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.





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..





A bit of marketing

19 10 2013

The economic climate in Zimbabwe has changed substantially over the past 4 years. Not only do we no longer use our own currency (just about any hard currency is acceptable but the US dollar and South African rand are the most popular) but we are all fighting for what little business there is. This was not always the case for my business. I used to just rely on word of mouth for the customers to come to me. So when a few weeks ago I got an email from a local farmers’ union asking if I was interested in advertising at their annual congress (for a small fee of course) I decided it was time to do a bit of marketing.

So for 2 days this last week I went just east of Marondera to a government technical college where the annual congress of the ZCFU (Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union) was being held. I had little idea what to expect, or even who the ZCFU is, so borrowed a gazebo tent, took along some examples of seedlings that we grow and brought the senior foreman/clerk along too. There was a LOT of waiting. Finally on the last day just as we were packing up the delegates came out of the congress and we got quite a lot of interest. Just how much will translate into business remains to be seen.

A very basic setup

That’s us -a very basic setup

All quiet

All quiet

These photos were taken on the first day when there were just a few students around. The second day there were quite a lot more exhibitors.

The convener of the congress is a relatively small-scale farmer and long time customer of mine. Quite what was discussed I don’t know but he was pleased with how it all went. Most exhibitors were of the usual agricultural supplies and input type but there were even some representatives of the local tax revenue authority there “trying to persuade the farmers to pay their taxes”. I kid you not – this is what one of them told me! We had quite a long chat discussing how to get agriculture going in Zimbabwe again (access to finance and all that implies) though I was quite circumspect on the political aspect. We both bemoaned the dearth of Zimbabwean produce on the local market. So when I went shopping yesterday and actually saw some local fresh produce I just had to take a photo.

Finally some local produce

Finally some local produce





Waiting for the right moment

10 10 2013
Kindly donated by...

Kindly donated by…

I have always wondered how condoms are electronically tested (the red arrow on the box is mine). They have been tested this way as long as I can remember which is long before Google and the internet. For those who are interested this link will tell you how. They certainly haven’t been free in the National Blood Transfusion Service toilets for more than a few years which is where I photographed this box. I should know; I am such a regular donor that this last time my blood was marked for pediatric use. I did ask the nursing sister, who took the blood, why not just test the blood and rely on the test results but got a vague answer. Are regular donors less likely to have risky lifestyles and are therefore less likely to be HIV positive? I don’t know. I DO know that the HIV tests are not infallible. But it was time to head out to the customer in Marondera South, some 2 hours south-east of Harare who’d placed a large order of tobacco seedlings through my nursery and check up on how things were going.

I have never smoked. I did try really hard in the Rhodesian army as it had benefits in keeping the mopani flies (actually stingless bees) out of one’s mouth, nose and eyes but I could never finish a pack of 20. I did smoke occasionally at school but that was just to be a bit of a rebel. Tobacco also played a major role in killing two of my friends so it is a bit ironic that my company has done well this year, largely from growing tobacco seedlings and related business.

Driving east out of Harare I got onto the new section of four lane highway not far from town and breathed a sigh of relief. It is part of a $500 million upgrade of the major roads in the nation and not before time too. They were in a disastrous state with negligible maintenance done in the last 10 years. It’s being funded by the South African Development Bank and a South African company has got the contract. I seriously doubt if any local companies have the capability to undertake a project of this size. It was also evident in the speed of which the resurfacing has been done. Curiously the main road from South Africa to Harare and from Harare to Zambia has not been included in the current project. I know this from a friend of mine who plays tennis with one of the senior management figures in the aforementioned company. Such is the small town nature of Harare.

There were three sections on the road to Marondera where the traffic was controlled by solar-powered lights with a radio link to the lights at the other end. Definitely not a Zimbabwean setup. The hawkers had not wasted any time and were gathered at the traffic controls to see if anyone was interested in various fruit or drinks. Very Zimbabwean.

Turning south in the middle of Marondera I headed off down a road which I have never travelled and within the hour was lost. Not a problem; I simply phoned the farmer I was visiting and got directions. This is something that would have been unheard of just 2 years ago but now the nation has 95% cellphone coverage. That is not to say it is particularly reliable and one company has a stranglehold on the market. It is into just about every form of telecommunication around and is behind the laying of a LOT of fibre optic cable in the suburbs this year. No living in the suburbs I have to rely on a 3G link into town which is OK most of the time but not what would be termed broadband in the developed world.

I eventually arrived a good hour late at the farm. The farm manager was delighted with the seedlings. So much so that he wants to grow them himself next year and use me as a consultant. I guess success has its cost.

This tobacco had been planted the previous day. I was told there is a pack of heyena that live in the hills in the background.

This tobacco had been planted the previous day. I was told there is a pack of hyena that live in the hills in the background.

The farm was bought by its current owner in the late 1970s but has not seen a lot of use. A lot of the infrastructure will need to be rebuilt but it has a lot of potential in good tobacco soils and access to plentiful water. I see it as a metaphor for this country that has extraordinary resources but is just waiting for the right moment to take off. But for the moment we seem to plod along with modest growth largely in tobacco farming (though we are a long way off the peak production before the farm invasions). Food production is still dismal and this year a lot of people will go hungry in the rural areas. The outlook for the coming season is apparently good but even so, there will be at least 8 months before the crops are mature enough to eat.





The price of business – part 2

18 07 2013

Zimbabwe is expensive. This is largely due to us producing little of anything so most goods are imported through and from South Africa by road. It is also due to the Zimbabwe business attitude which can roughly be summarized; “If at first you don’t sell anything, raise your prices”. It was against this background that I went looking for polystyrene seedling trays in which to sow tobacco seed for a customer who decided at the last-minute he actually did want me to grow his entire tobacco crop!

“Phone me back in an hour” said the responsible person at the Tobacco Research Board which usually manufactures expanded polystyrene trays for tobacco seedlings. This I duly did and was told that they had plenty at the princely price of $2.75 each. Expensive but I didn’t have much choice. The only other outlet in town is just as expensive and the quality of their trays is dismal. I went and got the cash and drove out to the TRB near the airport.

“We don’t have any” I was told on arrival at the TRB that afternoon.

I explained that I had transport hired by the hour and that I’d got the cash specially. A few phone calls later and some trays had “appeared” and  I was told that I could get them at the warehouse.

“We have no trays!” the warehouse manager told me. “Have a look”. There were no trays. The injection moulding machine had broken down 2 weeks previously and the South African technician had yet to arrive. I explained that I HAD already paid for the trays, and I HAD got transport waiting and WAS being charged for it. “Let me make a phone call” the manager replied.

It seemed there were some trays available on farm and I was directed over to the seedling production area. It was an education. There were indeed trays to be had there and they were new. The ponds were set up and looked quite presentable. But over the fenced area was an old crop of commercial tobacco – a clear violation of plant quarantine. Oh dear, what has happened to the premier tobacco research facility in the country that was once world-renowned?

Loading seedling trays, old tobacco in the background.

Loading seedling trays, old tobacco in the background.

Prior to this little escapade I had ascertained that seedling trays of good quality (we’d used them before) were available from Johannesburg. The catch of course was the transport – expanded polystyrene is mostly air which makes it expensive to move. However, even factoring in the transport and  other costs, I could get them landed at my business for 75% of the cost of locally produced trays. And the return load was empty – another sign of the state of the economy – making the transport doubly expensive. It took a while to find a transporter who had the right sort of trailer to move a bulky load such as this but eventually one was found and the trays have now arrived.

Trays arriving

Offloading the seedling trays from Johannesburg

As a Zimbabwean I am willing to support my local businesses but the product has to be of comparable quality and price to the imported option. Our local economy is in a dismal state and of course there are many factors outside of our direct control (read politics here) that are making it difficult to do business but really, Zimbabweans need to wake up when it comes to being competitive.





“I am not the one” and other miracles

29 11 2011

I thought that the miracle heyday had passed – about 2,000 years ago. Then yesterday I think one might have occurred in my nursery because I can only credit divine influence on what happened.

On arriving at work yesterday morning the weekend’s duty foreman called my attention to some tomato seedlings that were showing quite alarming symptoms of what he thought was a nutritional deficiency. One look at them made me think otherwise; to me it looked like herbicide damage. The symptoms had appeared over the weekend which was too quick for a nutritional problem and it was highly localized. I walked around a bit and found the symptoms elsewhere including on the weeds although I was assured that they had not been sprayed with a herbicide. I asked Brian who has vast experience what he thought. He suggested heat damage but that did not gel as the timing was wrong for the heat wave we’d experienced some 2 weeks ago, and besides, we’ve had heat waves before and they have not affected the seedlings. I was still suspicious of the herbicide but could not see how anyone could have applied it, even with intent, accurately enough to only affect 8 trays of tomatoes and not the brassicas right next to them. I called on Stewart who is a herbicide expert and happened to be passing by. He agreed to call in.

On arriving back from town Tony met me with a container of clomazone (a herbicide that I was going to use on the sweet potatoes) and told me that it had been used in the nursery last Thursday. I could not believe it. I had never authorized anyone to use it for anything as I wanted to supervise the application. I asked the weekend foreman about it but he came back with the stock “I am not the one” – a reply that anyone who has ever managed anything in Zimbabwe will know well. He could see a crisis coming and was distancing himself as quickly as possible.

Stewart arrived and confirmed that the damage was typical of clomazone. When the other foreman came back from his lunch break he confirmed that he’d authorized the use of the herbicide on the weeds beneath the racks where the seedlings are grown. I asked why. “It said herbicide on the container” was the reply. I pointed out that I had not authorized its use and got the same reply. This was going nowhere. I asked how it could have got onto the tomatoes (and some other seedlings) with such accuracy and was told we’d had a strong wind the afternoon after the weeds were sprayed. I was incredulous. We certainly had a new branch of physics developing here (those pesky neutrinos from CERN taking a detour?) – or a miracle. How could herbicide that had dried on the weeds in the morning have got onto the seedlings in the afternoon? To me it seemed more like criminal negligence or even malicious intent but how to explain the localized effect? Clomazone is what is called a pre-emergent herbicide i.e. it is designed to kill plants as they emerge from the seed. It is not very effective on seedlings that have already emerged and it is not effective on all types of plants. The damage appeared to be restricted to tomatoes and lettuces of a certain age.

I know I will not get to the bottom of this and I have a better chance of bringing a case against the Divine than finding out what actually happened. In the meantime I will have to replace the damaged seedlings. Stewart thought they might recover but I cannot take the chance. The company of course will have to foot the bill.

Clomazone herbicide damage on tomato seedlings