. The crop is tended with passion thereafter. Even the few seeds planted from the handful in the above photo have received extra attention in our veggie garden courtesy of our gardener. One of my foremen cynically commented that most of the urban-grown crop stolen but nobody lets that deter them.

The crop itself is not great food. It’s mostly carbohydrate and to make matters worse it’s preferred refined where the germ, which is the most nutritious part, has been removed. It’s then cooked into a stodgy mass of “sadza” and eaten with relish, gravy and meat. I have to admit it does taste good with a stew but I avoid it, and most other carbohydrates, as part of my weight control programme.

At the time of writing the next rain showers can be expected in a week’s time. This has gradually moved back over the past week. Some of my seedling customers are delaying planting their crops until the rain arrives. Most are not dependent on the rain for irrigation, that would be foolhardy in this climate, but I do grow a lot of gum trees for a regular customer and their programme is too big to irrigate. So we must all wait and I watch the water running into the main reservoir with concern.

This month’s ENSO forecast courtesy of Columbia University

About nothing and DIY in the middle of winter

22 06 2012

I haven’t written anything for sometime now. Nothing much has happened though I’ll have a go about writing it. Actually, quite a lot of nothing has been going on in Zimbabwe. I’ve heard of at least 2 Spar supermarkets that have closed their doors recently due to lack of trade. The small sawmill that operates off the same premises as my nursery is also on the verge of closing. They had a run-in with a union some time ago so paid off all their staff and now just employ them on a day-to-day basis as and when they have work. I got them to cut 1200m of battens for the greenhouse that we are recovering with plastic. We are not that busy either so are doing the maintenance that we ignored for so long in the dying days of the Zimbabwe dollar (LONG may it stay that way!). Actually this is traditionally a quiet time for us so I am not that concerned – yet.

I know that in the developed world there are specialist greenhouse covering and maintenance companies but that is not how we do things in Zimbabwe. If there’s a problem on the farm you get on and fix it yourself. ART Farm where I live has a fully fledged workshop that does all the on farm repairs and maintenance and on occasion I do use their skills. The senior mechanic is a pleasant fellow and I have used his help on the Land Cruiser after-hours on a Saturday. Though I have to admit (with head briefly bowed) that I thought replacing the oil seals on the half shafts would best be done professionally in town this week. Then I got the bill and thought that for $580 I should have had a go myself!

Building is not my forté but what the hell I gave it a go this week. OK, I supervised the builder who did the building. It’s nothing much, just a pit toilet known as Blair toilets in this part of the world after the government laboratory that many years ago developed the standard. It’s simplicity itself; a sort of square spiral wall (work it out!) over a squat hole in a concrete slab with a roof and vent pipe. There’s even a plan in the CFU (Commercial Farmers’ Union) handbook. Pretty basic stuff but it still required me to supervise the builder for the best part of the day while he got the plans wrong. It has taken him the last 3 days to do something that a skilled builder would have done in a day. At one stage I began to think that I should have got in a skilled builder and just paid but actually his building is OK for a farm builder and the skilled builder is “not reachable” according to the cell phone service provider. Which is a pity as we have some tobacco ponds to construct and it really does need accurate building skills. A previous builder “had a go” at some ponds a few years back and when I queried about why the walls were not visually level (no spirit level required to see this) he told me that it was not the walls that weren’t level it was the water in the ponds that wasn’t level! Harsh words were exchanged and I refuse to employ him. Maybe I’ll have to give it a go myself. I know that Tony has a dumpy level and I watched the skilled builder doing it just in case I needed the knowledge.

Maybe I’ll just go and employ a builder off the wall I see being built around a property on Harare drive. It’s certainly straight and level enough. And big. It’s at least 3m high and 300m long on just the road side – they have yet to build the other 3 sides but the bricks are there. That’s certainly someone with plenty of money and no taste. It’s been painted a light pink with mauve on the top. Mind you, I saw another like it (though much shorter on the Rolf Valley road) that was painted lavender and had a mirror in the electric gate. The lavender did not last; something much less brash now though the mirror is still there.

I suppose I should also have a go at repairing the coffee plunger pot at my elbow. Stainless steel no less and not cheap the spout is in the process of coming off and there is coffee leaking onto my desk. I could be catty and say it was made in China (which it was) and what does one expect except I do still have the box and it goes on about what a quality coffee plunger thing it is but it does claim to be designed in the UK and the English is genuine. Or I could just get on and have a go at fixing it. I have no idea how to solder stainless steel but I suppose I can find someone who does though I suspect it would be cheaper to buy another coffee pot. Though I did see some “cold solder” in an auto supplies outlet yesterday…


26 04 2012

The Zimbawe Air Force has one fast jet still operational. I know that because I saw it flying when I was at the Zimbabwe Orchid Society show a couple of weekends back. It is apparently an F7 of Chinese origin. I now have it on good authority from a pilot customer that the last remaining pilot capable of flying it has resigned. The Hawker Hawk jets are grounded due to a lack of spares because those horrible Brits won’t sell us the spares – it’s those pesky sanctions again. I do see the occasional Bell “Huey” helicopter around but it’s been a long time since I saw an Alouette in the sky (I should hope so, they are ancient!) and I never saw one of the Russian Hind-D helicopter gunships that were used in the DRC (which was Zaire). Do we even have ANY operational aircraft? Just as well no-one is interested in attacking us!

Keeping up with the competition can be exhausting in any economic climate. Zimbabwe of course has its own rules. My nearest competition is an Israeli-owned nursery down on Harare drive. How did they get to own property in Zimbabwe – they are hardly indigenous? Word had it (it was a while ago) that they sourced the fancy riot control vehicles with water cannons for the Zim police and were allowed to own property in return. Come to think of it I haven’t seen them around recently either. I’m sure it’s nothing to do with spares – business is business as far as the Israelis are concerned. It must be our non-existent credit rating. I digress. The nursery was set up originally for supplying rose cuttings to the region and very state-of-the-art it was too. Special plastic and automation to boot. That market collapsed with the world economic crisis so they diversified into seedlings, fertilizer and various implements – all rather pricey (their seedlings are nearly twice the price I charge). In the early days of the US dollar I used them quite a lot because they had what I wanted even though it was not that cheap. Now there are much cheaper fertilizers and plastic around and the other suppliers spell Zinc correctly on the bag; not Zunc! That always makes me suspicious. If they cannot spell correctly or at least get someone else to check the spelling what else have they got wrong? I found out from my new greenhouse sheeting supplier this week that they’d also given some of their rather nice erect-and-go greenhouses to a number of the “fat cats around town” in return for good publicity. That type of business ethics I do find bit dodgy. I do however still support the pita bread bakery on the premises – hey, it IS good pita bread!

Traffic in Harare has increased tremendously over the past 2 years. Driving skills have diminished proportionately. On Tuesday I was very nearly eradicated by a driver in the industrial sites. I was approaching Rotten Row on Coventry Road and fortunately slowing down for the T junction. A car came out of the Colcom complex on my right, drove straight across the front of my pickup and exited onto Rotten Row 4 lanes later! Luckily I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye and braked hard. I guess he missed me by about 50cm. Not a week seemingly goes by without news of yet another bus disaster and in 36 years of driving I have had my vehicle checked for roadworthiness only ONCE about 3 weeks ago on the road to the airport, near Mukuvisi Woodlands.

“Please put on your hand brake sir” said the policewoman. She then leaned rather pathetically on the door frame to check the hand brake, checked the lights and I was free to go. Admittedly most of the accidents seem to occur when minibus drivers deem themselves invincible (which is most of the time) and overtake into oncoming traffic. When are the police going to get serious about bad driving and unworthy vehicles? I guess it is not a lucrative as harassing drivers for going through amber lights and not stopping at stop streets.