Déjà-vu – and it’s not good

9 08 2017

NEVER throw away what might be useful

We have a habit in this country of not throwing things away “just in case they might be useful one day”. It’s not without good reason but it can be taken to extremes.

In the days when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia and the country was under blanket sanctions for it’s persistent colonial ways ingenuity ruled. Getting fuel was difficult and just about everything else close to impossible. Car spares were horded and years after we got rid of an old car I still found spares squirreled away “just in case”.

Now that Rhodesia is Zimbabwe and we still have sanctions (but this time targeted against certain odious individuals) spares are once again becoming difficult.  In this case it’s spares for a Husqvarna hedge trimmer we use to trim tobacco and gum tree seedlings – so of course I feel somewhat smug that I kept the remains of a previous hedge trimmer. Just in case.

The shortages this time around are nothing to do with the sanctions but gross incompetence and greed by the ruling regime; the nation has simply run out of money. The bond notes alluded to in other posts are proving to be exactly what everyone feared them to be – a return to the defunct Zimbabwe dollar under another guise. There was never a bond/loan backing them (the Reserve Bank governor simply lied) and now the government has announced that it wants to release another 300m of  them backed by precisely nothing.

Inflation has also made a return. I priced a gum wooden door last week that has increased 50% over the last 4 months despite being made entirely of local products. It is priced in US$ but I’m almost certain that if I asked I could get a discount for “cash” i.e. real US$ notes of around 20% (most people use debit cards or similar devices to pay for items). A potential customer asked me if he could get a discount for bond notes and was told most definitely no. He did not ask if he could get a discount for real cash – US dollars.

So tomorrow I will start making a plan (something else for which Zimbabweans are notorious) and see if I can assemble the 1½ hedge trimmers in the picture into one functioning one. After all adversity is the mother of invention and we’ve been here before. Once as Rhodesia and again in the years when the Zimbabwe dollar was real if completely useless.  It’s a sense of déjà-vu and I don’t like it one bit.

There is one positive aspect to this. In the carnage of the demise of the Zimbabwe dollar in 2008/9 when inflation was running in six figures per month, people who’d taken out housing mortgages paid them off with one note or less. Yes, that happens when the largest note is 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars.  Now if the government floods the country with bond notes we should be able to pick them up cheaply enough by paying in real dollars to pay off our mortgage really cheaply. There will of course be collateral damage as they say – territory we visited back in 2008/9. I don’t think I want to go there at any price.

P.S. (a day later). I was called this morning by a company that sells irrigation equipment – a part that I’d ordered had arrived. On asking the cost I was told $78 “… but we are offering a discount of 25% for US$ cash or 10% for bond notes.” So apparently the bond notes, based on nothing, are actually in demand.

 





A thin line

12 07 2017

Mike is multi-talented. He’s been working on the electrics of the cottage so that we can get it functional for renting out, but he can fix computers too and turn his hand to just about anything else; painting, welding you name it. But he’s struggling for work and even had to borrow some diesel off me the other day as he was running out and didn’t have any cash to put fuel in his car.

Smart has been doing tiling and minor building work for us. He’s pleasant, hard-working and also broke. Unlike a lot of builders here he does ALL the work himself; mixing cement, carrying the bricks and of course the building.

Nearly everyone is struggling to get by in Zimbabwe none more so than the artists. So this Sunday I went along to the art fair and expo at the Mukuvisi Woodlands – a nature reserve within the confines of the city which has a selection of non-dangerous game, horse rides, walks and is a great place to go and relax watch the birds and enjoy the animals. Not surprisingly they are also struggling, so it was a good opportunity to go along and lend support.

Works by Daryl Nero, Arthur Azvedo, Helen Leiros and Lyn Barrie were on display (main boards L to R)

It was not a big event but a lot of my favorite artists were on display. I cannot think a lot of money was made but a few paintings had been sold and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Most works were well beyond my budget but I did pick up a couple of small pieces by Roseanne Tunmer that my wife could appreciate (she doesn’t share my taste in art). I heard Roseanne quip as I was paying that she’d be very pleased if someone stole some of her work!

A lion face in progress by Kelli Barker

Heron and tortoise by Roseanne Tunmer, pods by Wayne Stutchbury

Of course not everyone in Zimbabwe is struggling. The kleptocrats who rule the country are very well off thank you and seem quite unconcerned that their shenanigans are widely reported in the independent press. Those who can are helping themselves whilst the rest of us get by – or not.

Some, such as Grace Mugabe – the president’s wife, have millions but don’t use them. She has recently laid claim to the Mazowe dam (reservoir) denying all-comers access to a livelihood or recreation. Local water authority engineers who came to inspect a leak in the nearly 100 year-old wall were chased off in favor of Chinese engineers.

The much vaunted command agriculture scheme has been shown to be a massive money loser . For the uninitiated it is a scheme whereby funding has been acquired (some $500m) to allow mostly resettled farmers who have no access to funds (they have no title for the land they are on and therefore no collateral) the ability to grow maize and solve the nation’s chronic food shortage. The government supplies the inputs in the form of seed, fertilizers and chemicals and then buys back the harvest – at a loss!  400,000 ha were to be identified and a figure of 2m tonnes of maize harvested. At 5 tonnes/ha it is quite doable for less than highly skilled farmers. However only some 160,000 ha were subscribed to the scheme (or 17200 ha according to the government mouthpiece The Herald – I think a zero is missing). This amounts to about 800,000 tonnes at 5 t/ha or an average yield of 12.5 t/ha to achieve the 2m tonnes that has been much quoted, which is wishful thinking of a high order. ART farm where I used to live gets this sort of yield in a good year (which this last season was) and they farm to research standards. The farmers who this scheme targets have, at best, very ordinary farming skills. Even I, and I have basic maths skills, can see that something is badly wrong here.

Trawling the web yields some other interesting figures too. According to the Newsday site farmers started to deliver maize on the 1st April this year. Chatting to the ART farm manager yesterday he told me their maize was still at 14% moisture so hadn’t been harvested (it needs to be 12% or less to avoid storage problems) so I do wonder how this is possible. Is the government going to dry what must be wet maize?

I am struggling to summarize this debacle which even the most basic mathematics can reveal. Perhaps I should close with a quote from an issue of The Financial Gazette; “If figures do not lie, can anyone really give the US$500 million command agriculture initiative much of a chance given this compelling evidence of a nation that has squandered every opportunity at its disposal?”  Dated September 29 2016 it is prescient. Even the ultimate slime-ball of a politician, Jonathan Moyo, has labelled it “command ugly-culture”.

 





The river of my youth

13 06 2017

That’s my brother Duncan over from the UK having recently taken voluntary retrenchment. He is 4 years older than me but still has not grown up. He is trying to entice Zak, my Rhodesian Ridgeback, into the frigid but clear Gairezi (or Kairezi) River in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe.

The Gairezi has always been cold and clear and my association with it goes back further than I can remember. It’s situated in the Nyanga area of eastern Zimbabwe where my father as a young man of 25 arrived fresh from war-torn Europe in 1948 looking for a life more promising than the one he’d left behind. As a young ex-serviceman from England he’d been overlooked for a place at university in favor of older ex-servicemen. Fed-up he shipped out to Southern Rhodesia as it was then. He had a diploma in forestry so ended up in Nyanga working for a local land owner. Having met my mother and married her in 1954 I was the 3rd-born in 1959 by which time they’d moved away from the wattle-pole cottage he’d built not far from where this photo was taken.

In my childhood it took us some 1.5 hrs over dusty, rutted and car sickness inducing roads to get back to the plot my mother had bought in 1960 near the valley edge of the Gairezi. The road is still bad – probably worse than those days. We averaged some 8 km/h from the tar road that goes past Troutbeck Hotel.

The Gairezi rises on the slopes of Mt Nyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest mountain. At 2592m ASL it’s not particularly high by world standards but plenty high enough to supply cold, clear water year round. We used to visit the river regularly in school holidays, picnic on the rock in the background and dive into the water. Local legend had it that it was impossible to touch the bottom of the pool below the rock. It was wrong. The last time I dived off it, many years ago, I hit rocks. Not hard but hard enough to get a fright. I didn’t swim this time but that’s because it was winter and not a warm day. Duncan of course did swim but he is English and by his standards it was “not bad once you get used to it”.

In my youth the river and its surrounds were undeveloped save for a fishing cottage in the upper reaches. It is now a bit more developed and there are two cottages available for hire and the proceeds go to the local community in an effort to keep the area pristine. There was no-one else around when we checked in and the cottages and campsite were looking a bit neglected. The appalling state of the road was certainly part of the problem, but Zimbabwe’s dismal economy and matching world image were likely a bigger contributor.

Zak, not that interested in the view.

The next day saw us mount an expedition on Rukotso, a high point on the World’s View escarpment – well off the beaten track even in good times. The road was so bad even a moderately fit person could have walked it quicker than we drove it but the view was well worth the bone-numbing drive. I’m not sure if Zak (pictured) appreciated the view but he was certainly keen to investigate the skeleton of a cow that had somehow managed to lodge itself very close to the precipitous edge. I have flown over this feature a number of times on my paraglider, usually in competitions that we held regularly in the early 2000s. Those are now just fond memories as we lost our membership to the international regulatory body because of non-payment of our subscription. We just couldn’t afford it any longer. South African pilots were no longer interested in competitions that didn’t help their international ranking and the local pilots have dispersed.

Looking north from Rukotso to Nyangui on the skyline

Who can remember using one of these?

I guess a few readers of this blog might recognise this old style phone in the cottage we rented. Very few will know just how it worked. It was on what was called a party line; several households shared the same line but only two parties could talk at any one time. This could be especially irritating if there were chatterboxes on the line and one had urgent business. Pressing the white button to check if the line was free would elicit an engaged tone. We had one like this on the forest estate where I grew up but it was only years later that I was shown how to break into a conversation by opening the base of the phone and pressing a solenoid switch. I only ever saw them in rural areas. This one didn’t work – there was a cellphone tower about 1km away.

One evening we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at the nearby Troutbeck hotel. It wasn’t a problem getting a table even though there was a conference on at the time. The meal was not good. It must be difficult to remain inspired with a lack of customers – 2 other hotels in the area have closed recently. The Inn on the Rupurara has recently closed and its sister hotel, Pine Tree Inn, is in the process of closing. No, the tourist trade is not looking good.

View south from the Vumba cottage. Tsetsera mountains on the right, Chimanimani mountains centre horizon. Mozambique on the left.

The following week we were south of Nyanga in the Vumba mountains. Despite going to school in the nearby town of Mutare I spent little time in this area despite it being just as scenic in its own way. With my sister-in-law and youngest nephew in tow we rented a cottage near to the majestic but very quiet Leopard Rock Hotel. Unlike Troutbeck Hotel the food was so good we went back for a second supper and were the sole guests on both occasions. The staff were charming and told us that a lot of the grounds and golf course staff have been laid off. Several staff we spoke to had quite respectable golf handicaps – they are allowed to play free as time allows which seems to be quite often.

The Milky Way in the direction of Scorpius

The night skies were clear before the start of the dry season fires so I had a chance to try a bit of star photography.

The 18 hole, world quality, golf course at Leopard Rock was deserted.

We also took a day to visit the house where we grew up on the forest estate north of Penhalonga. It wasn’t how either of us remembered it but that’s often the case when one has fond memories of a privileged childhood. The house was little changed and the huge fig tree we scrambled around in was still huge but the garden was not the labour of love my parents made it.

Back in Harare we managed to squeeze in an afternoon visit to the Wild is Life wildlife refuge near the Harare airport. They have a policy of reintroducing back to the wild as much of the game that comes their way as possible.

Harry the hyena, yes genuinely cute and very curious!

Some, such as Harry the hyena, will be forever captive.

Few people will ever see a pangolin in the wild. A wildlife guide I know who has been in the business for over 30 years has only seen 3 so I was fascinated to see one up close. Gentle creatures, they have only us to fear and like the rhinoceros’ horn their scales which make them so attractive to traders are made of keratin. So for the sake of the same material of which our fingernails are made they may well go extinct.

So take the time off to visit Wild is Life, it really is worth a visit and a little corner of hope in this sad country that I call home.

The pangolin. The world’s most trafficked mammal.

Bliss is – your own 2 litres of milk!





The little escape

13 05 2017

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Matopos hills south east of Bulawayo. 10 years to be precise. In 2007 the Zimbabwe dollar was in free fall but not yet terminally ill and my brother and his family took delight in parting with large bundles of nearly useless money. This time around we are using US dollars, cost of living is much higher and we now also have bond notes that are a sort of hybrid between the old Zim dollars and US dollars but are in short supply and useless outside the country. The absurdity continues but the countryside and the wildlife is still stunning.

We stayed in the Big Cave Camp on the edge of the Matopos National Park and thoroughly enjoyed the good company and atmosphere. The structures are wonderfully blended into the rocks and the view is great.

Hwange National Park some 4 hrs to the north-west was showing the results of a great rainy season – the bush was lush and all the animals were in great condition. We were exceptionally lucky and saw a lot of game, the highlight being a pack of painted dog (endangered) that had returned from a foraging expedition and must have found an old carcass and stank! One had been injured so we reported it to the research station on the way out and were pleased to note that it has already been treated (see the Painted Dog Conservation page on FB).

Lions had made a kill almost on a side road and stayed for some 36 hours allowing for fantastic viewing VERY close to the vehicle.

The Main Camp lodge we stayed in was clean and functional in true National Parks style. Roads were OK given the amount of rain that had fallen but there were few tourists around as could be seen by the nearly empty roads – this is not the Kruger National Park in South Africa which features bumper to bumper traffic.

The only sour note was the bully-boy behavior of the police at a road block on the way home. They fabricated problems with my old Land Cruiser, got stupidly creative with fines and then gave up after half an hour when they realised we were not going to be intimidated.





The cost of doing business

13 04 2017

A whorl of cosmos

The rains are over for this season and the cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) is fading, still attractive but not as flamboyant as 3 weeks ago. We had good rains for once; 1020mm at the nursery which is probably not a record but certainly substantial. The cosmos was just as showy as ever – it doesn’t seem to mind if it’s a drought year or not.

The government press has predictably predicted a “bumper” harvest but that is far from certain as it will be at least another month or more before the crops are in and there is a lot more to farming than a good rainy season. The fall army worm also made an appearance this year. New to Zimbabwe it has a voracious appetite for maize and is difficult to control once the crop gets large so the small scale farmers are likely to have had a hard time.

The current financial crisis continues to deepen. US dollars (cash) are commanding a premium discount with some outlets offering up to 20% off for the greenbacks. Even the much maligned bond notes are becoming scarce but I have yet to get a discount for using them instead of a debit card.

Two weeks ago I finally received a large outstanding payment for a contract of gum trees that we did last year. Normally I would spend it on raw material – the coir pith we favour for propagating seedlings comes from India and is bizarrely about 60% of the cost of the local milled pine bark medium. It’s also reliable quality and we have yet to experience any significant problems with it. Not something we can say for the local product.

I got hold of the business manager at one of the banks I deal with and asked him what the chances were of getting money out to pay for a container of coir pith; all of US$9600 for 24 tonnes delivered to Beira docks in Mozambique. He was direct (I appreciate directness).

“Do you export?” he asked.

“No’

“Have you been depositing US dollars cash into your account?”

Was this a serious question? “No I haven’t”. I was tempted to add “you weren’t expecting me to say yes were you?” but I remained quiet.

“Then no. If you bring us the cash we will make the application to the Reserve Bank”.

Hmm, like anyone trusts them. He went onto assure me that if the request was refused I would get my cash back in US dollars, not bond notes, and that they’d never had an application for a request of this nature turned down.

I should point out that I have never had, to my knowledge, anything but US dollars deposited into my account and here I was being told that in fact the bank did not believe that. It says at the top of my statement that it is a US dollar account – but it’s only useful in Zimbabwe.

When the Reserve Bank announced last year that it was introducing the now notorious bond notes, with a value equivalent to the US dollar, in order to alleviate the cash shortage (true, a lot of cash had disappeared from circulation) the populace panicked. Rumours that it was an attempt to re-introduce the defunct Zimbabwe dollar flourished in the fertile rumour environment and a run on the banks began. People slept on the pavements for cash withdrawals that progressively dwindled to a paltry $30 or less. Yesterday at another of the banks that I use there were people sleeping on the pavement but now it’s for bond notes. Yes, there has been a massive switch to electronic money but some things still require cash. Schools in rural areas, which are cheaper, don’t have bank accounts and unscrupulous landlords demand cash.

The amount of bond notes issued is pitifully small, some $10m to start with and then another 30m or so. That they have been issued entirely in $2 and $5 denominations is telling – it was never intended to do much. $10 and $20 would have had far more impact. Initially the Reserve Bank stated that the bond notes were guaranteed by a loan of $200m from the Afrexim bank in Egypt, but this has been nearly impossible to ascertain. $200 million in a GDP of some $11 bn is not going to do much (see this Forbes article)  and anyway, if all that was needed was cash why not just buy it from the USA? We all know the Zimbabwe government is broke so it cannot buy cash. However what could be easier than adding a few zeros to electronic money? Electronic money is not based on anything which is why the bank manager I was talking to wanted to know if I could pay in US cash for the import of raw material. He wanted to know that if his bank were to deplete its precious nostro account (held outside the country) was being backed by real crispies (well, once upon a time they were crisp – long ago) and not some figment of a government official’s imagination. So where does that leave me?

Last Thursday there was a workshop at the Tobacco Research Board (TRB) near the airport. They were promoting the growing of vegetable seedlings. Not much to do with tobacco research to be sure but the seedlings of both crops can be grown in polystyrene trays floating on shallow ponds in which fertilizer has been dissolved. The TRB manufactures the trays, has a local company make up the fertilizer solution and is in a joint venture to manufacture the pine bark based medium in which the seedlings are grown. So they are looking to expand their market. I was concerned that I was going to have a lot of competition for my business. It was time to check out the potential competition and I was also curious to see what the TRB, once a world-renowned research organization, had been doing on vegetable seedling research.

I was not over-awed but I had to admit that their seedling tray quality had improved since I last bought any. The presentations were not very impressive and their idea of seedling quality was lacking some fundamental concepts. Their growing medium appeared to be reasonable quality but was expensive but they were willing to take any sort of money, cash or electronic. I will have to try some.

Logic dictates that if the medium is acceptable that I buy it in bulk with currency that I can only use within the country i.e. my locally held accounts even though it’s relatively expensive. If however the quality is poor then I will have to look at sourcing “real” dollars (anything is possible in Zimbabwe) and getting in the coir pith medium from India that I trust. Quite what I’ll spend my local money on then I really don’t know.

Next Tuesday, 18th April, is our independence day. Two weeks ago, as is customary, I received a letter of request from the local ZANU-PF (ruling party) office asking for donations in “cash or kind” for the celebrations they were going to host where “800” people were expected. It was shoved into the top left drawer of my desk – they would have to ask in person. In the past I have fought with them over this with arguments such as; “Why don’t you go into the shopping centres and ask for donations there?” but they know the white farmers feel vulnerable and are soft targets, so yes I inevitable buckle and donate.

I was driving back from the gym yesterday after lunch when the inevitable call came – they were at my business and what was I going to donate? It certainly was NOT going to be cash so they accepted $100 through mobile banking. I cursed myself for being weak then just consoled myself with the thought that they’d got the least value money option available. It was a cost of staying in business in Zimbabwe.





Make your own story (the keys are on the tree)

20 03 2017

Avondale shopping centre has seen better days; the parking lot is potholed and the buildings are run down. The once luxurious 7 Arts theatre come cinema is seldom used and the roof leaks. The flea market on the old split level parking lot is active though. Arts, crafts, old books, cheap Chinese goods and bootleg music and movies are all on sale though these days business is hardly booming.

Down from the flea market cars are parked in the unpaved lots. Trees are large and provide welcome shade from the summer heat. And on one tree is nailed a key ring with keys on it. It’s not nailed low – about 2.5m up and it’s been there some time. There has to be a story to these keys. Why are they nailed so high up? Why are they there at all? Were they lost and then found and left for someone to find? Or? Make your own story!

The keys – arrowed

The keys have been there a long time





Health and safety Zimbabwe style (tree felling)

9 03 2017

We had some big trees cut down over the past 2 days – it was entertaining though Marianne decided she couldn’t watch. The climber in the photos was around 30m up and he survived just fine.