Passing on the knowledge

9 10 2015

Every year at about this time in October the local University of Zimbabwe 2nd year agriculture students come on a tour of my nursery. Every year I give them what is by now a well-rehearsed talk. Sometimes it’s an interactive visit that I enjoy with a lot of pertinent questions. Sometimes I could be talking to a herd of mombes (cattle in the vernacular). Last Monday I was starting to despair; I just could not get more than single sentence answers and discussion was just not going to happen. Then somebody did it.

We were standing at the tobacco ponds where tobacco seedlings are grown in polystyrene trays floating on a shallow pond containing fertilizer. Did I take notice of the regulations concerning planting dates of the seedlings? For a moment I was incensed but I very quickly realised that it was a serious question. So after a “I cannot believe you asked that” response (that the lecturer chaperoning the students found very funny) I told them why the regulations existed and why flouting them was a very bad idea no just from the legal consequences point of view. It’s all about pest carry over for the non-scientific; separating sequential crops with a fallow period breaks the pest/disease cycle. Tobacco crops in Zimbabwe must be destroyed by the first of May, new plantings can only be sown from the 1st of June and seedlings planted out from the 1st of September. There are numerous examples of how pests have been introduced into the country by people ignoring phytosanitary requirements. But why was the question asked in the first place?

Sadly corruption is pervasive in Zimbabwe. Earlier this week the Swedish Ambassador expressed frustration with the level of corruption in the NGO sector. Now that is something coming from the Swedes who have a history of being very helpful to Zimbabwe. We are in the current financial mess in no small part due to financial mismanagement and corruption and when the people see the top echelons misbehaving they must assume that it is OK to do the same; Zimbabwe is very much a patriarchal society. Why would my nursery not also be cutting corners? Yes, I have seen these corners cut by farmers who should know much better.

Towards the end of the tour I pre-empted a question that I was hoping to be asked; do we take students on attachment? We do but few are enthusiastic once I tell them that we don’t pay them. Once in a while I am pleasantly surprised and for those I make an exception and at least pay their transport as they are genuinely useful. Moses is one. A student in last year’s batch he worked for at least 6 weeks going around all three nurseries on the premises. He even came back in his vacation.

One morning soon after starting his attachment he approached me as I was taking measurements from the tobacco ponds.

“Morning sir” he said.

“Morning Noah” I replied, genuinely having forgotten his name.

“Actually it’s Moses, sir” came the reply.

I liked that. Not so much in awe of me that he cannot express an opinion. He is also very ambitious and hopes one day to become a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. So he almost certainly will not stay in Zimbabwe along with so many others who are fed up with the mismanagement and corruption. Our loss.

“I knew it was something biblical” I replied, and he laughed..

The definition of poverty

29 08 2012

The definition of poverty varies from country to country. I have heard figures ranging from $1.25 to $3.00. The minimum wage for horticulture in Zimbabwe is $70 a month plus another $77 in allowances if the person lives off the property and has to use public transport to work (this does vary quite a bit). Of course you can pay more if you feel like it and there are stipulated job definitions and grades too. Agriculture uses a 26 working day month which means that my labour force earns around $5.65 a day so is well clear of the poverty line. This strikes me as unnecessarily complicated. I think the definition should be; can they afford to have and operate a cell phone?

The New Farmer (TNF)

25 07 2011

“Have you grown cabbages before?” I asked The New Farmer.
“No”, he replied.
“Well, what type of soil will you be growing them on?”.
“Red”, replied TNF.
“Well, that’s good” I replied. “Heavy soils are much easier for hortiuclture”. “Have you taken a soil sample?” I continued hopefully. No he had not and he seemed a bit non-plussed as to what a soil sample actually was.

TNF had come into my office this morning having paid a deposit to for us to grow 35,000 cabbage seedlings for a hectare so I felt obliged to part with information, and who knows, the good word might get around and we certainly need the business right now.

“Tell me about the irrigation” he said as the “Brief Guide to Growing Cabbages” was printing from my computer.
“Right”, I thought, “this one is really clueless”, but I launched into a concise description of an over-head irrigation system. My knowledge of irrigation systems is a bit sketchy but next to his I was a veritable genius. I covered the principle of 100% overlapping patterns and touched on water replacement, emphasizing that cabbages must NEVER be stressed. I looked at TNF’s totally blank face and thought I should steer clear of Class A pans, evapotranspiration and crop factors – none of it rocket science but nevertheless necessary to grow a good crop of just about anything.

I emphasized that the 5 page guide I was giving him was just a very brief introduction and that there were BOOKS out there on the subject. TNF didn’t seem to be deterred and I didn’t want to put him off! My parting advice to him was to split the order into 2 parts 2 weeks apart so that he could get the system going a bit easier but the foreman told me later he wanted to press ahead with the full order as a one-off.

New Farmers are easily spotted in Zimbabwe. They often have town jobs so go out to the farm on the weekend in their de rigeur felt hats and twin cab pickup trucks. The farms are inevitably “acquired” from white commercial farmers and as such they don’t have to be viable straight away – they certainly aren’t paying off the banks for the land. They also seem to think that farming is easy, after all, the white commercial farmers made lots of money didn’t they? That of course is some way from the truth; a very small percentage of the whites did make good money but many did not and plenty went broke too. Nor is farming easy in Zimbabwe. Soils are not good (heavily weathered) by world standards and the climate is fickle so horticulture especially is a non-starter without a good irrigation system. The electricity supply is even more unreliable than the weather so diesel pumps are a necessity which makes the irrigation expensive. Horticulture is demanding anywhere in the world and definitely not a branch of agriculture one would want to “have a go” at. Especially in Zimbabwe!

I recommended to TNF that he go next door to the research farm and have a look at their irrigation system but he did not seem over enthusiastic. Maybe he was not the enthusiastic sort or maybe he thought he could work it out for himself. I doubt he will be back for a second crop.

Wage woes

21 12 2010

Some definitions:
NECA – National Employment Council for Agriculture. Part of the general NEC setup in Zimbabwe that helps set minimum wages and resolves disputes involving the latter.
CFU – Commercial Farmers’ Union. Once a very powerful union representing the commercial farmers in Zimbabwe it is now a shell of its former self due to the war of attrition on the commercial farmers by the government.
ALB – Agriculture Labour Bureau. The division of the CFU that deals with labour issues.
HPC – Horticulture Promotion Council. The organisation that looks after the interests of the commercial farmers in the export market.
ZFU – Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union. The union representing the mainly small scale black farmers.
GAPWUZ – General Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe. The largest (?) union representing the agricultural labour in Zimbabwe. Independent.
HGAPWUZ – Horticulture and General Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe. The government backed “other” labour union in Zimbabwe. Headed up by one Joseph Chinotimba, government bully boy of extraordinary brutality. An unimaginative lot as can be seen by the copying of the GAPWUZ name.

In the days of the Zimbabwe dollar the NECA was instrumental in bringing together various interested parties to set minimum wages; and essential task in the multi figure inflation of the time. They were admirably neutral and I used them on a few occasions to settle issues I had with my labour force when they went on strike or go-slows over various wage issues. All farming operations had to pay a levy which is currently set at US$1 per person on the labour force contributed by the worker with the employer contributing $1 per person too. The various unions representing both labour and employers also sat on the NECA  as members. Things started to go a bit wrong when the HGAPWUZ muscled its way into the market. It has never been a registered union and it is illegal to deal with it as such but after a while the GAPWUZ recognized that it was up against the big boys and buckled and HGAPWUZ was in the market. They came around to my workplace some years ago and made all sorts of extravagant promises and signed up most of the labour force away from GAPWUZ. The representative was an odious character both literally and figuratively and was always propositioning the women for sex. I made a point of telling him he was not “my friend” and refusing to shake his hand. I have not seen him since the US dollar took over as the official currency of Zimbabwe. That has not stopped the NEC and other parties from hiking the wages over the last 2 years.

By the beginning of this year the minimum wage for horticultural labour was $50 per month plus $7.50 for various allowances. I should explain here that horticultural wages have for many years been higher than general agricultural wages. This was because “horticulture” implied the business was exporting something and getting hard currency, an obvious advantage in the days of the Zimbabwe dollar. The ludicrous part of the definition was that many farmers were both exporters and local producers so two people doing exactly the same job but in different divisions of the same farm could earn vastly different wages. The export wages were at least 40% more than the local wages. Unfortunately my business is also classified as horticulture even though we have never exported. The “advantage” of exporting has now largely fallen away with the use of the US dollar locally.

In June this year an “official” notice came from the NECA stating that the minimum wage was now $70 per month and would be reviewed at the end of September. It was probably reasonable in that there had been some minor inflation but the ALB and the HPC cried foul. The person who’d signed for the employers’ unions was not authorized to do so and it transpired that the latter had never agreed to the wage increase. But by now the horse was well out of the stable and I increased the wages accordingly and passed on the increase to the customer appropriately. The exporters were not so lucky. Unable to pass on cost increases in a time of economic turmoil externally a number of them had to close. The HPC and others took the NECA to court. But the NECA did not stop there. Last month they announced ANOTHER wage hike of 20%  (to $84) and announced it with somer pretty aggressive newspaper advertising threatening those who did not comply with legal action.

I had noticed a few months back that the NECA had seemed to have lost its impartiality. One particularly obnoxious woman at the front desk had started to spout the government line against the various employers’ unions when I went there to pay dues. I have copies of various documents from the HPC and ALB that state that the NECA’s accounting has been less than transparent (and often totally absent) and various councillors have been claiming fat payment for turning up for meetings. I can’t also help wondering if this latest wage hike has something to do with the rumoured upcoming election i.e.  persuading the labour force to vote for those who have improved their lot.

This all came up today when I payed the staff their wages before Christmas. No I was not going to pay them the “new” wage. It is still in court over the previous increase and the courts have shut for the holiday and the various employers are cancelling their membership of the NECA and proposing setting up another as yet unnamed refereeing body. Yes they would get any backpay IF it ever became legal. I can cope with that but what really got my blood pressure up was the bonus issue (the Christmas bonus has become and unfortunate expectation in Zimbabwe over the years). Despite having been told repeatedly over the years that a bonus is a privilege not a right they just cannot seem to appreciate the difference. I made a testy comment that nobody ever seemed able to say thank you and be grateful for what they got when some 90% of Zimbabweans are unemployed. Thank you came the immediate reply, but why are we not getting as much as the neighbouring businesses? Eventually the foreman who was doing the translating had to attend to a customer so I took the opportunity to wander off too.

Wage hikes are damaging other sectors of the Zimbabwe economy too. Chatting to Harry who is in the wholesale garment industry he told me that they are being threatened with a minimum wage of $185 per month. He said exactly the same sort of hike sank the South African clothing industry some years ago and manufacturers moved their factories to the neighbouring states of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland where wages are less. Barry is in the furniture manufacturing industry and already they cannot compete with furniture imported from the previously mentioned states. “The unions have told us that they’d rather have fewer well paid workers than more people employed in a viable industry” he told me. “They just don’t care”.