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.

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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.

 





Déjà vu

13 06 2016
Just change the date and the bank details...

Just change the date and the bank details…

 

It was quite simple really. All I had to do was open the “Labour”
folder in Microsoft Word, look for a file with “wages request” in the title and change the date and the bank on the existing letter (above). Back in 2008 the hyper inflation was raging, shop shelves were empty, money was being printed and the money changers were making small fortunes.

Now we are in 2016 and money is about to be printed, shop shelves are full for the time being and money changers are making small fortunes if they have access to cash. And I have to make an application to the bank to withdraw my own money as cash for wages.

Last Friday I’d called in at my local bank to check on cash withdrawal limits; $300 per day for small businesses. The bank manager suggested I get my staff to open accounts so that they could use debit cards. I pointed out that a number of my labour force signed their name with an X. They were pretty much illiterate. How was I going to explain that a piece of plastic now represented cash and the actual money was held at an institution which they didn’t trust in the first place. Well then, she suggested, I should make an application to withdraw cash but they couldn’t promise anything.

So here I was, a little over 8 years later, changing minor details on a letter so that once again, I might get access to my own money to pay wages. Yes, they are US dollars now but I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu.  (I did also have to change the phone numbers and email address on the footer.)





Return of the Zimbabwe dollar

6 05 2016

There was a demonstration against the rule of Robert Mugabe recently. That’s not news by most country’s standards but it most certainly is news here. It was small, about 2000 participants, but noisy and although the police originally refused permission the High Court granted permission. So what exactly is happening here? Is this the beginning of the end of the Mugabe regime?

I was in town for my French lesson with Shelton. He was late, comme d’habitude, as he has to rely on the notoriously erratic minibuses. While I was waiting a call came through from an unknown number.

“Hello, is that Mr Roberts?”

“Yes it is”.

“I am name given from  ZANU-PF Gomba District at your office. I am requesting a donation for Monday”.

“What’s happening on Monday?”

“It’s Independence Day”.

I’d genuinely forgotten this most sacred of Zimbabwean holidays. There aren’t a lot of reasons to remember it. After 36 years we have steadily regressed to the point where currency restrictions are being reimposed because our balance of trade is so heavily skewed towards imports that we are once again running out of money. No, we cannot just print some more as we did with the Zimbabwe dollar; we are now using the US dollar. We don’t even have a currency of our own. Well so I thought.

Shelton told me that for 3 days this week he’d been translating at a feminist conference in town. It wasn’t just feminists, the whole spectrum of LGBTIQ (I had to ask what the last 2 letters meant) were there and it was quite an experience for him. No holds barred; there were tears, shouting and bad language aplenty but as he said just that it happened at all was remarkable. It would have been unthinkable just a few years back. Progress perhaps?

Bond coins - not enough for this cup of coffee!

Bond coins – not enough for this cup of coffee!

Then today I was on the way to do some company shopping in the industrial sites when I saw the newspaper placards advertising that the Reserve Bank is introducing bond notes. Bond notes? Really? We already have bond coins that are useful only in Zimbabwe and are on parity with the US dollar which is our de facto currency, but bond notes? Is this the start of the return of the Zimbabwe dollar as was suspected when the coins were introduced? Those fears were unfounded – it was just a means to alleviate the chronic shortage of small change – but it only gained acceptance when the South African rand plunged in value. We’d been using the rand coins, which fortuitously were one tenth the value of the US dollar, but when the rand started to run the bond coins became acceptable. Rand paper money also became unacceptable and the US dollar now rules supreme representing 95% of the currency in circulation. I decided to see where the public opinion lay.

Newspaper vendors on Coventry Road in the industrial sites were my first target.

“Can I pay for your newspapers with bond notes?”

“Yes” (no, I can’t – they haven’t been released yet)

“The Zimbabwe dollar is back!”

Nervous giggles – clearly I was not going to get a response here.

I stopped at the Zimbabwe Fertilizer Company yard to buy some gypsum. Despite my best provocations the clerk who served me would not be drawn to any sort of opinion on the matter. I was more blunt with the labourers who loaded the fertilizer. They were so bored with the lack of business that even those not involved wandered over.

“Pamberi ne ZANU-PF” (forward with the ruling party) I shouted and gave a clenched fist salute. Laughter.

“Pamberi ne Zimbabwe dollar” elicited a similar response. Nobody showed much interest in a debate.

My campaign reached it’s finale at the accounting office where I had to sign my companies’ annual returns (to indicate they were still active). The clerk’s response to my provocation was simply; “Ah, but what can we do?”. Protest perhaps?

Getting onto the internet at home was instructive. A statement from the Reserve Bank governor was circulating that was instructive and entertaining. The bond notes are going to be issued in $20, $10 $5 and $2 denominations and will be equivalent to their US cousins. They will be backed by a bond (hence the name) of $200 million from the Africa Export-Import Bank though they will be released as necessary (the $50m that backed the release of the bond coins last year has not all been used). But why are we in this mess?

  • as the economy has declined our balance of trade deficit has ballooned. There is less money around to buy the cash we need. It’s going into importing goods.
  • the cash we need has dwindled because it has become a commodity in itself. People are hoarding it because they don’t trust the banking system that let them down so badly in the past. The Reserve Bank estimates that some $3b – $7b is circulating in the informal sector and never goes through banks.
  • the countries around us with more volatile currencies are eager to get hold of US dollars and are mopping it up any way they can.
  • the cash is being illegally exported. Who is responsible? In the words of a teller at a bank I deal with  – “The big men are stealing it all”. Also the Chinese. One was caught recently at Harare airport leaving with a large amount of cash.

So the elastoplast fix is multi-faceted. Heavy restrictions on imports especially luxury items. Raw materials, medicines and fuels are unrestricted. Paying for students overseas is restricted. Cash withdrawals are limited to $1000 per day. This should make paying wages for the big companies interesting. There are heavy restrictions on taking cash out the country but I saw nothing about using local Visa cards outside the country. Use of plastic money is going to be heavily encouraged and in some cases laughable; “To this end, every business in all geographical areas and sectors of the economy must have a point of sale per till machine or purchase point” in the words of the Reserve Bank governor. Really? That rural bottle store in the Honde Valley must get a POS machine?

So will it work? No, as I said earlier it’s not addressing the source of the problem – the gravely ill economy. Luxury goods will of course be available at a hugely inflated price (better stock up on wine now!) as those who can circumvent restrictions. Local producers will lack competition and hike prices. Cash is already being sold at a 10% markup and really, what will $200m do? Real $100 and $50 notes will be hoarded and smuggled even faster than before and the run on the banks that started some time ago will not stop as people fear the worst. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So is this the return of the Zimbabwe dollar? Whilst the Reserve Bank has stated it has no plans to reintroduce the Zimbabwe dollar I don’t know anyone who actually believes that – apart from maybe itself.

 

 





The cost of doing business – where to draw the line

21 11 2013

“Not great”.
Things must be pretty bad for a Zimbabwean to say that to the standard question of “How’s business?”. And Lance looked miserable too.

I’d met Lance some years back when both of us had worked for HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts) and we’d got along well. Lance has a business supplying industrial cleaning chemicals to manufacturers and like a lot of us was having difficulties getting money out of them.

“Where do you draw the line?” he continued. “It’s not like I don’t want their business but I really need the money and I’m afraid that if I put pressure on them they will go elsewhere”. I could empathise completely. Everyone is chasing the same dollar in Zimbabwe right now and the bigger companies, like the one to which he was referring, know they can throw their weight around and keep their creditors waiting. I told Lance of one of my larger clients whom I’d had to get “nasty” with. They’d owed me some $5000 outstanding over 7 months and emails demanding they settle their debt had just brought the same old response of “Please bear with us…”. I arrived one Friday morning, unannounced, at their offices just out of town, sat down in the accountant’s office and told him that if I didn’t have the money by Monday the next week he could expenct the debt collectors on Tuesday. He got the authority to pay me from the managing director whilst I waited and the money duly arrived. I haven’t done business with them since and, to be honest, I haven’t missed them either. I could see this was cold comfort to Lance.

At the end of last week a representative from one of the biggest food processing companies in town met me to discuss supplying a large quantity of tomato seedlings next April for use in their line of tomato paste products. I quizzed him whilst climbing the stairs to my office (I am not a fast stair climber) on whom owned the company these days. He admitted the government owned the majority 51% and I recalled that it had been one of the first casualties of the “Indigenisation” programme that had, and continues to target the bigger companies. It is almost nationalisation but not quite. Unlike the BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) programme in South Africa, there is no compensation for shares ceded to indigenous Zimbabweans. Despite being born in this country and holding a Zimbabwean passport I am not indigenous – one needs to be black and of course “connected”.

I sat and listened to the rep who was quite honest about whom was going to pay for the seedlings and he asked me to send him a proposal which I have done. Is this going to be a worthwhile project? Will I end up losing money? It all depends on how much interference there is at the top level of management. I have grown seedlings for this company in the distant past and know that it has had a rough run since then but I was impressed by the forward planning and the honesty of the rep. Though he will not be signing the contract or making the payments.





The election part 2 – where to now?

7 08 2013

As Helen said to me on Saturday; “If it’s such a landslide victory for ZANU-PF where are the celebrating crowds?”. They certainly weren’t on the street in Harare. Or anywhere else that I have heard. A client coming through the airport on Sunday night said the officials there were in “shell-shock”. The stock market, that perennial barometer of things economic, reacted on Monday by dropping 11% in value. Austin muttered at the gym that once again we’d failed to grasp the scale of what ZANU-PF was capable of doing. German Embassy officials I spoke to on Saturday commented that it was a blatantly fraudulent election and yes, it would be declared fraudulent in a court of law. But perhaps not a Zimbabwean one. The USA, UK and EC have described the elections as deeply flawed.

As I type this on Wednesday morning 2 ZEC (Zimbabwe Electoral Commission) officials have resigned in disgust.

Jacob Zuma, the South Africa president, has endorsed the results as “free and fair” as has the African Union observer team. Other African observers have declared various degrees of reservations on the veracity of the outcome.

Botswana is asking for an audit (their president, Ian Kharma, and ours have never seen eye-to-eye).

ZANU-PF are crowing that they “have a mandate from the people” to change the constitution with their 2/3 parliamentary majority and will be enforcing the 51% indigenous ownership (that means black Zimbabweans) of all companies. Hence the stock market slump.

Most Zimbabweans I have met are continuing as normal. Yesterday I watched as a group of older women bought roses in the next-door nursery.

My doctor said she’d not prescribed any more Prozac than normal.

On Saturday night I attended the first graduation of the current Dance Foundation Course (DFC) for which I am a trustee. Politics could not have been further from anyone’s mind. The students had great fun showing off their new skills, proud families celebrated and even the guest of honour, the US Ambassador relaxed a little. So to answer the question in the title; I suppose we will just wait and see as we have been doing for the last 45 years.





The price of business – part 2

18 07 2013

Zimbabwe is expensive. This is largely due to us producing little of anything so most goods are imported through and from South Africa by road. It is also due to the Zimbabwe business attitude which can roughly be summarized; “If at first you don’t sell anything, raise your prices”. It was against this background that I went looking for polystyrene seedling trays in which to sow tobacco seed for a customer who decided at the last-minute he actually did want me to grow his entire tobacco crop!

“Phone me back in an hour” said the responsible person at the Tobacco Research Board which usually manufactures expanded polystyrene trays for tobacco seedlings. This I duly did and was told that they had plenty at the princely price of $2.75 each. Expensive but I didn’t have much choice. The only other outlet in town is just as expensive and the quality of their trays is dismal. I went and got the cash and drove out to the TRB near the airport.

“We don’t have any” I was told on arrival at the TRB that afternoon.

I explained that I had transport hired by the hour and that I’d got the cash specially. A few phone calls later and some trays had “appeared” and  I was told that I could get them at the warehouse.

“We have no trays!” the warehouse manager told me. “Have a look”. There were no trays. The injection moulding machine had broken down 2 weeks previously and the South African technician had yet to arrive. I explained that I HAD already paid for the trays, and I HAD got transport waiting and WAS being charged for it. “Let me make a phone call” the manager replied.

It seemed there were some trays available on farm and I was directed over to the seedling production area. It was an education. There were indeed trays to be had there and they were new. The ponds were set up and looked quite presentable. But over the fenced area was an old crop of commercial tobacco – a clear violation of plant quarantine. Oh dear, what has happened to the premier tobacco research facility in the country that was once world-renowned?

Loading seedling trays, old tobacco in the background.

Loading seedling trays, old tobacco in the background.

Prior to this little escapade I had ascertained that seedling trays of good quality (we’d used them before) were available from Johannesburg. The catch of course was the transport – expanded polystyrene is mostly air which makes it expensive to move. However, even factoring in the transport and  other costs, I could get them landed at my business for 75% of the cost of locally produced trays. And the return load was empty – another sign of the state of the economy – making the transport doubly expensive. It took a while to find a transporter who had the right sort of trailer to move a bulky load such as this but eventually one was found and the trays have now arrived.

Trays arriving

Offloading the seedling trays from Johannesburg

As a Zimbabwean I am willing to support my local businesses but the product has to be of comparable quality and price to the imported option. Our local economy is in a dismal state and of course there are many factors outside of our direct control (read politics here) that are making it difficult to do business but really, Zimbabweans need to wake up when it comes to being competitive.