Dollar creep

28 03 2021

The Optimist – not and easy state of mind in Zimbabwe these days

Slowly and surely the US dollar is creeping back. It’s perfectly legal, as is the local Zimbabwe dollar, but it’s getting increasingly rare to be quoted prices in them. Even the road tolls, which were always quoted in local dollars, have now stated that prices will be in US dollars though one is welcome to pay in Zimbabwe dollars at the official exchange rate. The road tolls are set by a government body.

Fuel stations are more blunt; only US dollars are acceptable and if paying by a foreign currency bank account you have to be prepared to wait whilst it’s ascertained that it really is real dollars you are using.

A visit to Kaguvi Street in the city area known as “the cow’s guts” (it’s filthy, raucous and vibrant) to source a car part was enlightening. I was offered the piece of radiator hose – not the correct one but with a bit of cutting it would do – and told it was $12 and did I have the exact amount? No, I didn’t but suggested I could use my local debit card for the equivalent of $2. Nobody had suggested that I could pay in local currency even though the debit card machine was in full view.

A couple of uniformed police walked into my office a few weeks ago. They were very polite as befitting the public relations department. My first reaction was that I’d be in trouble for not wearing my mask, even though there was nobody else around. It’s required under Zimbabwe law that a face mask is to be worn anywhere outside the home, including your own car even if you are alone. But they weren’t interested in that. They were after donations in cash or kind for building an office at the Borrowdale (my “local”) police station. I was dumbfounded. I was not surprised that they wanted to replace the ramshackle office that they currently use – it’s very temporary and probably wouldn’t last another rainy season. I asked if they’d approached the “powers that be” for funding. They had and had been told to go out and approach the community. I gave them my usual rant that I already paid tax to this government so why should I pay again? They shrugged and looked embarrassed and asked again if I could give them anything, anything at all would be appreciated.

I asked if they knew what it would cost. An architectural plan and a budget spreadsheet were offered. It all looked professionally done and of course the budget was in US dollars. The total was around $14,000 which I thought was quite a lot for what was being planned but they assured me that they’d got the required three quotes. I wondered to myself whose relative had won the contract but decided to keep quiet. I said I’d think about it and promised to get back to them.

I didn’t have to call back as the next morning they phoned me. I said I’d get them five pockets of cement – one of the perks of a farming company is that just about anything can be put through the books so the aforementioned cement could be listed as an expense and come off my tax bill. What would I get out of it? The police at that station would owe me a favour and that, dear readers, is how Africa functions. Indeed, in the past I’ve got off a traffic speeding fine because the enforcing officer used to get cheap meat from the farm where I lived.

Later the following week when I dropped off the cement some off-duty policemen in plain clothes unloaded the pockets from my truck. I’d witnessed them negotiating some after-hours guarding work with an Indian gentlemen. All the figures were of course in US dollars. I didn’t ask what their government salaries were or what the currency was – stupid question really as it was plainly not enough to get by.

A few local stores still quote in local dollars but they are getting few and far between. Where possible I pay in the local money as the majority of my income is in that currency. Customers do pay in US cash (the local cash notes are as rare as they are useless – the biggest note is ZW$50 which is about US50c) so I hoard it to pay at least part of the wages bill. My company also has a US dollar account that I use for importing raw material. One customer does pay me this way and last week I received about $24,000 for a big gum tree seedling contract that I completed last year. The gum trees will eventually be harvested and used to cure tobacco so the initiative is funded by a levy on tobacco sales which is paid in real US dollars. Hence the fact that it can be used to import materials.

I noticed on Monday that the figure in the nostro account, as the US dollar accounts are known, had been reduced by some 20%. At first I suspected there had been a mistake and somehow the depositor had withdrawn the excess. I decided to ask my bookkeeper who is knowledgeable in these sort of things. “Oh no”, she laughed, “the Reserve Bank have taken 20 percent and given it back to you as local currency. Check your other account”.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing but sure enough, when I checked, there was the money deposited in my Zimbabwe dollar account at the official rate which is some 30% lower than the black market rate. Once again, the government is stealing our hard currency.

Still seething the next day, I mentioned this to my neighbour at work. She was not surprised. Her son is an export agent for fresh produce into Europe and the UK – the Reserve Bank takes 40% out of his account and pays him back in local currency. This is especially problematic as he has to book and pay airfreight in advance and they don’t want Zimbabwe dollars.

At the end of every year, along with various tax obligations, we have to provide to the local tax authority a comprehensive list of income, tax paid, allowances and bonuses of all employees who have paid tax over the course of the year. This is purely a fact gathering exercise – it has no bearing on the tax bill  – but if submitted late one can garner a heavy fine.

I haven’t up until now bothered with a specific wages software package as most of the time I employ 17 permanent staff and an Excel spreadsheet copes just fine. Income tax is calculated and paid on a monthly basis using a system known as PAYE (pay as you earn) and whilst a bit tedious there were only a few people paying tax. However, in 2020 the inflation has run well ahead of the PAYE tax tables and lots of people ended up paying tax who were earning less than USD2 a day equivalent in the local currency. This meant two weeks of sifting through spreadsheets and collating tables and filling in the required ITF16 form. This is not going to happen again so I’ve spent the last 6 weeks writing my own wages software package that will do all that with just a few mouse clicks. Writing the software that does the PAYE was enlightening. No surprise that not only is there a local currency table but there’s also a US dollar table! The tax threshold starts at $2.31 per day with a tax of 20% (less a 46c deduction). If you don’t believe me look here.

“The term “absolute poverty” is also sometimes used as a synonym for extreme poverty. Absolute poverty is the absence of enough resources to secure basic life necessities.

To assist in measuring this, the World Bank has a daily per capita international poverty line (IPL), a global absolute minimum, of $1.90 a day as of October 2015.”

Using the above definition (from Wikipedia), and it is a little dated, it might be fair to say that Zimbabweans start being taxed when they are not quite extremely poor. That’s how desperate our government is.

Of course it needn’t be like this. A report from the Daily Maverick newspaper in South Africa is particularly damning.

“The report focuses on business cartels because these are the vehicles used for state capture. One of the experts we asked to review the report pointed out that normally cartels work to undermine the state. In Zimbabwe, however, they are in league with the highest people in the land. #DemLoot, in the now-famous words of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono.” The Daily Maverick

Last week I was chatting to a customer who was looking for advice on what crops he could grow. I gave him my standard spiel on finding a market first and then approaching me. Then I asked him what he’d been doing. “I’ve been in Afghanistan for the past 15 years and I’m tired” he replied. I wished him the best of luck.

The spiders are just fine – thanks

1 04 2020

The spiders are thriving – not a great photo though

The spiders are thriving in the nursery. It’s a long time since I’ve seen that many that fat. Well, I should qualify that last statement; the females are that fat, the males are as skinny as usual – probably all that escaping being eaten by the females that keeps them slender.

I am genuinely pleased to see all these spiders. It means there’s plenty for them to eat and that means our policy of using softer chemicals in the nursery is working. There have  been years in the past when the spiders never appeared (they are common golden orb spiders and harmless) which I put down to poor rains and a lack of prey. Curiously our rains have again been poor but the spiders haven’t noticed that, yet. Maybe there’s a lag phase but we’ll have to wait for this time next year to find that one out.

We are also going to have to wait a while to see how the covid-19 virus impacts us as a nation. Officially we are on a 21 day shutdown to reduce the transmission rate. It’s not likely to be that effective. On my way to work I didn’t notice much evidence of reduced activity and no police road blocks enforcing travel restrictions. It’s not a busy route at the best of times but there was still a long queue at the filling station and the usual amount of traffic up the short 4 km road past the rubbish tip which was quiet but still accepting waste removal vehicles. I was traveling legally as we are considered an essential enterprise and I needed to check up on our skeleton staff who are keeping the plants alive whilst there are no customers around.

The government did come up with a comprehensive legal document to enforce the lock-down remarkably quickly – I suspect it was largely copied from the South Africans who are enforcing their own lock-down. There’s nothing wrong with that and we do share the same type of law. Their other responses have been less well thought out.

The Zimbabwe public healthcare system is in a mess (see previous post A state of health ) with 7 known ventilators available to treat a population of some 11 million. So far as we know there’s been one fatality due to covid-19, a high profile local radio/TV presenter from a wealthy family. Relatively young at 30, Zororo Makamba was admitted to the local Wilkins infectious diseases hospital where facilities proved woefully inadequate. By the time the family had sourced their own ventilator from South Africa it was too late. Apparently he had contracted the virus on a recent trip to the USA and also had underlying health issues.

Testing kits are also inadequate. As of writing there have been 165 tests performed which accounts for the low apparent infection rate; just 5 positive so far. Strive Masiyiwa, local media mogul and sometime philanthropist, apparently took out newspaper adverts saying that his company would buy or lease ventilators from people who might have them on hand. Right, let me just go and dust off the one in the garden shed that I bought some years ago and stored for just this scenario.

While the direct health impact is still some time away the financial impact has already hit. Flower exporters have had to dump tonnes of flowers that cannot be exported due to airline shutdowns and are unlikely to be sold even if they could get them to Europe. Local vendors who rely on daily sales of produce have also been shut down. They must already be feeling hungry. We’ve had a large order of avocado trees cancelled, no doubt because the customer, who sells other fresh produce, cannot move the stock they have and cannot pay for the order. The financial cost to the country is going to be staggering. That the economy is already staggering under a burden of government incompetence and corruption will make it all the more difficult to endure.

The governor of a province to the north-west of Harare has taken matters into her own hands and is at least preparing in a way for the virus crisis. She sent out an email to local farmers for any medical supplies that included, among other things, boots, gloves, masks, body bags and quick lime. Why farmers would have body bags I cannot imagine or why they would feel any need to donate anything to a government that has done nothing to make their lives easier astounds me. I know this because a friend who farms in the area has become a de facto information hub and I’m on his emailing list. He’s also had a torrid time trying to stay on his farm and be productive whilst various fat cats try to evict him under the aegis of the previous government’s land reform programme.

While the covid-19 storm gathers the government has take the opportunity to ditch the ill fated Zimbabwe dollar. We can now legally trade in any currency we like (usually US dollars), again. The reason they gave was to mitigate the effect of the covid-19 on the economy. I think it was convenient to ditch the non-performing currency before it’s devaluation became, once again, a world recognised standard. They have stipulated that the exchange rate is fixed at 25 local dollars to the US but nobody is taking much notice of that when the parallel rate is 43:1.

On driving out of the nursery to come home I had to wait for a minibus to pass. It wasn’t supposed to be on the road during the lock-down,  that privilege belongs to the government owned ZUPCO buses which are apparently enforcing stricter hygiene standards.  I’m not sure what these standards are – it certainly won’t include social distancing given the seating arrangement. The seating philosophy on that minibus and others is pack them in, as many as possible. This has meant that I’ve decided to reduce work hours so that the majority of the labour who live within walking distance can avoid this virus highway and walk or cycle. It also means that they don’t get the transport allowance but hopefully we can do a bit to reduce the disease impact on my business.

Will we make it through the coming storm? I think so, we are semi-essential as witnessed by the rush on vegetable seedlings in the days prior to commencement of the lock-down. It is uncharted territory for us. The spiders of course will come and go as spiders do, influenced by the weather and factors other than covid-19. But for the moment they are doing just fine, thanks.


It’s chaos out there – but we have plenty of fuel

9 01 2019

One of the less congested fuel queues around town

I passed W coming out of the gym this lunchtime just as I arrived. We exchanged the usual pleasantries. I know he works for a fuel distribution company so couldn’t resist asking how business was going, given the chaotic fuel queues around town.

“Oh it’s madness” he replied, shaking his head and laughing at the craziness of it all. “I couldn’t even get past the fuel queue at the intersection of The Chase and Golden Stairs road. Some truck had managed to totally block the road”.

I felt relieved that I’d taken a different route and made a mental note to go back the way I’d come, the road was appalling but free of congestion. “But what’s causing the chaos, the usual lack of money?” I asked.

“Of course. The government is utterly broke. They are insisting that the bond, RTGS or whatever you want to call the local money is equal to 1 US dollar when we all know it’s not.”

“So is there really a fuel shortage?” I asked.

“Oh hell no” and he laughed ironically. “You know all those fuel depots around town?” and he mentioned several though I only knew of the one on the Mutare road to the east. “They are all full, right to the brim. The fuel all belongs to private importers and they are ONLY accepting hard currency”.

“So if someone comes to you with real money you can sell them fuel?”

“Oh yes” W replied. “We are doing quite a lot of business with people who have Nostro accounts (foreign currency accounts holding export earnings). I am sure we can help you out. We can bypass all the nonsense. I must dash, see you around” and he was gone.

I wasn’t actually asking to buy any fuel – I don’t at the moment have anywhere to store fuel as I bought a couple of thousand litres in February last year when we had a similar panic. It didn’t last long but I am glad now that I bought it. Anyway, I’d found out what I needed to know – namely that the government was only half telling the truth when they claim that we have plenty of fuel in the country. We do, they just cannot afford to buy it. The solution has to be a return to the US dollar as the official currency but that is not going to happen anytime soon. There are not enough of them to support the economy. The government would have to admit the local currency is not on parity with the US dollar (current street rates are about 3.7:1 which makes our fuel very cheap indeed) and work out how to demonetize the local money. It’s not going to happen soon and like a customer said to me yesterday – “the future looks bleak and there is no rabbit in a hat to pull out this time. It’s going to be a tough year ahead.”


Waiting for the hammer to fall

24 09 2017

A very expensive hammer – or is it?

Just a pretty average ball pein hammer with an expensive price tag. I’ve just looked on Amazon and one can get a set of three for about £10 and the most expensive one in this style, also with a genuine hickory handle, is £15. Of course we expect to pay more but nearly double? Well that’s the way of Zimbabwe at the moment, that’s right folks, inflation is back!

Zimbabwe produces little these days and imports a lot. Along with a bloated civil service whose wage bill gobbles 80% of the budget and rampant corruption we are in deep trouble. We have a three tier monetary system which in theory is all US dollars but in practice has three different values; money in the bank which is labelled US dollars but will buy the money version, referred to as “cash” at a rate of 1.6 to 1. Then there are bond notes, a local substitute for “cash” which are pegged at the same value as the “cash” but trade at around 1.2 to the dollar. These bond notes are in theory backed by a bond from the Cairo based Afrexim Bank but it was recently revealed that the bond never existed so they are valueless but preferable to having money in the bank. A case of a bird in the hand being worth more than what’s in the bank.

Most outlets have a 3 tier pricing system to reflect the various value rates. For the moment my business doesn’t but that will change tomorrow. In the time that I’ve been writing this blog (about 4 days) Harare fuel pumps have run dry. It’s not surprising as the price for diesel has been hovering around $1.20 per litre for quite a few months now – completely unrealistic considering that they have had to buy the real US$ at a premium of 1.2 during most of that time. Yes, I guess the price is controlled somewhere along the line.

I was, by chance, chatting to a farmer at an agricultural supplies outlet on Friday. He asked if I could grow him some paprika as he was looking for an export crop to stay viable. He mentioned that he’d been pricing steel that morning and by the time he’d gone back to place the order 2 hours later the price had gone up 15%. We are talking a bank transfer price of course. That evening I went to a talk on Bitcoins and how to use them and what the investment opportunities and pitfalls are. The speaker referred to the day as Black Friday in reference to the galloping exchange rate.

A while ago I called my local service manager at the bank. On asking if I could pay for an import of the coir pith we use to propagate seedlings he asked me if we exported anything. No, I replied. Had I deposited any US$ cash recently? No of course I hadn’t – was this really a serious question? Well then, he said, bring in the cash and we can do the transfer. Guaranteed? Yes, guaranteed. This raised the obvious question of how far to trust the banking system. All external payments have to go through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, the very instrument who in no small way has landed us in this mess. To be fair there has been a lot of greed and incompetence driven political pressure on them to just add zeroes to the value of the currency though, with the exception of the governor, a lot of the senior staff were there for the meltdown of the Zimbabwe dollar in 2008 – 9 and one must wonder what their influence is.

It should be evident by now that the USD price tag on the handle of the hammer is not United States Dollars at all but a proxy currency probably better named (nearly) Useless Substitute Dollars and the price of 39.00 is probably quite cheap. The Zimbabwe dollar is back under another name as a lot of people feared when the bond notes were first introduced.

When I started this post on Thursday I thought the title was appropriate. After reading a WhatsApp message this morning from a friend (the full text by Matt Matigari can be read here I realized that it had been looking decidedly unstable as far back as 2013. The hammer most definitely has already fallen and we have only now heard the sound of the impact.

There are going to be casualties during the course of this next meltdown. An old friend has already lost his job and has no alternative income. He and his wifer may well end up renting our cottage and hopefully renting out their house. We have advised them most definitely NOT to sell as they will likely lose a lot of money in the time it would take to find a smaller property. They have several dogs most of which will have to be euthanized. Those who can will emigrate. Those who cannot will once again be destitute. Companies that depend on imports will likely fold. Money changers will prosper and just maybe, we will pay off the bond on our house for the equivalent of a few dollars – cash. Tighten your seat-belts folks, there’s rough weather ahead.


The honesty oasis

26 01 2012

“50c?” I asked, incredulous*.
“Yes, 50c” the shopkeeper replied.
“Why don’t you just make it a dollar?”
“Because there are other things here that do cost a dollar so that would be dishonest” he said.
“Well, this is Zimbabwe so while in Africa…” I replied attempting to make a joke of it but he had no apparent sense of humour.
I took a closer look at the zip I’d bought. There was no name brand on it.
“So I guess this will last about as long as I’d expect for 50c” I postulated.
“It’s not a bad zip” he replied. “I have tried them out”.
“So what do you do about the change?” I asked.
“I usually have it” came the reply as he dug into the change drawer and gave me a R5 coin which is actually worth 60c but I was not going to quibble. On Wednesday I was given change for a milkshake for 50c in US coins and South African rand coins. I did wonder how many zips he would have to sell to make it worth his while but the shop has been in the Mount Pleasant shopping complex for as long as I can remember so I guess they have got their maths right.

(* the US dollar is the de facto currency of Zimbabwe though it does vary by region: in Bulawayo, further to the south, the South African rand is more popular)