Zimbabwe in 2015

2 01 2015

We can expect a lot of changes in 2015. President Robert Mugabe is looking increasingly frail and has all but named Emerson Munangagwa as his favored successor. The latter, Shelton tells me, would be entirely unacceptable to most of the inhabitants of Matabeleland. He should know, he grew up in Bulawayo.

The rains are ongoing, hopelessly late for a good harvest and completely unexpected in what was supposed to be a drought year. It’s wet enough that the caterpillars have a punk hair-do!

Even the caterpillars have a punk hair do

Even the caterpillars have a punk hair-do

The introduction of low denomination coins are NOT an attempt to re-introduce the Zimbabwe dollar.

The Zimbabwe economy is moving even slower than the snail below and has less sense of direction too.Who knows where it will be end of 2015?

I have a feeling 2015 will not be boring.

...even the snail has direction

…even the snail has direction

The owing circle

30 12 2014

Mr D is an old and reliable customer of mine. Yes, he sometimes owes me money but he always pays, eventually. That’s more than I can say for a number of other customers who start off well and then after a number of years just never return whilst owing money. My outstanding debtors list is depressingly long.

Mr D’s wife phoned yesterday – she was not happy. I have a large order of tomato seedlings for her husband that are ready to go and she had no way of paying for them. It transpired that she (I gather she is the money manager in the business) was owed some $100,000 by the Grain Marketing Board (the GMB is a government-owned parastatal) for maize delivered to them last year and a sizable amount by Olivine Industries for whom they’d grown a lot of tomatoes last year. While I wasn’t particularly interested in who owed Mrs D money I had to admit the reality of the situation; they weren’t able to pay me either. She had paid a 50% deposit on the order and I couldn’t realistically sell the tomatoes to another customer so I reluctantly said that she could collect the seedlings. I gave strict instructions to the clerk not to issue an invoice on the collection, just a delivery note, so that I did not have to pay tax on a transaction for which I’d received no money (the tax department always wins).

Driving home I reflected it was just as well that Olivine Industries did not take up on the quote I’d given them earlier in the year to grow a very large quantity of tomato seedlings. I also established that Mr D was not growing the current crop for Olivine either so I guess there is a realistic chance that I’ll get paid, eventually.

Smart phones, dim screens

18 12 2014

I was thinking just recently what a good phone my Sony Xperia Z1 has been. Not the latest and greatest for sure but reliable and very useful even in Zimbabwe’s increasingly wired environment. Absolutely not thanks on the latter to the government. I use WhatsApp all the time, the camera phone to capture Zak doing daft (and not so daft things) as well as problems in the nursery and when overseas the Maps app to find my way around. Maps also works pretty well in Harare too.

So it was with more than a touch of annoyance last night that I discovered that the screen had cracked in my pocket, no doubt caused by a large bunch of keys. The phone has become more than a touch erratic and sometimes I cannot even unlock the screen pattern. The Sony is not a popular brand here so screens are not available and it’s going to take a while to get another from Amazon. In the meantime I must either get another smart phone (limited choice here) or try and find the battery for my old Nokia which also has a broken screen but works just fine.

So when is someone going to invent a more durable smart phone screen, or have I missed the point?

In and around town

16 12 2014

I had to admit it was an inauspicious start; a minibus reversing into the intersection of Quorn and The Chase just where some new, but yet to be activated, traffic lights have been erected. I did the right thing; swore under my breath and obligingly went around. It wasn’t really worth getting too hot under the collar. I have seen the minibuses commit much worse of course. A U turn on the pedestrian crossing at Borrowdale Village to pick up customers. Stopping on pedestrian crossings to oblige customers. Reversing flat out up major roads and of course stopping on the corner of Lomagundi Road and King George Road necessitating hard braking or a swerve of faith into the right lane and just hope there is no traffic behind you.

The police love minibuses of course because they can always find something wrong on the vehicle necessitating a juicy fine. I have only once seen a vehicle pulled over for a driving offense and that was a woman who was chatting on her cellphone at an intersection. Easy prey. But get out on the road and fine a few for dangerous driving?  No, that’s far too much like hard work. Much easier to set up a road block and pounce there.

The traffic was backed up at the intersection of King George and Churchill (good British names for roads in a former colony) roads. An accident was not what I needed to come across right now. I checked out the possibility of a U turn of my own but they were just painting road markings and the delay was minimal. But why were they painting road markings when so many of Harare’s roads are disintegrating by the day? A question of finances perhaps – painting is much cheaper than fixing of course and we all know the City Council is broke or very nearly so.

They were packing up the tents on the open ground opposite the showgrounds where the annual ZANU-PF congress had been held the previous week. Schools had closed early for the Christmas holidays in case there were issues with violence but in the end there was just an awful lot of hot air but not enough to break the drought that is starting to squeeze the nation. It would have been an interesting sight in a heavy downpour; enough red mud to stick a tank and not a tar road in sight. I did notice Dr Joshua Nkomo Way meandering dustily across the open area but try as I might couldn’t see Dr Grace Mugabe Way. I’d actually met someone who’d gone to the local university library and asked to see her thesis but alas, it was apparently not available.

An hour or so’s business in the Coventry Road area and I was ready to tackle the back route to the heavy industrial sites to check out a container that I was hoping to buy to store the coir pith used at the nursery. Thank you Google Maps for changing the interface so that I cannot operate it! Well, at least the map worked OK but getting to see the section that I wanted and negotiating the traffic was a little tricky.

Kambuzuma Road is in pretty good condition and the traffic was just slow enough that I could relax a bit and check out the scenery. About 2km to the north a spectacular fountain of water was jetting a good 20m into the air. A burst main no doubt. Great to know that the council was wasting water just as a drought seemed to be getting into swing.

The container yard was sizable, bore the name of a well-known freight company, and a lot of containers had not been moved in years. I was approached by the contact man who cautioned me not to mention that I was buying the container but looking to rent it in order that I didn’t have to pay storage fees. Alarm bells went off in my mind. My scepticism must have shown because he assured me that I’d still get the “papers”. Right. The container was not in great shape and I also suspected that it was smaller than the one used to import the coir. It also turned out that the “owner” wanted far too much for it (negotiable of course) so I made my excuses and left.

The water fountain was still spectacular on the route back; millions of litres of water now down the stream. The city council might not have enough money to fix water mains and repair roads but there’s plenty of evidence of money elsewhere. Turning into Harare Drive from the old Bulawayo road I noticed a considerable number (no time to count – there were minibuses to avoid) of suburban houses springing up to the north-west of the intersection. All at the same stage it could only have been a development project. But where had the money come from in a nation that is importing coins from South Africa to alleviate the change situation?

Back down Lomagundi Road to see Marianne for lunch and past a number of used vehicle lots. In fact lots of lots. One impressively packed with used UK lorries which even if they cost say £10,000 a piece amounted to perhaps £200,000. Oh, and add on the duty and transport please. Well, maybe not all the duty. There are often ways around paying all the duty but only for those with “contacts”. It’s negotiable if you know what I mean.


First Street

24 09 2014

Once upon a time the First Street shopping mall was a very fashionable part of town. Youngsters would go there and parade – boys strutting, talking and laughing loudly to impress the girls. It was quite the place to shop too; the place to be to sell fashion, or shoes, or hi-fi or furniture. That was long ago.

Now it is dirty with buckled pavements and old water bottles lying around. Tops are missing of street drains and the holes must be circumnavigated with care. Luxury shopping? Not if you want cheap Chinese fake leather belts, car cellphone chargers or no name brand long toed shoes. Or any of the other bric-a-brac commonly being sold on the streets of Harare.

The local idiot stopped washing a car with a tub of filthy water from the gutter and tried  to sell me the cheap Chinese watch pinned to his trousers. I pointed out that I had a very good Swiss watch that was much better than his Chinese one. The argument only ended when the parking meter attendant agreed that Swiss watches were always better than Chinese ones.

Negotiating my way down the pavement past the vendors tables I crossed the First Street mall and smiled inwardly at the controversy that had been caused by paving it in to make it possibly Harare’s first pedestrian mall. So far as I could see the glamour shops were gone, the wares in the current outlets looking tired and lonely supplanting quality with quantity. Perhaps that was an ice cream stain near the pile of bricks in the middle, a child dropping its long dreamed of Saturday treat. Perhaps it was just spilt white paint.

The Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA) was on the 3rd floor of a bank building opposite where I’d parked. The offices were plush and had a lot of chrome and granite in evidence for a government office. The lady at the Min of Ag (Ministry of Agriculture) building had said that now I had to be a member of the AMA to import coir for my nursery, just about $100 for a year she’d said. It turned out to be $500 and it was not exactly clear what I’d get for it. Well, the bureaucrat I spoke to certainly was eating some pretty impressive food but she claimed it was just leftovers from the board meeting currently in full swing. Having paid the $500 to the finance division I went back to get my membership. No, I was emphatically told, I had to go back on the 1st of October as it was only valid from then. I tried to reason that I could just have an invalid membership until then met with blind unreasonableness. No, and that was it.

The local idiot was back smearing filthy water over a slightly more dirty car. Negotiating the traffic I had to do a U turn at the end of first street were it was blocked of for “traffic works”. It will take a lot more than that to restore the pedestrian mall to a shade of its former glory.



14 09 2014

We descended below the clouds some 20 minutes out of Harare airport. A bit of mental arithmetic made that some 100 km or so depending on the speed of the aircraft. I wasn’t in a window seat but had a reasonably clear view of the countryside and kept an eye open for irrigated crops, their intense green easy to spot at this time of year against the brown of the veld. Nothing. One or two old centre pivot irrigation fields were detectable by their characteristic circular pattern but now they were derelict. Plenty of dams though and they were mostly full in this, the dry season. Yes, I was definitely home.


The keynote address at the first day of the International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane

The International Society of Horticultural Science holds a International Congress every 4 years in a different country.

This year it was in Brisbane, Australia and I decided it was time to go and see just where horticulture was going. It was impressively well organized in the modern conference centre on the south bank of the Brisbane River. More than 3000 delegates attended over the 5 days that it was run and the range of topics covered by the symposia necessitated a fair degree of choosiness. Presentations varied from excellent to hopelessly technical with a few mediocre thrown in for good measure. While I didn’t find anything directly relevant to my business it was worthwhile and my curiosity was well satisfied (or more precisely – saturated) by the end. The final dinner was a festive affair with a good band, dancers, magician and plenty to eat and drink. Rather depressingly I found myself to be of the average age – where was the future of horticulture which as one of the keynote speakers pointed out will be the future of feeding the world (horticulture is defined as being intensive agriculture)?

After the congress it was time to catch up with friends – some of whom I hadn’t seen for 25 years when I was last in Australia, doing the backpacker “thing”. I made some last minute changes to the itinerary and needing to book a flight to Canberra from Sydney I pulled out the smart phone in Brisbane airport and 3 hours later in Sydney got onto the plane to Canberra. Australia works. First world (not sure why I was expecting anything else but it really works). Of course first world functionality comes at a first world price and my friend Peter whom I visited in Orange (also in NSW) told me that Australia is now officially the world’s 4th most expensive country to live in. I can believe it. A small (by Harare standards) 3 bedroom house in Orange will go for some 5-600,000 Aus dollars and the gardens are miniscule! A meal for 3 of us at a good restaurant, though certainly unexceptional, in Brisbane cost $160 without alcohol. It would have been about $75 in Harare. It’s all to do with high labour costs I am told. That and the vast mining industry that powers the Australian economy.

Pasture land around Orange

Pasture land around Orange

That is not to say that agriculture is insignificant either. Australia has some 13 million ha of wheat production, mostly for export. Zimbabwe was once self sufficient in wheat and exported maize. Now we import both. Unlike Australia where most extensive agriculture is going the corporate farming route with vast tracts of land being farmed, Zimbabwe is heavily reliant on the small scale producers. The mostly white commercial farmers were kicked off their land in the early 2000s – hence the idle dams and land that I saw coming into Harare. In Australia most extensive agriculture relies on rain whereas in Zimbabwe irrigation is essential, especially for winter/dry season production.

canola fields

Canola (oilseed rape) near Orange, NSW

Oilseed rape (Canola) was abundant in the short trip we did around Orange, again mostly farmed by corporate organisations. This is not a crop we grow in Zimbabwe and unlike Zimbabwe, most states in Australia have embraced GMO crops. With labour costs that high GM farming is very attractive (most of the GM crops we saw were of the Roundup Ready® variety – i.e. weeds can be controlled by herbicide sprayed over the crop but the crop is unaffected). GMOs are banned in Zimbabwe though I know that they are imported illegally from South Africa where they are commonly grown.

Back in Queensland with another friend also called Peter we did the rounds of the farming area. The soil is much more fertile in the Darling Downs region than in most of Australia and it is used to the maximum. Again, mostly without irrigation and the maximum use of mechanization to keep labour costs down.

A few people at the congress in Brisbane asked me how many staff I employed. 14 labourers, 2 foremen and 8 contract labour. They looked stunned especially when I explained the size of the nursery. A nursery of similar size in Australia would employ perhaps 4 people. We are still third world here.

Being driven back home from the airport I couldn’t help but compare the filth of the Harare streets with the immaculate ones of Brisbane. BrizVegas, as the locals like to call it, is spotless. Like any modern, first world city, there is also lots to do there. There are two art galleries, a library that offers evening courses in, amongst other things, film making and of course lots of shows that are booked out months in advance. We don’t get much in the way of quality international entertainment here in Harare except perhaps for HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts) once a year and it’s relatively easy to get tickets there.

Brisbane from the river - there's real money here!

Brisbane from the river – there’s real money here!

BrisVegas from the south bank of the Brisbane River

BrisVegas from the south bank of the Brisbane River

A sculpture at the Gallery of Modern Art. I got this one, a lot was less comprehensible.

A sculpture at the Gallery of Modern Art. I got this one, a lot was less comprehensible.

Back home the dogs were ecstatic, the lawn was dead from lack of water (it regrows in the rains), there was dust everywhere and the nursery was just fine. It had been good to get a perspective on the real world out there but it was also great to be home.


Their heroes and mine

11 08 2014

It’s Heroes Day today, a public holiday when we are supposed to remember those who died in the liberation struggle for Zimbabwe. This is nothing unusual; the war dead are remembered in various ways all over the world. At the time of the so called liberation struggle I was in the Rhodesian Army and did not see those against whom I was fighting as liberating anything. That could just be a point of view I guess – one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and all that. Except for the fact that over the years a number of the ruling party faithful have been interred in Hero’s Acre (the national cemetery) who status as heroes are dubious. Others who should have been buried there were left out. There is a certain financial incentive to being a national hero in that the family remaining get a substantial pension.

Anyway, like I said, today is the day that Zimbabweans are supposed to remember the fallen. There are celebrations all over the place and earlier this week I had a request from a local farmer for donations towards the party to be held today on his farm where the local branch of ZANU-PF, the ruling party, has its office. I ignored it, after all, they are not my heroes. I was hoping to be able to tell him this in person but aside from two missed calls yesterday morning from a local number that I did not recognise, nothing has come to pass. Yet.

Seedlings of course don’t take holidays so this morning I went into work to see how things were going. Fine of course. It was also an opportunity to catch up on a bit of work as I will be away for 3 weeks at a horticultural congress in Brisbane, Australia. It was worth it on another count as I spotted this spider on a daisy.

Hey, I'm with stupid!

Hey, I’m with stupid!


I have seen this type of spider on cosmos and it was white to match the flower. I wonder if they have the ability to change colour depending on the background or they have to spend their life on the plant to get the right colour? It was pure luck to see it with a fly as when I took the first photo it was just patiently waiting.

Of course I didn’t have my big SLR with its very special macro lens so my cellphone had to do – I was quite impressed with the result.

Tomorrow is another public holiday – this one is Armed Forces Day. It is traditional for the president to address the crowds at the National Stadium just outside town and watch military parades and a flypast by the Air Force with the 4 lonely remaining fast jets that are still flying. There is a football match afterwards to help pull in the crowds. Whether the armed forces will be celebrating remains to be seen. Rumours are rife that they have not been paid and junior officers have been sent on forced leave to cut costs.

So who are my heroes? They are the firefighters who went back into the damaged reactor at Chernobyl, knowing full well that they would not survive. They are the firefighters who went into the Twin Towers after the 9/11 attacks knowing that they were going into a hideously dangerous situation because that was their job. They are those who work for MSF and the International Red Cross and without fanfare get on with the thankless task of helping Ebola victims (and others) survive. These are the people I admire.


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