After the fire

23 10 2015

Agriculture is not an exact science and sometimes things go wrong. The tobacco seedlings we’d sent to a customer near Headlands, an hour and a half to the east of Harare, had been well received until he informed me that we were some 160,000 seedlings short out of a total of some 500,000. I was more than a touch bemused. This warranted a visit to try and ascertain what had happened.

Leaving early this morning before the traffic had got going I arrived at 8h30 after a rough 20km south of the main Harare-Mutare road. The lands were impressive and well farmed in contrast to the derelict farms I passed along the way.

Not a lot happening

Not a lot happening

The farmer, young by my standards, had recently been allocated the farm by the government meaning that sometime in the past another farmer had been kicked off it though there was no evidence that I could see of habitation. I had to give the new farmer his due – he’d worked hard to get his project going starting pretty much from scratch and had got a substantial loan from a Chinese farming company that wanted his tobacco. The company has apparently been in the area for about the last 10 years. Of the missing seedlings there was no sign. Whilst we have absolutely no legal obligation to seedlings once they leave the nursery I did feel bound to meet him half way on the cost as I’m pretty sure he’ll be back next year. I made it clear that I expected him to check the quantities when they arrived (he admitted they hadn’t) and I made clear that this was not going to happen again.

On the way back I noticed a small burnt area near the main road and stopped to take some photos of the flowers that had bloomed after a recent fire. They didn’t need a loan to make the most of life; just a fire!





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.





Appropriate technology

24 08 2013

Freightliner truckThis is a Freightliner truck. An American brand they are popular in Zim ever since a number were imported from the Middle East quite a few years ago. This one arrived at work yesterday to take a modified container to Hwange in the South West (the landlord’s son converts them into liveable cabins). I got chatting to the driver. He admitted there were rather a lot of electrics that had once stopped him on a weigh-bridge because of a faulty oil pressure sensor. They’d also disconnected the automatic greasing facility – trust Zimbabweans to “make a plan” to get around inappropriate technology.

Growing up on a forestry estate in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe my father had a Peugeot 404 pickup truck. It was definitely more comfortable than the Land Rover it repaced and it lasted well on the less than perfect roads – not least because my father maintained the roads AND the pickup! I haven’t seen a Peugeot 404 for some time now but they were made to last – appropriate technology at its best. They were followed by the Peugeot 504 which was definitely more luxurious by the day’s standard and didn’t last as well.

Other appropriate tech cars included the Renault 5 with the gear stick on the dashboard and yes, you do still see a few around. A physiotherapist friend and her twin sister had one when I was at the St Giles rehabilitation centre in 1979 which they had to hire from their father who happened to be the managing director of Anglo-American in this country (Anglo-American is a VERY big company in Africa!). Somewhat thrifty was Mr Carey-Smith!

I own a seedling nursery business that is definitely appropriate technology orientated. Nearly everything is manual with a few exceptions, one of them being the clipping of the tobacco seedlings for which we use a Husqvana hedge clipper. It works really well for the purpose and requires little maintenance. Unfortunately it does require 2-stroke oil to be put into the petrol so when the operator came to me yesterday and said the machine had just stopped I had a pretty good idea what had gone wrong. Now I’d really like someone to come up with foolproof technology but maybe that’s a contradiction in terms.





Tobacco seedlings

16 10 2010

I have grown some tobacco seedlings on spec this year – hoping that we can sell them without and order. In days gone by we used to do quite a lot of seedlings this way but now it’s a bit chancy and we prefer to only grow to order.

It is also an opportunity to experiment with a different method of growing seedlings – we float the polystyrene trays on shallow ponds of nutrients instead of watering them from above on wire racks. The pond method is well suited to tobacco and some years ago I did work with UNDP in Malawi converting farmers to this technique so I had a good idea how it worked. It is getting much more attention in Zimbabwe now that methyl bromide used to sterilize the seed beds is on it’s way out of use. It is damaging to the ozone layer so now with the Montreal Protocol it is being phased out. Methyl bromide is an extraordinary effective fumigant and though there are others available they just don’t do the job that well and the Zimbabwe tobacco industry has become commited to the “floating tray” technique as it’s known. That should be good news for my company – or so I thought. Having sounded out a couple of tobacco company agronomists I decided to take a chance and put in 30ha worth of seedlings of two cultivars that were deemed to be popular. I am very pleased with how well the seedlings have grown and even my landlord Tony, an ex-tobacco farmer of many years was impressed with the seedling quality. Selling them has been a bit more difficult.

So when I saw a customer looking interested in the ponds this morning I moved in for the hard sell and told him he was looking at the best tobacco seedlings in the country (with a big smile to make it more humourous). We soon got chatting and it emerged that he had been let down by the Tobacco Research Board’s commercial operation so he was indeed interested. It was also obvious that he was a “new farmer” i.e. had acquired his farm without paying for it. I am uncomfortable with this sort of setup but I have to be pragmatic – I need the money. Then Mr N arrived. He is a big bear of a man and unusally for a black in this part of the world he grows a beard. He is VERY outspoken and soon assessed the situation. He introduced himself to all around and then proceeded to make a very loud comment about “those of us who don’t have political connections” while grinning at me to emphasize the point. I did an inward wince but I am used to Mr N’s comments – he said to me once; “I am 74, what are they going to do to me?”. The tobacco customer has indicated that he will be back for more seedlings next week – so just maybe we are at the start of a new successful project.

T64 tobacco seedlings grown with "float tray" method. Seedlings shown are immature.