Farming

5 09 2016

Farming in Zimbabwe is pretty challenging but Zimbabweans are adept (some would say notorious) at “making a plan”. Let me give you an example.

led lampThat circled object in the photo above is a LED light mounted on the railing outside my office. It was temporary you must understand; a necessity of circumstance, the best I can do at that moment to provide some security lighting.

Last Tuesday (10 days ago at the time of writing) the electricity cables that supply my business and several properties in the area were stolen. I was getting into the shower as the power went off – I don’t live at my work but the house is on the same grid. It was 10.30 p.m. Of course I didn’t know at the time the cause of the power cut but the next day I received a SMS from the foreman saying the lines had been cut. I thought he meant broken as when a tree falls across a power line as it had been windy. No, he really did mean cut. I had a look when I got to work and was surprised to see the wire cables were made of copper. They were certainly old – all the line I’ve ever seen have been an aluminium alloy. There is a strong demand for scrap copper and once it’s been melted down there is little chance of being caught.

ZESA, the electricity supply utility, came and had a look and by the next day was on the job. I chatted to the foreman on the way out and he said not to worry, they’d have us back on-line that evening. I asked if they were going to replace the other copper line before it was also stolen. No, they weren’t. But he did think the thieves would be back for the rest. Apparently he found this funny. I thought I’d better look into buying a heavier duty generator as the one we had was only for standby situations and not suitable for long periods of use. I asked him how they’d stolen the live cable without getting electrocuted. Must have  been experts he opined. I didn’t add that I thought they were probably ZESA employees or certainly had been.

On Thursday I bought an 11kVA generator, big enough to run all the essential equipment; 3 borehole pumps, 2 irrigation pumps and security lights. It cost $5750 and is a prime power generator meaning it can be run continuously if necessary. There was not a huge choice in the range that I could afford and as I couldn’t wait for the bank transfer to go through I paid a cash deposit and the generator was delivered “first thing” on Friday which turned out to be 2 p.m. Power came back that evening as did the thieves and another 400m of cable was stolen. By Tuesday morning the generator already needed its first service – it had clocked up just over 50 hours and paid for itself. Seedlings really cannot run out of water.

On Monday it was evident that one of the borehole pumps was not running properly. I had changed it on Thursday from a 3 phase to single phase motor, so it could run on the old generator, and the control box was tripping the power supply off. Pumps use more power when pumping more water so once the pipe was full it would draw less and settle down. The pipe (all 400m or more of it) should have been staying full but it seemed that none of the non-return valves that should have prevented the back flow were working. So my landlord set about replacing them.

I engaged the services of an electrician to install the change-over switches to allow us to switch between the generator supply and the ZESA mains supply. Normally I would have tackled this as it’s well within my understanding of electrical wiring but he was in the area so I thought I’d take the easier route. It was just as well that I didn’t feel like doing it as he spotted a major problem in the switch box that would have ruined the generator. The generator ran all weekend while we set about trying to solve why the one borehole kept switching off. By Monday I’d had enough and went to the irrigation supplier who told me that it was a voltage problem. My thought was that it was just too sophisticated for Zimbabwean conditions so I bought a basic one that just ran the pump with no power checking. A risk but I was fed up with the tinkering.

Tuesday and the linemen were back again and working quickly they were finished by Wednesday evening. I have an important (politically speaking) neighbour who could not possibly be inconvenienced. That morning I’d been to the local ZESA office to see what I could do about getting the transformer connected and was fully prepared to pay an “incentive”. I was brushed off with “we will get to you”. The next morning they were working on the transformer but it was not by my efforts. My landlord’s son had made contact with the “correct” person and paid him $100. The next day we were finally back on the grid and the generator could take a rest having used some 200 litres of diesel. One phase was not working but we’d become adept at moving wires on the switchboard to deal with that sort of inconvenience.

It had taken 10 days to get the power back and I’d learned a lot more than I’d ever intended to about electrical wiring. I’d only got one shock and no equipment had burned out. One has to be adaptable to farm in Zimbabwe.

 





The drought of ’92

10 12 2015
Watsomba area of eastern Zimbabwe 1992

Watsomba area of eastern Zimbabwe 1992

Zimbabweans have a curious attitude to the rainy season; they almost think it’s a right and are somewhat puzzled or even hurt when I say no, I don’t think the rains are going to come this year. Of course we will get some rain but it’s almost certain there will be a drought.

In 1992 we had a drought. At the time I was working in Penhalonga in the high rainfall eastern area of Zimbabwe. I was doing freelance programming; there was plenty of work but it did not pay well as people were not convinced of the value of it so I left and in 1995 (another drought year) started an agricultural job near Harare.

The photo above was taken north of Mutare in a high rainfall area called Watsomba. I don’t recall the actual date but you can see there is hardly a blade of grass to  be seen. In those days Zimbabwe still had a vibrant agricultural sector and despite the ravages of the drought nobody went hungry because the commercial farmers (mostly white) knew how to use their resources well and besides, drought is endemic to southern Africa so there was plenty of stored water to irrigate crops.

This year a drought is likely but there’s a major difference; there are very few capable farmers left. Most were driven off their land by the Mugabe government in 2000 – 2002. Many of the former commercial farms lie derelict and ironically, the dams (reservoirs) that ensured plentiful crops and established Zimbabwe as a regional food exporter are still mostly full. There are two reasons for this – there are few farmers to use the water and those who can prefer to pump the water for more profitable crops than the staple maize. Pumping is also expensive these days as most of the country is enduring long power cuts so diesel pumps have to be used. One of my customers told me that he gets up at midnight, when the power comes on, to irrigate his tomatoes. “You can get quite a lot of irrigation done in four hours before they turn it off again but the labour force is not very keen” he added.

The electricity situation is only going to get worse. Lake Kariba, which normally supplies most of the country’s hydro power is critically low so the turbines are running below capacity. The lake is low due to poor rains in the catchment area of central west Zambia and eastern Angola and this inflow only occurs around April. The Zambians have also over developed the north bank power station and the lake simply cannot keep up. Zimbabwe also has a large thermal power station at Hwange in the west of the country but generating capacity is down due to lack of maintenance and capital development (the government is broke) and despite being right on top of a large very high quality coal deposit they just can’t seem to get it together.

Money was borrowed from Namibia to fund electricity development in Zimbabwe but now the local utility, ZESA, has taken out another loan and we have to export more power to Namibia to pay it back.

The internet did not exist in Zimbabwe in 1992 so there was not a lot of opportunity to research the causes of drought. Now the current el Niño is well covered both locally and worldwide. Looking back at the history, this year’s temperature rise that defines the phenomenon looks to be very similar to that of 1992 (1995 was not quite as strong though we were saved in this part of the country by cyclone Bonita that savaged the eastern districts) but perhaps a bit stronger. That’s not good news at all.

I don’t have a photo of the same area taken in 1993 but I do recall that the area recovered very well. That’s cold comfort right now (it’s blazing hot as I write this with temperatures in the mid 30 degrees and few clouds to be seen) as we still have to get through another 12 months before we can hope for a normal season.

In the meantime I am installing a solar powered system capable of running all electrics in the house bar the water heaters (it’s not my house otherwise I’d install solar water heaters too).  I actually am connected to a reasonably reliable grid due to the proximity of a military baracks but I just like the idea of being independent and, yes, I’m a bit of a geek too.