Moving on

31 01 2017
final-view

Probably the best view near Harare

We moved, my wife and I, at the end of December into suburbia. It was not a move for me born of desire but one borne of necessity. The house where I’d been living for the past 14 years was not for sale and even if it were there was no guarantee that it would have been a solid investment situated as it is on a farm outside of Harare which will eventually be incorporated into Zimbabwe’s capital city.  Water supply might have been an issue. Currently it comes from further down ART Farm nearly 1,500m away so a source on the property would have had to be found.

I’d been happy there planting 15 indigenous trees on a property of around 1ha (yes that is a measure of contentment to my mind) but I knew that eventually I’d have to invest in a more solid property in town. So when Marianne became a permanent fixture in my life I suggested that we pool funds and look for a house. With the Zimbabwe economy sliding to a near comatose state we reckoned, and were told, that house prices were in a buyer’s market and the time was ripe to start looking. It has been a slow process – some 8 months to be exact.

Area was a concern as my work is to the north of the city and of course we were hoping to find somewhere easily accessible for exercising the dogs. We got on the internet and started looking. We were not flush with money and I insisted that we borrow as much as possible as we didn’t want to leave ourselves destitute should Zimbabwe totally collapse and we needed to find refuge elsewhere. Yes the loan would be expensive at 16% interest but worthwhile to risk someone else’s money rather than our own.

Having ascertained that we could get a loan for $75,000 we started the search. There were not a lot of houses on the market and what was there was often in very poor repair and over-priced. With the increasingly dire water shortage in the city a borehole was a prerequisite so any properties that didn’t have one didn’t merit a visit. The list of potential properties shrank and then became zero. Finally we saw a property that had some potential, or so Marianne thought. I was less enthusiastic but there was nothing else. The law had changed recently so that owners living outside the country could no longer repatriate their money from a house sale so were deciding to keep their properties – or so we were told. We paid the deposit, signed the agreement of sale and started looking for contractors to start the renovations.

By the time we started the move we were hopelessly over budget and of the firm opinion that artisans were in very short supply in Harare. And the rains had started on time (that’s a big storm in the photograph) and I’d got a policeman to admit that the new bond notes weren’t real money and didn’t make good toilet paper. Now 3 weeks later the rains have not let up, the contractors are still clattering around, we are even further over budget and my dear sweet Ridgeback, Kharma, has developed full-blown bone cancer and doesn’t have long to live. Yes, welcome to the suburbs.

This was only predicted to be a mild la Nina season but so far it’s been anything but. ART Farm where I used to live has already had more than its average annual rainfall with the wettest month, February, still to come. Major rivers in the east of the country are in flood and Lake Chivero,  Harare’s main water supply, is spilling. The roads are dreadful – it’s no longer possible to dodge all the potholes so one just has to slow down and accept that it’s necessary to drive through some. The tobacco crop will not be great quality – with all the rain the leaf becomes thin and light once cured. The maize (the staple diet) is at risk from poor pollination as it is wind pollinated and needs to be dry for that.

And the policeman. Yes, that was different. A removal company did the major moving but there were still pot plants and other assorted items collected over the years to move so I borrowed a trailer and made many trips without incident past an illegal roadblock of 2 policeman (there have to be 3 or more) who couldn’t have looked more bored. Then one day there was an altogether more professional bunch there complete with patrol car.

“I am <name given> of the Highway Patrol, this is our car” he added pointing to a small, newish police car with POLICE in 20cm high letters on the side. “You have not got a light on the number plate of the trailer”.

“Oh, really?” I replied knowing full well that I didn’t have one.

“I can show you if you like”.

“No that won’t be necessary. How much is the fine?”

“$20”. Right, $20 for no number plate light. Ridiculous but I’ve researched this before and had no intention of arguing the point.

“So you will accept bond notes even thought they are like toilet paper?” I countered instead.

“Ah, but you must embrace them” he said  parroting the official line.

I looked in my wallet and to my horror noticed that I had only a $50 note and a few $1. “If I give you real money I want real money change”.

He laughed, took the proffered note and counted out my change in US dollars and green bond notes. On handing me the US notes I asked “So this is the real money?”.

“Yes” he admitted.

“So you are admitting then that the bond notes are like toilet paper. Have you ever tried them for that purpose?”.

“Yes, but they were too hard!” he joked.

Well, at least he had a sense of humour.

We had a big storm last night and on the way to work there was grass caught on the railings of the bridge over the Gwebi River, near it’s source on the Borrowdale vlei. It had been over the road in the night. The nursery had received 80mm of rain but speaking to others it emerged that the eastern suburbs of Harare had received nearly double that. Despite the fact that this is a neutral el Niño/la Nina year we are having exceptional rains. Or maybe it’s just a normal rainy season like I remember from my youth.

The renovations to the house are almost complete and we’ll all breathe more easily once the contractors finally clear out. We still find badly painted doors, taps not centred over the bath, tiles with HUGE  gaps behind them and of course a monster pile of rubble and trash to dispose of. The swimming pools is clogged with leaves (we should have drained it but were worried about being able to refill it) and we had to replace a burnt-out motor on the filter.

One day it will all be sorted but poor Kharma will not be around to see it. She did not cope well with the move and still panics a bit when she cannot find me. Her leg that was healing so well with the assistance of a dog physio took a turn for the the worse just as we moved. We called in the physio again but she could find nothing wrong then last Sunday she stopped eating. Panic. Thinking it might be biliary (a fatal tick-borne disease) I rushed her to the vet but he could find nothing wrong and asked that I take her back the next day for X-rays and blood tests. The results were bad; the cancer had proliferated in her leg and had also moved to her lungs. When she’d broken the leg last year the vet had been suspicious but could find no sign of cancer but now there is no doubt; she’s on borrowed time. The anti-inflammatories are helping control the pain and yesterday I found someone who could supply cannabis “oil” which has certainly brightened her mood (yes, the supplier said, it really did have THC in it as she’d tried it) and she eats with gusto and is pleased to see me but I know that each day is a bonus. Poor girl, she’s been such a good friend and companion and I dread the day she tells me she’s had enough.

Today I received a copy of a new Statutory Instrument from my ZIMRA (tax authority) account manager. The government has put VAT on basic foodstuffs; meat, fish, rice and maize meal. They really are desperate and it should provoke a riot but it won’t.

 

 

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Passing on the knowledge

9 10 2015

Every year at about this time in October the local University of Zimbabwe 2nd year agriculture students come on a tour of my nursery. Every year I give them what is by now a well-rehearsed talk. Sometimes it’s an interactive visit that I enjoy with a lot of pertinent questions. Sometimes I could be talking to a herd of mombes (cattle in the vernacular). Last Monday I was starting to despair; I just could not get more than single sentence answers and discussion was just not going to happen. Then somebody did it.

We were standing at the tobacco ponds where tobacco seedlings are grown in polystyrene trays floating on a shallow pond containing fertilizer. Did I take notice of the regulations concerning planting dates of the seedlings? For a moment I was incensed but I very quickly realised that it was a serious question. So after a “I cannot believe you asked that” response (that the lecturer chaperoning the students found very funny) I told them why the regulations existed and why flouting them was a very bad idea no just from the legal consequences point of view. It’s all about pest carry over for the non-scientific; separating sequential crops with a fallow period breaks the pest/disease cycle. Tobacco crops in Zimbabwe must be destroyed by the first of May, new plantings can only be sown from the 1st of June and seedlings planted out from the 1st of September. There are numerous examples of how pests have been introduced into the country by people ignoring phytosanitary requirements. But why was the question asked in the first place?

Sadly corruption is pervasive in Zimbabwe. Earlier this week the Swedish Ambassador expressed frustration with the level of corruption in the NGO sector. Now that is something coming from the Swedes who have a history of being very helpful to Zimbabwe. We are in the current financial mess in no small part due to financial mismanagement and corruption and when the people see the top echelons misbehaving they must assume that it is OK to do the same; Zimbabwe is very much a patriarchal society. Why would my nursery not also be cutting corners? Yes, I have seen these corners cut by farmers who should know much better.

Towards the end of the tour I pre-empted a question that I was hoping to be asked; do we take students on attachment? We do but few are enthusiastic once I tell them that we don’t pay them. Once in a while I am pleasantly surprised and for those I make an exception and at least pay their transport as they are genuinely useful. Moses is one. A student in last year’s batch he worked for at least 6 weeks going around all three nurseries on the premises. He even came back in his vacation.

One morning soon after starting his attachment he approached me as I was taking measurements from the tobacco ponds.

“Morning sir” he said.

“Morning Noah” I replied, genuinely having forgotten his name.

“Actually it’s Moses, sir” came the reply.

I liked that. Not so much in awe of me that he cannot express an opinion. He is also very ambitious and hopes one day to become a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. So he almost certainly will not stay in Zimbabwe along with so many others who are fed up with the mismanagement and corruption. Our loss.

“I knew it was something biblical” I replied, and he laughed..





Waiting for the right moment

10 10 2013
Kindly donated by...

Kindly donated by…

I have always wondered how condoms are electronically tested (the red arrow on the box is mine). They have been tested this way as long as I can remember which is long before Google and the internet. For those who are interested this link will tell you how. They certainly haven’t been free in the National Blood Transfusion Service toilets for more than a few years which is where I photographed this box. I should know; I am such a regular donor that this last time my blood was marked for pediatric use. I did ask the nursing sister, who took the blood, why not just test the blood and rely on the test results but got a vague answer. Are regular donors less likely to have risky lifestyles and are therefore less likely to be HIV positive? I don’t know. I DO know that the HIV tests are not infallible. But it was time to head out to the customer in Marondera South, some 2 hours south-east of Harare who’d placed a large order of tobacco seedlings through my nursery and check up on how things were going.

I have never smoked. I did try really hard in the Rhodesian army as it had benefits in keeping the mopani flies (actually stingless bees) out of one’s mouth, nose and eyes but I could never finish a pack of 20. I did smoke occasionally at school but that was just to be a bit of a rebel. Tobacco also played a major role in killing two of my friends so it is a bit ironic that my company has done well this year, largely from growing tobacco seedlings and related business.

Driving east out of Harare I got onto the new section of four lane highway not far from town and breathed a sigh of relief. It is part of a $500 million upgrade of the major roads in the nation and not before time too. They were in a disastrous state with negligible maintenance done in the last 10 years. It’s being funded by the South African Development Bank and a South African company has got the contract. I seriously doubt if any local companies have the capability to undertake a project of this size. It was also evident in the speed of which the resurfacing has been done. Curiously the main road from South Africa to Harare and from Harare to Zambia has not been included in the current project. I know this from a friend of mine who plays tennis with one of the senior management figures in the aforementioned company. Such is the small town nature of Harare.

There were three sections on the road to Marondera where the traffic was controlled by solar-powered lights with a radio link to the lights at the other end. Definitely not a Zimbabwean setup. The hawkers had not wasted any time and were gathered at the traffic controls to see if anyone was interested in various fruit or drinks. Very Zimbabwean.

Turning south in the middle of Marondera I headed off down a road which I have never travelled and within the hour was lost. Not a problem; I simply phoned the farmer I was visiting and got directions. This is something that would have been unheard of just 2 years ago but now the nation has 95% cellphone coverage. That is not to say it is particularly reliable and one company has a stranglehold on the market. It is into just about every form of telecommunication around and is behind the laying of a LOT of fibre optic cable in the suburbs this year. No living in the suburbs I have to rely on a 3G link into town which is OK most of the time but not what would be termed broadband in the developed world.

I eventually arrived a good hour late at the farm. The farm manager was delighted with the seedlings. So much so that he wants to grow them himself next year and use me as a consultant. I guess success has its cost.

This tobacco had been planted the previous day. I was told there is a pack of heyena that live in the hills in the background.

This tobacco had been planted the previous day. I was told there is a pack of hyena that live in the hills in the background.

The farm was bought by its current owner in the late 1970s but has not seen a lot of use. A lot of the infrastructure will need to be rebuilt but it has a lot of potential in good tobacco soils and access to plentiful water. I see it as a metaphor for this country that has extraordinary resources but is just waiting for the right moment to take off. But for the moment we seem to plod along with modest growth largely in tobacco farming (though we are a long way off the peak production before the farm invasions). Food production is still dismal and this year a lot of people will go hungry in the rural areas. The outlook for the coming season is apparently good but even so, there will be at least 8 months before the crops are mature enough to eat.





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.





Rural visit

7 02 2013

“They didn’t pay their electricity bill” Archie replied to my question as to why the Mhangura mine had closed. I thought there may be a bit more to it than that but there was no doubt as to the impact the collapse of this copper mine in northern Zimbabwe had on the town of the same name. I’d picked up my guide, Archie, at the local GMB (Grain Marketing Board depot) for the trip into the surrounding farming area to see a customer who had problems with some seedlings he’d collected.  The GMB, once a cornerstone of the nation’s agricultural economy, was now very run down and the signpost was a hand-painted piece of metal propped up by stones at the side of the road.

It had been a long trip out of Harare on the road north-west of the capital towards Lake Kariba but I’d been interested to take a trip back to the area where I’d worked on returning from my travels abroad in 1990. Turning off at the township and GMB depot of Lions’ Den (yes, there really were lots of lions here in the early part of the 20th century!) I got onto the very quiet Mhangura road and put my foot down – there was little to miss apart from the occasional herd of cattle being driven along the side of the road. The rains had been late coming to this part of the country but the crops were still dismal – small, yellow and very uneven. This was a far cry from the area I’d known 20 years ago when the area was populated by mainly white commercial farmers.

I wasn't going fast when I took this - promise!

Long, straight and uncongested – I wasn’t going fast when I took this – promise!

Having picked up Archie we made our way east towards the Raffingora area and got chatting. Of Zambian descent he’d grown up in Harare and worked for a while as a farm manager for a number of black farmers but got fed up being given half the inputs he needed and then told to “make a plan” so he’d set himself up as a commodity broker. He didn’t go back to Zambia much but said if things got much worse in Zimbabwe he might have to.  We bumped and crashed along a truly appalling road that had clearly not seen any official maintenance for quite some time. The countryside was still beautiful despite the collapsed tobacco barns, power cables lying in the fields and the dismal maize crops clearly not suited to being grown in an area once famed for its tobacco.

It took the better part of an hour to do the 20 or so km to the customer’s farm. I dropped off Archie at the rather decrepit farm workshop area (clearly there was protocol involved here as he was definitely not invited to accompany us) and went with the farmer to the lands. Also of Zambian extraction he was an engineer by training but preferred to be a farmer. The cabbages were not in good condition, largely due to unsuitable soils so I dispensed what advice I could before collecting Archie and making our way back to Mhangura.

The bush was looking good, much better than the road!

The bush was looking good, much better than the road!

It was a long slow drive back to Harare along the congested Kariba road but I’d fuelled up with biltong from the renowned Lions’ Den Butchery which was just as good as I remembered from 20 years back. Getting back home I noticed a missed call on my cellphone from the farmer; he was just checking to see I’d got home safely. Clearly I’d made a good impression!





It’s the connections that count

30 03 2012

“So how has this season been?” I asked the farmer once we’d got over the introductions.

“Actually it has been a good tobacco season” he replied. “Not too much rain”.

“And how secure are you?” I asked, referring to the possibility of an eviction.

“Well, there is someone after the farm but he is pretty much a non-entity. There is an electric fence around the house and once in a while we exchange words through it. I have got our case to the Supreme Court and so far we seem secure but I’m not at all sure that we’ll still be there for another season. At least leasing the farm means we have no emotional attachment to the land”.

I asked if the landlord had “connections” in the political world.

“No” came the reply. “He is another white farmer who gave up his other farm. His son was recently kicked off his farm in the same area. There is a notorious fat-cat with political clout who even managed to block the hearing at the Supreme Court and two weeks later was on the farm”.

I thought of my doctor and her husband who were evicted off their farm in November last year. Both the High Court and the Governor of the province had told them to stay on the farm but the would-be occupier know someone with a LOT of political clout and that was that. It’s all about connections.