Currently waiting at Washington Dulles for the last leg of my return trip to Raleigh-Durham. The flight from Addis Ababa arrived early and I could probably have caught an earlier onward flight to RDU—but United Airlines now charges $75 for traveling standby, so as a good Dutchman I’ll keep the cash in my pocket and wait for the scheduled flight.
Everything is considered “extra” if you fly economy in the U.S. these days—peanuts, checked luggage, earphones. It won’t be long until they start charging for the life vests as well. The airlines’ marketing people will surely find a way to sell the floatation devices as added comfort “in the unlikely event of an emergency.”
The flight from Addis made (for me) an unexpected stop in Rome, which explains the whopping 17-hour-and-25-minute flying time to Washington. It’s interesting to see old colonial ties between countries persisting in the routing of flights. When I traveled to Rwanda last year, the connection was through Brussels.
The dearth of flights between Harare and London, on the other hand, reflects the frosty relationship between Zimbabwe and its former colonial master. Come to think of it, there aren’t too many airlines calling on the Harare’s gleaming airport, which opened only a few years ago. Aside from two seemingly mothballed Air Zimbabwe aircraft, our Ethiopian Airlines plane was the only one on the tarmac yesterday.
I have filled several notebooks on this trip, and I am still not sure if I have a good grasp on the Zimbabwean situation. Has land reform succeeded or has not? Hopefully I can put the pieces together as I review my notes this week.
In the meantime, I will have to unlearn some of the driving habits I acquired during my stay in Zimbabwe, especially around intersections.
The worst traffic situations didn’t involve traffic lights that were disabled, but those that worked partially—with only the green bulb functioning, for example. On several occasions, the only clues about the colors of the lights came from the horn blowing and hand gestures from fellow motorists.
As tobacco veterans know, travel is hurry up and wait. During the down times you need something to entertain yourself. Technology makes that easier.
I have downloaded to my smart phone an application that allows me to access my computer at work. That enhances productivity, but it can also be used to play tricks on your co-workers.
For example, Google’s translation service (www.translate.google.com) has a function that lets your PC articulate the translated sentence. That’s handy if you’re not sure to how to pronounce words in a foreign language, but you can also use it to make your computer say bad words.
Last night, I spent part of my evening at York Lodge instructing my computer in Raleigh, N.C., to utter inappropriate statements.
It kept me entertained for a good hour, trying to picture my startled co-workers trying to figure out where the bad language was coming from.
Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a reaction yet, which can mean two things: Either my speakers were turned off (I cannot activate those remotely), or the company president happened to be standing nearby just as I was typing vulgarities. In the latter case, this might be my last post as editor of Tobacco Reporter.
Hey, big spender
To appreciate the shift that has taken place in the Zimbabwean tobacco industry over the past decade, consider these figures: In 2000, approximately 4,000 growers sold 240 million kg. This year, the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association is expecting sales of about 160 million kg—produced by a whopping 60,000 farmers.
Designed for commercial production, the country’s marketing infrastructure is bursting at the seams. Whereas in the past a single farmer might deliver 100 bales, now hundreds of farmers will queue up to deliver three or five bales each.
And the farmers don’t come by themselves. Often, they are accompanied not only by family members but also by creditors who hope to collect before the farmer spends his paycheck.
In May, the line of tobacco growers and their entourage at the Tobacco Sales Floors stretched for five kilometers, according to a leaf merchants whose offices overlook the auction.
The presence of so many people with fresh cash in their pockets, in turn, has attracted others hoping to sell to them their goods and services. Makeshift marketplaces have sprung up around all three tobacco auctions in Harare, offering everything from tractors to telephone cards.
Some are even more ambitious. I had dinner last night with Temba Mliswa—an interesting character worth Googling—who wants to open a fourth tobacco auction near the Boka floor. He’s already filed an application with the Tobacco Marketing and Industry Board. While not everybody in the trade believes expanding capacity is the way to go—some prefer optimizing operations at the existing facilities—Mliswa’s plans underscore the extent of the changes taking place in Zimbabwe.
Auctioning of leaf at the Tobacco Sales Floors in Harare this morning
Zhang Qinggang and an unidentified visitor. The characters in the background mean "harmony," I think.
I was surprised to run into Patrick Rose at Northern Tobacco in Harare. I had met Patrick several years ago when he was looking after BAT’s leaf growing operations in Uganda, and he seemed to enjoy being back in his home country.
Later that morning, I caught up with Zhang Qinggang, managing director of Tianze Tobacco, a subsidiary of the China National Tobacco Corp. The Chinese have become a significant player in Zimbabwe lately, at times purchasing up to 40 percent of the crop.
Like other manufacturers, CNTC has become concerned about security of supply in recent years. In April 2005, it established Tianze. Today the company contracts with 170 farmers (both small-scale and commercial) and also purchases at auction.
Echoing concerns in some parts of the world about China’s rise as an economic superpower, some in Zimbabwe have expressed discomfort with the growing Chinese role in the leaf tobacco sector.
Zhang was keen to stress that Tianze was not “taking over” Zimbabwe’s tobacco business. “We want to support the industry, play by the rules and contribute to healthy market conditions,” he said, adding that up to 98 percent of the company’s employees were local.