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





Spring

11 10 2020

Normally I find going out to Mazowe to get import permits a bit of a chore but not this time. I guess I was just too pleased to get out of Harare and it’s farcical Covid lock-down. I took my time on the 20 minute drive to watch the countryside go by.

It’s desperately dry at this time of year despite being spring. The musasa tree (Brachystegia speciformis) colours were finished, they are spectacular for just a few weeks, and there was little evidence of the fire devastation normally found across the sub-region at this time of year. The image shown below indicates that other countries are ablaze as usual (that’s Zimbabwe in the middle of the image).

Sizeable fires in the sub-region (CSIR AFIS website)

The image comes off the AFIS website and is worth a look as it covers most of the world and offers fire prediction services.

The Plant Protection Research Institute in the Mazowe valley was quiet and had all the usual Covid screening processes in place. The trees in the car-park were in full bloom and were in a frenzy of bird activity.

Schotia brachypetala flowers. Everything loves them!

A member of staff helpfully identified the tree as a member of the Schotia genus (I found out later it was brachypetala species) which is indigenous so I stopped to have a look at the birds. There were at least 3 species of sunbird (nectar feeders) including the scarlet chested sunbird, the amethyst sunbird and the miombo double-collared sunbird and several other species I couldn’t identify. They were having a great old time with not a small bit of squabbling. The flowers were thick with bees and other nectar feeding insects too – not surprising as very little else around was in flower.

Having handed in my application for cotton seed importation from Israel (for a colleague who has business interests in the crop) I set about collecting a few seeds scattered around on the pavement. The gate guard soon came over to see what I was doing and offered to help. Curiously, the trees were in full bloom and producing seed from the previous season at the same time. The seeds have a fleshy aril (not shown) which is attractive to birds and the flowers are also eaten by monkeys. We live in a garden that has space for a few more trees so hopefully I’ll be around to see the tree seed grow out and form attractive flowering trees – apparently they grow quite quickly.

Schotia brachypetala trees in bloom

The gate guard waved a cheery goodbye with her covid mask around her chin. The indifferent police at the roadblock on the edge of Harare were similarly nonchalant – masks in various states of misalignment – along with most Zimbabweans who have shown scant regard for social distancing and frequently don’t wear masks at all. As of writing this Covid-19 has brushed us only lightly and has all but disappeared from the local news. As of 7th October there were officially 229 Covid-19 deaths. Given the disastrous state of the country’s medical health system this is almost certainly a low figure.

Earlier this week I drove past St Anne’s Hospital which was converted at not inconsiderable expense to a Covid-19 specialty hospital. There were all of 4 cars in the car park in the doctors only area and none in the visitors’ area. I’ve heard, unreliably, that there have been all of 7 cases that have gone through the hospital.

I covered possible reasons why the covid-19 impact might not be heavy in Where’s the Covid-19? post. Which aspect, if any, of this prediction might be true I’m not prepared to speculate but in the light of the lack of cases even the government has decided to relax travel restrictions.

It’s not officially over but…

Goodness knows the tourist industry needs all the help it can get but for many businesses it will be too late and I suspect only the most adventurous foreign tourists will travel in the absence of a proven vaccine.

The Zimbabwean economy still faces many challenges independent of a virus pandemic. It is almost entirely self-inflicted. The central bank and the Finance Minister are still trying to manipulate the laws of economics (and by extension mathematics) by controlling the exchange rate of the local dollar with the US dollar. Officially it’s around 81 of the local to 1 US$. Few if anyone is actually using that. It’s possible in theory to buy the hard currency on a government-controlled fortnightly auction (the rate is fixed) but actually getting the greenbacks is a challenge. The company my bookkeeper works for successfully bid for a tranche of US dollars but so far nothing has materialised.

It is perfectly legal to trade in US dollars or Zimbabwean dollars. The foreign ones are well circulated to the extent that they wouldn’t be acceptable in a first world country. However I’m occasionally surprised by the appearance of brand new, sequentially numbered notes.

The real stuff and new to boot!

Small denominations are, not surprisingly, difficult to find to the extent that businesses may ask one to pay the smaller amounts in local currency as they don’t have change.

The jacaranda trees that are ubiquitous in Harare are in full flower right now. They are showy, the bees love them and they care not a whit for Zimbabwe’s economy.

Jacaranda mimosifolia in full bloom

While I do have a preference for indigenous trees I don’t mind the jacaranda. It’s useful to the bees producing a mild, pale honey and is fantastic wood to work with if a bit dull. The flowers don’t do well in the rains and the roads become a carpet of mauve flowers that pop under the car wheels.

There’s rain around at the moment. It’s a bit early for the real season which starts mid November (usually) but it’s still welcome even if the early storms tend to be violent often with hail. So far it’s done a fair job of missing us.

The season ahead is looking promising.

https://iri.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/figure1.png
ENSO – el Niño Southern Oscillation (Columbia University)

If the la Niña forecast comes to be, as is indicated above, we stand a good chance of better than average rainfall over the next 5 months. Goodness knows we need it but it’s never as simple as the charts make out. More than a few times over the past 20 years that I’ve had my nursery business it’s been a disappointment. It doesn’t make that much difference to my business – commercial horticulture in this part of the world is dependent on a good irrigation system for success. Still, we’d like to have a good season to replenish our borehole in the garden. The rain gauge is out on its stand already – here’s hoping.

(el Niño conditions are indicated by warm currents off the coast of the Galapagos Islands (eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean) and commonly cause drought in this part of the world. La Niña conditions are the opposite and indicate wetter than usual conditions – see What is el Niño?)