Autumn

19 04 2018

It’s been a strange rainy season. The rain has finally petered out and the mornings are crisp (9 degrees in the photo) but the clear April skies have yet to appear. Of course, here in Zimbabwe, we don’t get the autumn colours of the higher latitudes – we have a sub-tropical climate and what colours there are appear with the new leaves in spring.

The rains arrived pretty much on time in the middle of November and then we had 2 very dry months in December and January. The maize in the foreground of the photo above was starting to look stressed and the general manager of ART Farm where the photo was taken was getting distinctly stressed about the state of the soy beans. Then in February the rains came back with a vengeance and by the end we’d had an almost normal quantity. Distribution is important too and because of the prolonged dry spell yields will not be fantastic. Some parts of the country got excessive rain and others did not plant maize at all.

The economy continues to stagnate. This is not that surprising as it is after all broken and broken economies are not quickly fixed. In the case of Zimbabwe we, and presumably potential investors, are waiting for the general elections the date of which still has to be determined. If the elections are deemed to be free and fair then the money will come. We hope.

The elections have to happen before September. I don’t watch television much and local television not at all but even I have noticed a dearth of campaigning by the parties concerned. The opposition MDC alliance (the original MDC became hopelessly divided  but they seemed to have cobbled together an agreement to stand as a single party) have been holding rallies which apparently have been well attended but the governing ZANU-PF don’t seem to be doing anything. This has made people very suspicious. Either they are super confident that they don’t need to campaign or they are “up to something”. Their track record favors the latter. Newspapers have reported that the military have been dispersed to the rural areas to do the campaigning but nobody actually seems to have evidence of this.

Mary Chiwenga, the wife of the ex-general and now vice president who was key in deposing Robert Mugabe last November, has been reported as helping herself to a government owned farm recently. This seems at odds with the “new dispensation” of president Emmerson Mnangagwa who has promised compensation to commercial farmers evicted under the Mugabe regime and has appealed for the self-same farmers to come back and help rebuild the economy. This may not sit well with prospective investors who shied away for just this reason; a lack of property rights. The story has faded quickly from the local papers who have a notoriously short attention span. When I told my foreman of this latest land grab he commented that this was a “problem with older men who take younger wives that they cannot control” – a clear reference to the profligate land grabbing antics of former president Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

Yesterday was a public holiday – the holiest of holy – Independence Day. In the past crowds would be bussed, sometimes under duress, into the National Sports Stadium to hear then president Robert Mugabe drone on about perceived injustices the rest of the world was inflicting on us. Sanctions was a favorite culprit for the economic mayhem he’d wreaked even though everyone knew they were targeted sanctions against ruling party (mainly) individuals. The crowd had mainly come for the high profile soccer match afterwards.

Sometimes there was a military display and fly-past by the air force. The jets used to practice their run over my workplace but this year they were absent and I’m not even sure there was any sort of celebration at the National Stadium. This did not stop the local branch of ZANU-PF asking me for a donation for their regional party. In the past there had always been an implicit threat that if I didn’t cough up there might be a consequence – farmers have long been a soft target. It says a bit for the changing political atmosphere that this year I turned them down when phoned with “not this year, I have too many financial problems to deal with”. True enough if a bit overstated; it’s been the worst first 3 months of a year for business since we adopted the US dollar as our currency back in February 2009.

We are so used to hearing about the dire state of our economy that I am often mildly surprised to hear about agricultural enterprises that are doing well. Avocados and macadamias are riding their healthy food status wave and those who can are exporting to a near insatiable Chinese market to the extent that macadamia nuts are nearly impossible to find locally. Another horticultural company that I’ve dealt with in the past exports canned cherry peppers in bulk containers and I know an export agent who is concerned about the vast area of blueberries that will come online in 5 years or so – he told me that we lack the infrastructure to export them!

Export markets are highly sort after as the foreign currency earned can be used to import goods. Unless one has a priority requirement such as medical, seed or some other “essential” service it is nearly impossible to import using local currency. A way around this is to purchase the US dollars cash on the market, take it to the bank who will then effect the importation. This is what I did last year to import the coir pith we use in the nursery as a growing medium. I paid a 40% premium at the time – apparently it is now 50%  – and landed the product cheaper from India than I can buy the local equivalent the quality of which I don’t trust.

Medical cannabis is also being grown but is very much a closed market. An email call to someone in the know got me a curt “I’ll contact you when the way forward is clear” reply. I guess I’ll just have to keep looking.

 

 

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The (orchid) show must go on

8 04 2018

The local Zimbabwe Orchid Society, in existence since 1947, had it first show of the year this weekend at its place in the Mukuvisi Woodlands nature reserve in Harare. This is for what I’d call true orchids, the show for cymbidiums (or are they cymbidia?) is in September. Marianne remarked that there weren’t as many displays as she was expecting and I asked someone in the know who confirmed that was the case and a lot of people’s plants had flowered early. Such is the way of horticulture. Still, it was a spectacular display in it’s way even if the majority of the plants were exotic hybrids.





Hopeful signs?

29 03 2018

Last week I attended the ART (Agricultural Research Trust) annual open day with the senior foreman at the nursery to keep our name recognisable (it’s Emerald Seedlings if you need to know). We’ve been feeling the pinch a bit this year – it’s  been the slowest start to a year since Zimbabwe adopted the US dollar as its main currency back in February 2009.

ART is the last agricultural research centre in the country where any significant research actually happens (the other government farms are broke and little if any research is done on them) and they too have fallen on hard times now that the commercial farmers on whom they depended for tariffs are largely gone.

It was evident that there were quite a few more exhibitors than last year (we pay for space) and there were more than 250 visitors. That’s not a lot by agricultural show standards but most likely had some sort of connection to agriculture. There is a bigger agricultural equipment show later in the year but it’s open to anyone.

So was this good turnout symptomatic of a renewed enthusiasm for agriculture and the future of the country in general? It’s difficult to say. The new president, E D Mnangagwa has certainly been making all the right noises, including asking evicted white commercial farmer to return to help feed the nation. Few are likely to take up the plea. Most are now too old to start over or are established elsewhere – Zambia profited handsomely from the influx of farmers displaced by former president Mugabe’s disastrous land redistribution policy. The economy remains moribund but at least the government has resisted the temptation to print more of the infamous bond notes that curiously command a premium of 20% over cashless transactions in many parts of the economy.

Last week there was much anticipation over the name and shame list, published by the government, of people and organizations that had externalized money over the years. Names and quantities of money (to the dollar) were listed making me think that it was simply a lack of paperwork by the central Reserve Bank, after all who would export money through official channels if they knew it was illegal? Tellingly is was only a name and “shame” list, not a name and prosecute list and there were no current members of the ruling ZANU-PF party listed. Anticipation quickly became cynicism.

Last week my staff workers’ committee asked for a meeting. Cash was hard to come by; would I consider paying them more if there was no cash available for their wages because they could get a 20% discount for cash (which I do pass on as and when I get it). I don’t think they honestly expected me to say yes so I did not surprise them. Zimbabwe remains expensive and prices of imported goods (one has to wonder how grapes from Holland get a green light to be imported) continue to escalate. I did tell them that nothing was going to change before the elections scheduled later this year and even then it was only going to be incremental. I’m not sure they understood or even cared.

Yours for a cool $175,000. Comes with GPS enabled steering, air conditioning and enough lights to keep going all night. Requires an operator (drivers need not apply)

Zimbabwe ingenuity – a battery powered knapsack sprayer mounted on wheels with a spray boom adjustable in height for various crops

A storm on the way from Harare city. Trial plots line the road down the centre of the farm

ART field day looking north-east

 





Bob’s Day

1 03 2018

Last Wednesday was officially a public holiday; The Robert Mugabe Youth Day. Up until the soft coup last year that saw Mugabe forced to resign as Zimbabwe’s president it was his official birthday but not actually a holiday. There was inevitably an extravagant bash somewhere in the country and business’s were browbeaten/intimidated into donating cash or kind (i.e. cattle) for the party. One year there was a particularly tasteless version where a sycophant donated elephant meat. This year I got a letter from the local branch of ZANU-PF on my desk asking for cash or kind for a party for the ZANU-PF Youth Wing. It went straight into the bin. I should have kept it as in a delightful twist of irony it was addressed to “Comrade Robert” and it would have enhanced this blog.  Last week I got a phone call from the author following up on why she hadn’t heard from me or received anything. I rather brusquely told her I didn’t support ZANU-PF.

In the past I might not have been so quick to dismiss her or at least been a little more polite. As a white commercial farmer I have always been a bit of a soft target for such requests – they know we feel vulnerable and easy to squeeze for cash. I rather doubt that it would have made the slightest difference – if they’d decided to evict me then they’d have just gone ahead and done so whether or not I’d supported their celebrations. Independence Day I did usually give something, the logic being that it was a national celebration. The money was still going to a function organized by ZANU-PF and quite possibly into someone’s pocket rather than the intended purpose. I was always assured that a receipt would be given though of course there are official receipts and others and who was I to know the difference. Quite frequently there were thank you letters which did rather surprise me.

I have just been watching a clip of Trevor Noah, the South African comedian, mocking the fall of Jacob Zuma – the disgraced South African president. The fall of Zuma was in no small way a result of a fiercely independent and critical press, a robust constitution and independent judiciary. We have seen a lot more of the critical press in Zimbabwe since Emmerson Mnangagwa took power in the aforementioned soft coup in November. Whilst they have not been directly critical of him there is most certainly an atmosphere of “we can say what we want” and other politicians have been heavily criticized. When Mugabe was in power this was not the case. People were jailed for criticising or mocking him even though a decision by the Constitutional Court, the highest in the land, stated that it was not illegal. Mugabe was the law. Zimbabwe has a strong constitution though it is not always followed; the soft coup being a good example!

The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) is scheduled for the last week of May. In the past they have had artistes expelled from the country for mocking the government. The South African rock group Freshly Ground didn’t even make it into the airport for making video to the song “Chicken for Change” that featured a puppet version of Mugabe. I do wonder if this year we will see acts that lampoon Mugabe as Trevor Noah was doing to Jacob Zuma. Despite his destruction of the economy, a culture of kleptocracy and non-accountability he has the national airport named after him and a national holiday. What does it take to become fully disgraced?

The official portrait of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. I think they could have done better.

In the days of the Mugabe regime it was common for offices and shops to have the official portrait of the president in plain view. It was never obligatory and there was never one in the office at my nursery and no-one, not even the politically connected, ever commented. I was rather hoping someone would complain so that I could pick an argument but alas, I was disappointed. Not surprisingly these pictures were pulled down the day after Mugabe was forced to resign; often with YouTube video clips as evidence . It hasn’t taken long for a replacement poster of Mnangagwa to appear around town. The photo of the president is not bad but it seems someone forgot the national flag in the background and a very bad Photoshop version was added. I still don’t think I will be buying one.

 





It’s mushroom weather

18 02 2018
mushrooms

Mushrooms are thick on the lawn (not edible).

It rained all day Saturday and most of Sunday. Monday and Tuesday there were heavy showers. The dogs are getting tetchy because we cannot get onto the farm where we take them for a run in the morning because it’s too muddy. Even my 4×4 would slide off the road. The bridge over the Gwebi River on the way to work is so potholed that I’m down to first gear. Actually it’s all pretty normal for February which is our wettest month it’s just that I don’t remember the weather being this normal for many years.

For most of the country these “normal” rains have come too late for a meaningful harvest. The first rains in November were on time and heavy but then there was nothing much until Christmas and then another 3 week break. Those who got the maize planted by the first rains in mid November will likely get a reasonable harvest but in some parts of the country no crops at all have been planted.

The new president of Zimbabwe, E.D. Mnangagwa commonly referred to as just ED, has stated that white commercial farmers still on their farms will get a 99 year lease. There are some 200 in this situation down from 4,500 before Robert Mugabe’s catastrophic eviction policy in the early 2000s that effectively destroyed the nation’s economy. This will apparently apply to anyone wanting to go farming but it is not clear how anyone will raise a loan against a long term lease. The banks have said they will not give loans against a lease so it will be interesting to see how this develops. Coupled with poor harvests country-wide and ED has more than a few headaches.

We had dinner with some friends 2 nights ago and the other guests were Swiss embassy staff. Nickolas mentioned that he’d gone into Meikles Hotel in the city centre to be told that it was full and that many of the other hotels were in the same situation. Businessmen are flocking to the country keen to see what investment options may be on offer. The USA government has however renewed sanctions against senior political figures and said they will be reviewed once the elections, that have to be held before September, are over. If they are seen to be free and fair then the sanctions may well be scrapped and, as I suspect, Zimbabwe will be seen to be open for business. Until then our economy continues to slide. The host for the evening works part-time for NamPak, a South African based business, that is big into packaging and the local subsidiary owes the parent company some $36m. They have plenty of money in the local bank but cannot externalise it to settle the debt with the parent company.

And still it rains. I got soaked this afternoon whilst out at the local microlight club as I was about to test a large 4m wingspan model glider that I’d acquired in rather a dilapidated state last year. In the nursery the seedlings are being closely monitored for diseases and the golden orb spiders, conspicuous by their absence over the last 3 years are back. Insects like wet weather too and spiders like insects. They will thrive regardless of the state of the economy.

Not a golden orb spider. This white spider relies on camouflage and ambush rather than a web.

 





Chilo Gorge

6 02 2018

Chivilila Falls on the Save River

It’s been nearly a month since we took 4 nights off and headed down to the south-east lowveld of Zimbabwe to Chilo Gorge, an up-market lodge, set above the banks of the Save River which is the biggest river inside the country.  Normally it’s well out of our price range but they had a special on for Zimbabweans so when June and Gary Goss suggested we head down there for a couple of nights we decided to give it a try.

Picking up Gary and June in the eastern city of Mutare where I went to school we headed south into the lowveld of Zimbabwe. The road was fine for the first 140km or so and then got bad, really bad. My old Land Cruiser is tough but not the most comfortable of vehicles so at times we were down to second gear – on the main tar road (or rather what was left of it) past the sugar cane growing area of Middle Save. The alluvial soils of the Save River that flows through the area are fertile and in years gone by multiple crops were grown; cotton, wheat, maize and a variety of horticultural crops. After Robert Mugabe’s eviction of mainly white commercial farmers the area was under-utilized for a while but is now a major sugar cane growing area for an ethanol plant nearby. Fortunately Gary has worked in the area a lot, speaks the local language, and managed to persuade the security guards on the estate to let us use the good gravel road that bypasses a lot of the poor tar road.

Any time is dance time!

January is not a popular time to go to the lowveld of Zimbabwe. It’s hot and humid and the Chilo Gorge lodge is close to the lowest point in the country (162m) just downstream where the Save meets the Runde River, so it’s exceptionally hot. It was scorching  by the time we turned of the tar road and headed along a gravel road to the lodge. Not far from the lodge was a maroon Mazda pickup truck stopped with the bonnet up. We stopped to see if we could help though as the pickup had a South African registration Gary was suspicious; “Nah, he’s come here to smuggle gold and diamonds”. Despite a rather strong South African accent he was a local man come to visit his family and had run out of diesel. A short drive to a nearby cluster of huts sourced a pipe and we gave him 5 litres of diesel (not difficult to get out of an old Land Cruiser). A small crowd of children soon gathered and entertained us with impromptu dancing to our rather good sound system though Madonna was the best I could find and not really what they’d be used to hearing!

It had just rained a few days before we arrived so the river was flowing and not cross-able except by boat so we had to use the lodge’s guided tour. It wasn’t free but well, we hadn’t come all this way to sit around and I was curious to see how Gonarezhou National Park on the other side of the Save River had fared since I’d last been here in the 1990’s. In that time the Zimbabwe National Parks has teamed up with the Frankfurt Zoological Society to form a trust to run the park.

The game guide, Lionel, was young, knowledgeable and entertaining and he took us very close to elephants and the Ghonarezhou elephants are known to be intimidating. As Lionel explained, they have been poached and don’t much care for humans. Fortunately he knew how to read their mood and there were no issues, just a few tense moments.

Getting rather close!

The first heard of elephants we encountered were making a determined walk for the Save River and were heading into the CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) area across the river for the night’s browsing. There are simply too many elephants for the Park to sustain so they have to find food outside its boundaries. Whilst the CAMPFIRE area benefits from the presence of game conflicts will certainly arise elsewhere. Lionel told us that the Great Elephant Census estimated the Park’s elephant population at around 11,000 in an area of 5,000 square km. The Park can sustain about 2,500 which leaves the dilemma of what to do with the excess.

In years gone by elephant populations were kept in check by culling but that is very unlikely to happen now. It is nasty, dirty and dangerous and certainly no professional hunter would take part; witness the firestorm of popular anger on the social media after the shooting of Cecil the lion. No hunter would risk his reputation. National Parks lack the staff with the necessary experience.

Contraception of elephant cows has been successfully practised in the smaller South African parks but remains controversial in the likes of the Kruger National Park which is vast and unfeasible due to cost. Elephant population is apparently stable in the Kruger; fences have been removed, artificial water holes dismantled and the elephants made to move more and natural selection pressures allowed to take their toll.

We noticed that a number of baobab trees in the Park had wire mesh tightly wrapped and nailed to their trunks. I asked Clive Stockil, owner of the Chilo Gorge lodge and lifetime resident in the area, for more details. He explained it was to keep the elephants from destroying the trees. When I asked him why there were no younger trees growing up he responded; “Because everything from warthogs, baboons, buck, mongooses to elephants and in between eats them. They have a root like a big, white, tasty carrot – I ate plenty as a child. By protecting the existing trees we are buying time until a solution can be found to get the seedlings to maturity. Otherwise the mature trees will go extinct in the Park”. Baobabs can be “adopted” for protection here.

Looking for a sponsor – an unprotected baobab. Some damage to the trunk can be seen on the left.

The following day we took a short trip upstream from Chilo Gorge to the Chivilila Falls. Whilst not in full spate (the river was already dropping) it was worthwhile imagining it in flood – I commented to Marianne that it was not unlike listening to the surf pounding on coast.

The weather had cooled down considerably by now after a cold front had moved in and while not great for photography it was comfortable to be out and about so in the afternoon we opted to go and find a particularly large baobab in the conservancy area around Chilo Gorge lodge. It is part of the CAMPFIRE Organisation that Clive Stockil was instrumental in starting and promotes sustainable utilisation of natural resources for local communities. In return for assistance in policing wildlife areas communities also receive funding from safari and hunting companies and are preferentially employed – Chilo Gorge lodge sources a lot of its staff from the local community.

Passing time pleasantly; on the deck at Chilo Gorge lodge.

Our little expedition was cut short after Gary drove over a mopani tree stump which punctured a tyre. Lionel and a colleague happened to pass by and made us feel old by changing the wheel in a few minutes. Mildly chastened we retired to the deck overlooking the Save River and admired the wildlife on the far bank whilst sipping sun-downers. The highlight was a very young hippo calf – it still had shiny skin – that Clive estimated to be about 2 weeks old. It slept blissfully whilst its mother grazed on the river bank. A number of nyala came down to drink but were too nervous of crocodiles and went off elsewhere to find water from the recent rains.

Brothers; a group of very shy kudu bulls.

The following morning we went off on another game drive with Lionel once again the guide. Lots of elephant were seen, giraffe for those with good binoculars, kudu, zebra, eland, impala, two bachelor buffalo, numerous birds and of course some crocodiles.

After lunch it was time to say goodbye and head back north to Mutare to stay with June and Gary before heading home to Harare. For those thinking of making the trip from Harare; the road through Zaka is apparently much better!





Joseph

11 12 2017

Joseph and his diploma – first class!

It’s been nearly a month since the very Zimbabwean coup that forced Robert Mugabe out of his 37 year reign over Zimbabwe. Much has happened.

Emerson Mnangagwa has been sworn in as the new president, he has appointed a cabinet which had to be reshuffled just 2 days later as there were too many non-parliamentarians in it and a budget has been presented for next year. The latter goes a long way to reduce the bloated government budget by making cuts to various ministries and doing away with a lot of travel perks that were the hallmark of the Mugabe regime. Mnangagwa even refused to attend the inauguration of the Kenyan president as he was “too busy” which was not an excuse that Mugabe ever used. The ubiquitous police roadblocks of the Mugabe era are still mercifully absent making everyday commuting much less stressful but not less dangerous – Zimbabweans must still rank as among the continent’s worst drivers.

In his inauguration speech Mnangagwa, or just ED, said that the land redistribution that Mugabe used to trash the country’s economy was irreversible but that displaced farmers would be compensated. No further details have been forthcoming but a friend who farms near Chinhoyi some 1.5hrs NW of Harare had his squatters kicked off by the military last Monday completely unexpectedly. He  immediately got on with his sowing for the summer crops (he’d been at the point of leaving the farm).

The issue of what will become of our domestic/pseudo US dollar currency remains vague. A visit today to a newly opened hardware superstore (well, a superstore by Zimbabwe standards) revealed that prices were still stupidly high if priced in US dollars as the till slip claimed.

Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean constitutional law professor working in the UK, was grudgingly impressed by the 2018 budget (you can read his comments here) but Tendai Biti, opposition parliamentarian and one time Finance Minister, was not though I suspect the only budget he’d like would be his own.

The more odious of the G40 faction of the ruling ZANU-PF party that was gunning to get Grace Mugabe, the ex-president’s wife, lined up for her husband’s job, were rounded up, roughed up in the case of Ignatius Chiombo, and paraded before the courts. A judge said that Chiombo had been illegally detained (true) and set a bail of $5000 and he has to report three times a day to a police station. Other odious characters of the G40 group remain at large, probably in South Africa. The most vocal of these is one Jonathan Moyo who is a Twitterer in the mold of Donald Trump. He is also a slime-ball (the Americans do have some delightful terms!).

Zimbabweans have embraced politics. Everyone has an opinion – even the doormat salesman whom I engaged at the traffic lights on 2nd Street and Churchill Avenue – and the national constitution is hotly debated on the social media. My friend Shelton, who uses the public transport extensively, tells me that he’s had minibus drivers go out of their way to drop him off at his destination just to finish the political conversation. People were generally too terrified to discuss politics under the Mugabe regime.

The euphoria immediately following the resignation of Mugabe is now gone. We have been disappointed too many times in the past to get excited. In true Zimbabwe fashion we will wait and see. Joseph, the student in the picture, who did a 4 week attachment earlier this year at my nursery is off to Australia to further his studies. He admitted that he wasn’t that optimistic about Zimbabwe’s future but 4 years is a long time by African standards so who knows what will happen in that time?