Autumn

19 04 2018

A misty autumn morning

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 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.





Local linguistics

16 04 2012

Apparently tourism is booming in Zimbabwe. You could have fooled me – there certainly aren’t legions of backpackers about because I would have noticed them. Well this gem of optimism is according to The Herald newspaper which is renowned for being upbeat without too much reason. Maybe it’s something to do with the impending Independence Day on Wednesday when we all HAVE to be upbeat and thankful for 32 years of misrule. No doubt our esteemed President, Robert Mugabe, will do his usual rant at the National Sports Stadium, everyone else will be blamed for our woes and the solitary remaining air force jet will fly over. Now I have seen that! It was practising on Saturday while I was a the orchid show. Well I guess that I’ll do my bit for the imminent horde of tourists and give them a bit of free advice on everyday etiquette so pay attention all you potential visitors.

It is essential when greeting a Zimbabwean to ask how he/she is even if you are not vaguely interested. In fact this is so ingrained that it is common to be asked “How are you” to which you reply “Fine” (I mean what else are you going to say? Do you honestly think they want to hear about your troubles?) and then the other person will also say “Fine” without you actually asking anything. I have on occasion replied “Terrible” but that only creates confusion and, God forbid, they might want to know what is wrong.

Of course if you are on familiar terms with the other person you can just say “Howzit” which doesn’t actually require any meaningful answer except for another “Howzit”. It’s at this point that my mother would have said “What do they mean, howzit?” and I would reply “It’s actually a contraction of  how is it going”. “How is WHAT going?” she would reply. “What exactly is IT?”. “Well, I guess it’s really just a salutation” I’d respond. I didn’t know any French at that stage to reply that “Comment ça va?” is exactly the equivalent of “Howzit going?” not that it would have helped explain much but it would have at least been witty.

The uninitiated should be warned that all this applies to phone conversations too. You will be made to feel more than a little awkward if you just say “Hello, I wonder if you could help me with…” without going through the “How are you” formality.

For everyday conversations the above introduction will suffice but if you REALLY want to make a good impression you should ask how the family is or how are things at work or home. This is considered VERY polite! Asking how work is going is of course safer because there are the occasional difficult people who don’t have a family, myself included. I’m not sure what the response would be to “My dog is very well thank you”. Maybe I should try it.

It’s pretty much straightforward after this so I will introduce a bit of vocabulary that is peculiar to Zimbabwe. There is a lot of local slang based on English, Afrikaans, Shona and Ndebele but the following are considered essential.

Dhoro – beer. Essential this. The “h” signifies that the D is a hard one. O is pronounced as in or.
Braai – barbecue. Another essential. Braai has Afrikaans origins and is an abbreviation of braaivleis – literally to roast meat.
Eish (pronounced “eeesh”) – an expression of amazement thought it will do for just about any situation. Also of South African origin.

One last piece of advice; everyone is your friend. This predates Facebook by many years but if you ever need anything precede your request by “My friend…” and likely as not you will get what you need. Zimbabweans are a friendly lot and we have quite possibly the best weather in the world so come and visit. Don’t worry, there won’t be too many other tourists!