Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Posts Tagged ‘RBZ’

Impressions of Zimbabwe in August 2009

Posted by CM on October 25, 2009

Visitors to Zimbabwe who have been fed a BBC/CNN-type diet of news about ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis’ and how everything in the country has ‘collapsed’ will be surprised at how ‘normal’ Harare looks at first glance. Driving from the airport into town, there are certainly signs of decay since a few years ago, but no immediate or obvious signs of the ‘collapse’ that certain media have in recent years hysterically, lovingly and perhaps even hopefully talked about.

Looking out of the airplane’s windows as it circled to land and on the drive into town in early August, the most obvious change for me was how areas that had once been at least semi-savannah on the outskirts of Harare had been stripped of trees. One manifestation of ‘The Crisis’ in recent years has been the difficulty in accessing forms of modern energy that had once been taken for granted: petrol, diesel, paraffin, butane, coal, electricity, etc. Their availability had been erratic for many years and their cost prohibitive, forcing many people to resort to firewood for energy. Hence the massive deforestation, which I later found was widespread.

The still newish airport is clean and well maintained, though the number of vacant boutiques compared to, for instance, Nairobi airport’s full complement of seemingly thriving over-charging boutiques was one indicator that things were not quite ‘normal.’ On the drive home from the airport there was no dramatic evidence of ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis,’ though the buildings did look shabbier than before and there were definitely more potholes to dodge on the roads. But the over-riding impression for me was the powerful natural beauty and colour of Zimbabwe, not the indices of the difficult times the country has undergone in recent years.

Having had a few days to unwind at home, I began to gradually drive around and explore my home city Harare. There definitely seemed less traffic on the roads than I remembered from a few years ago. Finding a parking spot in the city center was surprisingly easy at any time of day and the roads there were generally in very good shape, as appeared to be most of the visible infrastructure.

In town and in many of the suburban shopping centers there were many more vacant shops than before, but I was also impressed by the number of businesses that had hung on during the difficult years. But almost all had ‘diversified’ in various ways, with all selling a much wider variety of goods and/or services to survive. I thought the general level of service in shops had declined noticeably. I didn’t encounter any outright rudeness but it seemed noticeably common to be met by disinterested, bored and sometimes almost sullen store personnel. Almost all stores I remembered from a few years ago had a much narrower range of goods than during ‘the good old days,’ but many people mentioned to me that what I thought was a limited range of goods was a vast improvement from the situation a few months ago, and that the availability of goods was improving dramatically by the day, one of the early benefits of the US-“dollarization” of the economy.

While the widespread shortages of all kinds of goods was rapidly receding into the past as price controls and currency restrictions fell away, most things seemed very expensive, sometimes absurdly so. In the weeks before my visit home I had visited Europe and the U.S., as well as having passed through Senegal’s capital city Dakar,  a city not known to be cheap, and so I particularly keenly felt the comparatively high cost of goods and services in Harare. It was easy to understand why many Zimbabweans are only grudging in their praise of the ‘normalization’ that has begun to take place. “We are happy the shops are full again but we can’t afford the goods” was a frequent complaint I heard. But even as people grumble about “we can’t afford anything” the shops are certainly not empty of customers, although many merchants and traders said the level of spending was still low and still limited mainly to necessities. Yet all I spoke to agreed that the situation was significantly better than before, and dramatically better than in 2008, the period everyone agreed was Zimbabwe’s low point, with hyperinflation, shortages, violence and political tension and so on at their worst.

As ridiculously expensive as almost everything seemed to be, even in just the one month I was there prices were creeping down to more realistic levels. And if one took the trouble to shop around, which many more people were doing than I remember from before, it was possible to find widely varying prices for the same thing. A big culture change was that even in ‘formal’ shops it was possible to negotiate for price reductions, common in many countries all over the world but previously almost unheard of in Zimbabwe’s stiff formal economy. So merchants are feeling the effects of consumer resistance and growing competition from the opening up of the economy and the greater availability of goods, and they are being forced to respond by lowering their prices. In the shortage economy that had prevailed for several years, the relatively few people who could raise the hard currency to import goods became accustomed to charging huge, arbitrary mark-ups. The merchant was king, not the customer.

One of the most disheartening remaining signs of how Zimbabwe has slid was in the complete absence of a daily media alternative to the state media. There are no daily independent newspapers and at US$2 an issue, the weekly private newspapers are way out of reach of most people. Of course there is no private TV or radio so there is a huge information deficit. But this is not to say the state media dominates the shaping of opinion. Despite its near monopoly, state newspapers, TV and radio are so dull and so blatantly pro-establishment that their credibility is extremely low. The public has largely learned to sense when they are being fed propaganda instead of news, which is rather often, and to dismiss and ridicule it even if they don’t know for sure what the other sides of the story are. Even more than before, the propaganda is so crudely done that I found myself often marveling that the government didn’t find it embarrassing and a negation of its attempt to win heart and minds. The stiffness, awkwardness and the over-the-top nature of much of the state media in the support of Mugabe and ZANU-PF and against Tsvangirai and the MDC had an almost surreal, self-defeating quality in its crudeness.

President Mugabe is still ass-licked by the state media as much as ever before, and in a way that I do not think does him any credit. One big change was that Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Gideon Gono was no longer the swashbuckling public hero the media had tried to make him out to be when he was first appointed five or so years ago, promising to swiftly bring down hyper-inflation and perform all kinds of other miracles. Even in the slavish state media Gono’s gloss had long turned dull, with him now struggling to defend his controversial legacy to a tired-of-him, sceptical public. One would have to have been there in his early days in office and to experience what a dominant public presence he came to be to understand how far the man has fallen in public esteem.

Electricity and water cuts were frequent, although even in these regards many people said I had visited when the situation was getting much better than it once was. People are inconvenienced but out of necessity have had to adjust, and the down times are handled very matter of factly. Up until a few years ago I had never even seen a fuel-powered electricity generator but now many in the cities who can afford them have them and they are widely advertised in the Press. Those who have boreholes or wells can avoid the worst inconveniences of the periods without running water, but I was shocked by the number of people who calmly mentioned having gone for months without seeing a drop of municipal water in their taps, a major cause of last year’s cholera outbreak.

Visits to some of Harare’s once-bustling industrial areas were depressing. A few years ago a quick drive through any of them would have been enough to show anybody why Zimbabwe’s economy was the sub-region’s most dynamic after South Africa’s. Now they are quiet, many companies still open but quite clearly operating at a low level. The areas do not have the bustle of before; buildings, roads and company premises are no longer maintained like they once proudly were. But from job-seekers to company owners, many people said whereas most companies were just treading water for several years, there are now signs of activity picking up as a result of the policy changes in the economy and the relative political calm.

With low productivity in agriculture and industry for several years, and given all the crises the country has undergone, it is startling to see the number and proportion of smart late-model luxury cars on the streets of Harare. There seemed a very bizarre disconnect between the economy under-performing as it has done for years and the number and types of expensive cars which would have turned one’s head even in a wealthy, ‘normal’ economy. While the signs of the lack of investment in many critical areas of the economy were everywhere, this certainly did not seem to extend to the cars many higher-ups in government and the private sector drive. I’m still trying to figure out what this says, and whether this is positive or not.

My impressions are of a tiny slice of life in Zimbabwe. For instance, I only made two one-day forays into rural areas to visit relatives, and only made one other one-day trip out of Harare during my one-month stay. There are obviously many parts of the traumatic economic and political period Zimbabwe is just coming out of that will only be fully understood by those who were there during it. But the instinctive adaptation that one “who was there” undergoes to the rapidly changing situation is also precisely why it can be hard for them to pin down and catalogue the changes, even though they will have an insider’s deeper understanding of events they were a part of. On the other hand an inside-outsider like me, visiting for the first time in about three years, can much more quickly see what is different even if he has no first-hand knowledge and experience of the factors and events that drove the change.

When I ended my previously visit to Zimbabwe, in early 2007, it was with a very heavy heart. The economy was very steadily declining and the tensions between the rival political parties escalating. That state of affairs had been on-going for close to 10 years. There was a widespread sense that the country was still going down, with no one able to guess when we would hit bottom or how bad things would be then. I left home then worried and depressed.

My feelings were quite different this time. There remain many political and economic problems but there is now a widespread feeling that the worst is behind the country. There is not the same feeling of widespread political dread and economic desperation, even though things are far from easy or back to any definition of ‘normal.’  Everybody grumbles about how high the cost of living still is, but unlike before, prices are stable and in many cases even declining, and goods are widely available, which is a very different scenario from early 2007!

I found widespread relief at the existence of the inclusive government of the major political parties, and I thought that most people were generally much less passionately partisan than I remembered. I also think cynicism about all politicians was higher and more widespread than before, which may be a good sign!

The last ten years or so have been a lost decade for Zimbabwe in many ways. And there is no guarantee that the beginnings of stabilization that are being experienced will take hold or that the country will organize itself to get close to meeting its great potential. The possibility of the political parties going back to the bitter fighting that has contributed so greatly to Zimbabwe’s misery remains very real. But when I left Harare in early September after a month at home, for the first time in many years I felt the stirrings of hope about the country’s prospects.

Posted in business, Economy, People | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Gideon Gono’s star starting to fade

Posted by CM on December 30, 2007

by Chido Makunike

The last few weeks have not been good for Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

Gono featuredly prominently at the ZANU-PF congress at which President Mugabe somehow arranged yet another ruling party endorsement as its sole candidate in the elections scheduled for March 2008. We saw images of Gono grinning broadly, seemingly basking in the glow of Mugabe’s approval. He got tongues wagging with a tough speech in which he accused un-named high ranking government officials of being behind many of the nefarious “black market” activities that led to phenomena like the current perplexing shortage of Zim dollar currency notes.

Gono has never made secret of his personal closeness to Mugabe, which reports have traced to his being the president’s banker, dating from the days when Gono was chief executive of the Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe. Gono parlayed his revival of that once floundering bank back into solvency into a reputation as a “turn around expert.” It is that image he carefully cultivated over some years that eventually landed him the RBZ top job with much fanfare in 2003.

His closeness to Mugabe made him automatically an object of suspicion to many. But others hoped that he could use it to make Mugabe “see sense” about measures needed to right the economy’s many wrongs in a way the president light not have been prepared to do with previous economic advisors.

There was a circus around Gono’s taking on the job of central banker. The media was roped into hailing him as a conquering hero who had come to slay the dragon of high inflation, the country’s then first experience of local currency shortages and all manner of other economic ills.

If the media seemed to adore him, he clearly loved the media attention just as much. His “monetary review statements” were broadcast live, and his every word was treated as gospel. In the Gono-euphoria that erupted, cautions that the country’s deepening economic problems could not be separated from governance, political and diplomatic issues were swept aside. Gono promised to “turn around” the economy in short order, confidently making inflation-lowering and other targets which the country has come nowhere near to achieving, and vowing “failure is not an option.”

Four years after all the hype surrounding his appointment and all the high hopes in his tenure by many, the December 23 2007 main headline in the Zimbabwe Standard was a harsh summation of how far Gono has fallen in public esteem. It screamed, “Gono labelled ‘No. 1 saboteur.’

Citing the thousands of Zimbabweans who had to spend the end of year holiday season in long queues for cash from their bank accounts, the story quoted Elton Mangoma, an opposition party official, as saying, “Gono is clearly the biggest saboteur of Zimbabwe’s economy. He is simply playing politics with a serious national crisis that needs immediate attention from a central bank governor who takes the people’s suffering seriously.”

The MDC, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and economists, all said the cash crisis was ample evidence that the RBZ had failed in its mandate to provide liquidity, the story continued. The critics said it was “very cruel” of Gono to plunge the ordinary people into the crisis in a miscalculated move “to fix” people whose identity he knew.

Critics said blaming cash barons was a diversionary tactic designed to mask the incompetence of the central bank. “There is no money from the so-called barons because if the money was there, the parallel market would be booming,” said Dr Daniel Ndlela, head of an economic consultancy firm. “This fellow (Gono) is not only heartless, but he does not understand who he is punishing. The people in the queues are not barons.”

The Standard’s story continued:

Mangoma added: “The people are not failing to access their cash because of the cash barons but because of Gono’s policies which have eroded people’s confidence in the banking system in this country. No reasonable person would put their money into a bank when they know they will fail to access it the following day.”

Ndlela said Zimbabweans could be in for more suffering “as long as we have a poet” for a central banker. “He has totally failed. If he had a bit of professionalism and dignity he should have resigned a long time ago,” he said.

This is unprecedented harsh public criticism for Gono. Until recently, he had somehow been able to straddle the awkward twin roles of being an intimate insider of a floundering, unpopular government and yet also able to cast himself as a “man of the people” folk hero. That bubble seems to have burst in a way that some cynics may say was inevitable.

Defending himself in The Herald in an interview which was gently but still unusually critical in the tone of the questions asked by the state’s primary propaganda newspaper, Gono said “The cash shortages that we see are a mere symptom of much deeper and greater fundamental misalignments in our economy than the ability or inability of the central bank to provide adequate cash.” In this regard, it was unfortunate that all the blame had been heaped on RBZ, the newspaper quoted Gono as saying.

Went on Gono in the interview, “We are back to economic fundamentals which we must tackle head on… It’s about sanctions whose debilitating effects on the economy and on the ordinary lives of our people must be a matter for which we must all speak with one voice as Zimbabweans to see that these sanctions are lifted. It’s about the productivity of … every form of economic activity in the country. We must raise the bar of productivity to underpin our commercial transactions.”

“It’s also about economic and pricing distortions, which we must deal with decisively. It’s about economic patriotism. It’s about discipline. It’s about building a corrupt-free economy. It’s about international relations. So don’t take a simplistic view of the queues and simplistically place 100 percent responsibility on the central bank or the Governor, however easily tempting or fashionable it might be.”

“That’s my interpretation of the cash queue. In the absence of a disciplined approach to our economic affairs, to corruption, hard work and economic patriotism, the winter of discontent with cash queues will not go away. “

Everything Gono says here is true, of course. But it was all just as true four years ago when he somewhat over-confidently boasted “failure is not an option” amidst warnings that the country’s problems were deeper than could be addressed by monetary measures. For instance, the lifting of sanctions and issues of international relations are beyond the purview of Gono and the RBZ. Yet they are critical components to Zimbabwe’s economic fortunes, and to Gono’s own success as RBZ governor.

All these points had been repeatedly made by many long before Gono came onto the scene as central banker. Some who had made similar points to those Gono is now making were accused of being traitors to the country and forced to resign their positions for publicly stating unpalatable truths. The hope had been that Gono’s reputation as a “favoured son” who enjoyed the particular attention of Mugabe’s ear would give him more leverage than others before him had.

While Gono has clearly been the most powerful central banker yet, with unprecedented latitude to try all sorts of economic experiments, he has met the ultimate brick wall: that there will be no solution to the country’s hyper-inflation or its cash, fuel and other shortages without going back to production, diplomatic, political and other basics which the ruling authorities have shown no inclination to do over the years.

In a way Gono is a victim of his own initial hype and over-promising of what he could achieve in the prevailing political environment. In taking the RBZ job, he gambled that he could influence Mugabe and the politicians to take measures they had resisted before, or alternatively, that he could use his wide-ranging powers to bring about economic improvements even without reform of the rest of the system of governance. The increasing criticism from all sectors of the media and the public suggests many people believe that he has lost his gamble.

Without giving details, in the Herald interview he promises to solve the immediate cash problems in the next several days. But this would seem to contradict his point in the same interview about how the cash queues will not go away without the country addressing a comprehensive raft of other issues than just how much currency the RBZ releases into circulation. Certainly his credibility is at its lowest ebb, even if he still enjoys the fickle Mugabe’s support, which I am not sure anyone knows for certain.

So what next for Gono?

Hyperinflation and the Zim dollar’s depreciation continue unabated, so two major reasons for the current cash shortage will still be in place no matter what he does to assuage the public’s anger about the shortages. The low farming/industrial productivity and international diplomatic isolation issues will likely continue for all sorts of reasons that are way beyond Gono’s ability to do anything about.

With his repeated “failure is not an option” mantra, resignation is not an easy option. I wonder if it is even an option available to him at all. In return for his unprecedented power, prominence and latitude of action as RBZ governor, he may have had to make personal concessions which may not make it possible for him to walk away unless Mugabe now wishes him to go. He may be too deep into the system as the author of many unorthodox interventions to attempt to stop the economy’s slide in the last four years that being seen to abandon the Mugabe ship would not be looked at kindly at all!

Could Mugabe, on reading the public mood of rising disaffection with Gono, be ready to sack him, in a way giving Gono the easiest way out of a continually sinking ship?

This is not unthinkable for a crafty Mugabe who is a master at finding and nailing scapegoats for problems that are ultimately his responsibility. But it is probably unlikely.

Whatever his faults, Gono has indeed worked very hard at a series of unconventional interventions to try to tame Zimbabwe’s economic melt down. Gono has also very carefully always made a sometimes almost slavish loyalty to Mugabe clear.

Unless Mugabe is now ready to go “conventional” in regards to economic management and international relations, he needs someone like Gono who is tireless at trying unconventional measures, no matter how half-baked some of them may be. In an economic environment even worse than when Gono became RBZ governor, it is hard to imagine Mugabe finding anyone as bold and hard-working at trying new things as Gono has proven himself to be. A more conventional economist at the RBZ would recommend to Mugabe the same conventional political and economic measures that Mugabe has found so unpalatable over the years.

Gono will therefore likely continue at the helm of the RBZ and the economy beyond his current term, but with no more illusions on anyone’s part of a dramatic “economic turnaround” on the horizon. Out of frustration at having failed to achieve it, as well as having lost the public and media adulation he wants enjoyed, he may become an increasingly bitter and capricious economic tsar. In the manner of his boss Mugabe in the political sphere, Gono may continue to be “in power” to issue warnings, threats and decrees to various sectors of the economy, but make little difference to the country’s economic slide.

Gono as RBZ governor rose to dizzy heights in public affection on the alluring but dangerous, fleeting back of a masterfully conducted public relations campaign and charm offensive. The only way to have kept that unrealistic momentum was for him to have then produced the kind of economic results which were not possible under an environment in which his boss continued to make statements and decisions that neutralised Gono’s efforts.

Those decisions are often influenced more by short-term populism and patronage considerations than what is in the best interests of the country. And so farms and implements are given to the political elite than to those best able to use them, with the attendant results on productivity, and ultimately, on inflation and the value of the Zim dollar. It is a waste of time to deal with the economic symptoms without addressing the political root causes.

Ditto for the current cash crisis. It is a waste of time to scapegoat a “cash baroness” who is simply a messenger of well connected and protected political players who are the real black marketeers. Gono says he knows most of them, but appears not to want to rock the political boat by naming them. That may be understandable, but the point is that being politically hamstrung like this makes nonsense of his economic efforts, dooming them to failure. Apart from nailing even the highly placed politicians and others who are “fueling” the black market, there is also the fact that only measures that make such a black market un-necessary will eliminate the problem, even if those measures go against Mugabe’s own brand of ideological orthodoxy.

Gono continues to run from pillar to post, trying this and that cosmetic measure to deal with the symptoms of deeper problems he increasingly shows signs of accepting are beyond the ambit of the RBZ to address. The carefully scripted story of his dramatic professional and public-image rise make for gripping melodrama, but his current floundering is also sadly predictable and depressing given the unchangingly negative political environment in which he chose to try to make a lasting positive impact as RBZ governor.


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Is the recently launched biodiesel plant just the latest Zim fuel scam?

Posted by CM on November 17, 2007

In August I expressed scepticism that a biodiesel plant whose construction had been crawling along for years was likely to be finished any time in the foreseeable future. I was reacting to a Herald story, which mentioned that construction was going well and that hundreds of thousands of jatropha-based biodiesel were expected from the plant when it was fully functional. The gist of my post was that despite the story’s optimistic tone, there were a lot of little things in it that didn’t add up to justify that optimism.

Well, three months later The Herald has come back to report that the biodiesel plant has now been commissioned by Mr. Mugabe.


Government will today launch Zimbabwe’s first commercial biodiesel plant set to ease the current fuel shortages significantly.

The plant, the first of its kind in Africa and only one of the five in the world, is the brainchild of joint efforts between the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and Korean investors who developed the technology.

It uses oil seeds for feedstock, and can process sunflower, jatropha, cotton seed and soya to produce biodiesel. Jatropha is likely to be the major feedstock at the moment.

The biodiesel, which burns just like petroleum diesel in unmodified diesel engines, can be mixed with petroleum diesel or burned on its own. Initial production is likely to be at least enough to cope with demand in the agricultural sector.

Finishing touches were yesterday being put on the project, funded by RBZ. Sources close to the development were yesterday upbeat that it would transform Zimbabwe’s economy in a big way.

The project is a culmination of years of research. In 2004, RBZ commissioned a biodiesel project at the Harare Polytechnic under which it procured a test vehicle, bio-reactor chemicals and other logistical support facilities, culminating in the “convincing” certification that biodiesel was a feasible option for Zimbabwe.

The project will not just benefit the fuel sector, but is expected to have a positive impact on the rest of the economy as well through the creation of synergies.

Farmers are set to benefit from this development through an expanded ready market for oil seeds. Industry in general and the motoring public are also expected to operate better after the launch. The plant is being commissioned just in time for the festive season and the beginning of the summer cropping season, periods during which demand for fuel is very high.

This is indeed a great development all Zimbabweans should be cautiously excited about. Biodiesel, especially from jatropha, is all the rage now in the energy sector, although there are still more questions than answers about yields, viability and so on. The Herald being The Herald, would obviously not tell us the still very experimental nature of jatropha projects, despite the billions being invested into it world-wide. There is a lot of excitement everywhere, but there is not yet anywhere that jatropha oil is fuelling any significant proportion of vehicles.

That it is a clean-burning oil that works to power vehicles was known long before the “RBZ commissioned a biodiesel project at the Harare Polytechnic” as The Herald dutifully writes in an article that reads suspiciously like a public relations piece for the RBZ! Whether jatropha is the next best thing since sliced bread is no longer a question of whether the oil can power a vehicle, but will depend on issues of agronomy and economics.

Will the yield of seed per hectare be such that it will be commercially viable to grow it for oil extraction? What are the optimal growing conditions for commercially viable yields? This basic fact is still to be discovered because until the recent biofuels craze, jatropha has almost always been grown in marginal conditions. Its ability to grow in poor soils and its drought-tolerance have made it prized as a “live fence” against animals encroaching on crops or homesteads, and as an effective windbreak. But the new trend of growing it mainly for its seed oil will require the same kind of meticulous crop husbandry as any other commercial crop, if it is to produce the desired yields. This means adequate water, soil fertility (unfortunately in Zimbabwe this is taken to necessarily and only mean synthetic fertilizer, an issue I will sound off on some other time), to mention just two requirements. All these questions are just being answered now in places like India, where pioneering work on growing jatropha for oil is being done, with the results not as conclusively positive as many would like to be the case.

A jatropha variety that grows very well might not necessarily yield economic oil percentages in its seeds. And even when oil content is high, the economic viability of jatropha projects will depend on a whole chain of other factors. Just as being food self-sufficient is not simply about having “the land,” hoping to power a nation’s fleet of diesel vehicles is about far more than launching a factory.

So to “launch” the plant does not necessarily mean anything. It could just be a publicity stunt by the RBZ, with the non-technical Mr. Mugabe being willing pulled along as a valuable prop in the whole drama.

The last line of the story raises my usual suspicion even higher by suggesting that the jatropha biodiesel benefits could be felt by motorists as early as the end of year holiday traveling season just a few weeks away! For me, at that point the story crosses the bounds of being a rather over-done, planted corporate “spin” story for the RBZ to being outrightly irresponsible, in a manner unfortunately no longer unusual for The Herald. Without quite coming out to say so, they want to suggest to the reader that he might be driving on jatropha biodiesel by Christmas!

Even if the factory has been “commissioned,” where are the thousands of tonnes of high oil-yielding seeds going to come from when there are few large plantation of jatropha plantings in the country, if any? Even if everything worked perfectly, it is going to be many years before the plant has enough raw material to make even the slightest dent in Zimbabwe’s fuel requirements.

But maybe I’m just being defensive because a plant I predicted would never be completed is apparently ready. And maybe The Herald was withholding all the juicy details an inquiring mind would want to know about the factory for the actual launch. Maybe The Herald knew Mr. Mugabe would fill in the many missing details in his official launch speech and didn’t want to pre-empt him.

Unfortunately, none of the foregoing appears to be the case. According to The Herald’s (Nov16) report of Mugabe’s speech, it was more the usual “the whole world is out to get us because we took the white folks’ farms” than it was any revelation about the current capacity of the plant and many related issues.


Zimbabwe will not collapse… Mugabe said challenges brought about by the sanctions had instead motivated Zimbabweans to think outside the box.

… we have demonstrated that the dark clouds of our hard times … sown by Western destructive forces, have their silver lining by … strengthening our resilience … deepening our scientific research and stimulating our innovativeness.

Stirring stuff, I can’t wait for the details of what he’s talking about, let me quickly read on for them…

“I am informed that … this plant will, at full capacity, yield 100 million litres of diesel per year, meeting virtually all the agricultural sector’s diesel requirements ….”

Wow, now I’m getting really excited! But when is it expected to reach “full capacity?” Next year? Two, five, 20 years from now? And given the embarrassing yawning gap between cultivation forecasts for various crops over the last several years of crisis, should we put any more trust in the ability of any branch of Mr. Mugabe’s government to make even half-way accurate guesses about how much jatropha seed would be required to reach “full capacity?” Let’s read on…

At least 500 tonnes of seed oil would be required annually to produce the targeted 100 million litres of bio-diesel.

This works out to one tonne of jatropha oil producing 200, 000 litres of biodiesel. Now, current global jatropha yields are about seven (7) tonnes of seed per hectare. That seed is on average 30% oil. So the one tonne of oil that produces 200,000 litres biodiesel would be derived from the raw material of three (3) tonnes of jatropha seed. (I don’t know if the 30% is by volume or by weight, but for simplicity I am going to assume that it is by weight, and also that the specific gravity (SG) of jatropha is about the same as that of water, so that a litre of jatropha would weigh about a kilo. Jatropha SG is in fact about 0.9, about 10% less than water, so I’m not far off.)

The Herald also tells us, Zimbabwe also becomes the first country in the world to produce bio-diesel with a bio-purity level of virtually 100 percent. Germany has a bio-purity level of 75 percent while other European countries range from 2 percent to 20 percent.

All I can say is, if only the RBZ scientists could display the same innovation in reducing inflation from 14,000% as they obviously have displayed in making biodiesel! I had no idea we had such genius at the RBZ, as The Herald story carefully tells us several times in the story.

Anyway, with these basic facts, what can we glean from the 100 million litres of biodiesel per year Mr. Mugabe promises us will come pouring out of the newly “launched” plant? When it is fully operational of course, whenever that might be.

Without boring the reader with the rather straightforward calculations, here are the equivalences I end up with, based on the RB…oops, I mean The Herald’s figures:I hectare jatropha=7 tonnes seed=2.1 tonnes oil=2100 litres biodiesel.

So, in short, one hectare of jatropha would yield about 2000 litres biodiesel. This is definitely on the high side, especially considering I calculated using 30% oil content for the seed. It would be even higher if I calculated using the 40% oil that some varieties of jatropha are said to contain in their seed. We don’t know which percentage Mr. Mugabe, RBZ & Co. are using in their astonishingly optimistic yield projections. (In fairness to Mr. Mugabe, he was just reading the speech that was placed before him, so perhaps his main fault here is just being rather gullible.)

What do I mean by “on the high side?” By comparison to the fantastic figures of Mugabe, RBZ & Co., read the words of someone who is an actual scientist:

Last month, the president of the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences, Christopher Chetsanga, said that “It is important for Zimbabwe to engage in the development of biotechnology energy crops such as jatropha, soyabeans and sugarcane so that the country can quickly work towards reducing the amount of fuel that it is importing by systematically replacing it with biofuels. Cuba is already working with a Jatropha variety that can yield 1,500 litres of biodiesel per hectare. This is a good model for Zimbabwe to emulate.”

I got this from Biofuels Digest.

So Mugabe, RBZ & Co., non-scientists who have launched a biodiesel plant but do not have the raw material for it yet, already know that our small scale farmers all over Zimbabwe, struggling with fertilizer for maize as it is, will grow high-quality jatropha producing 2000 litres of biodiesel end-product per hectare. We don’t know anything about the variety of jatropha, the growing conditions (Irrigation or rain-fed? If the latter, what happens to yields in drought years? Fertilizer or no fertilizer? How could it be the former when we can’t supply enough fertilizer for maize for food? If it is the latter, how are they expecting to get higher than global average yields without fertilizer? Do we have enough manure for the hectarages required?)

Professor Chetsanga (PhD. Biochemistry), thinks that a yield of 1500 litre biodiesel per hectare of cultivated jatropha would be “a good model for Zimbabwe to emulate.” But the learned professor is way behind the crack “scientists” at the presidential palace, the RBZ and The Herald, who, years before there is any significant mature jatropha in the country to speak of, have already convinced themselves of far higher yields than the long-experienced Cubans!

Trying for a measure of energy self-sufficiency is a good thing. Despite the secrecy around this project, it is a laudable effort, but one that will realistically remain experimental in important ways for many years to come. It would have been more prudent to base calculations of what would be achieved more modestly, to take into account the many things that will go wrong as the whole jatropha value chain goes through its learning curve. We have seen all this over-excited guessing game in regards to crop yields that the country came nowhere near achieving.

I’m being even more long-winded than usual, but you can see where I’m going with this. While I would very much like to see Zimbabwe making serious headway with biofuels, I am “reserving” judgment on what is being painted as a brilliant triumph by the Reserve Bank long before we have any serious jatropha harvests! Actually, the prematurely high projected yields for a process that would take years of experimentation to get right even if these were normal times in Zimbabwe, and the secrecy about so many other basic details to do with this factory make me doubt what exactly the “launch” signified, if anything at all.

Does “launch” here biodiesel is now being regularly produced, or does it mean something much less?

I have many other questions, but already I am inclined to believe the “launch” was more publicity stunt than anything concrete.

After the recent embarrassment of being conned by some crooked smooth operator who convinced them diesel could be squeezed out of a rock, I wonder if Mugabe & Co. have not fallen for yet another fuel scam.

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