Zimbabwean farmers make do, regardless

I recently visited Harare with Prof Charles Whitehead from the University of Johannesburg for a two-day Banana Ripening and Post-harvest Physiology workshop for the employees of a large Zimbabwe-based farming company.

Despite what we hear of the turmoil in that wonderful country, people are still managing – with difficulty at times – to run businesses and somehow survive. Our hosts have a number of distribution centres around Zimbabwe as well as in Zambia and Mozambique. They specialise in bananas – from their own farms as well as others – but also distribute local apples and citrus.

Quality fruit
Three things became immediately apparent to Whitehead and me. Firstly, these farmers make do with what they have. Secondly, they don’t have a sophisticated infrastructure. And thirdly, despite these difficulties, the quality of their bananas is very good. We were both amazed that they transported bananas from the farms to the Harare depot in bulk bins on open trucks. The cold rooms and ripening chambers were old, but functional. (Whitehead pointed out how, with a few minor adjustments, they could be even better.)

We were also intrigued by the way the company caters to their customers at the depot. Street sellers come here to collect fresh bananas, and the company has provided them with sturdy two-wheel steel trolleys from which regardless they sell the fruit. There is even provision for an umbrella if required. The hawkers select the bananas from a bulk bin that has come out of the ripening chamber, pile enough fruit onto the trolley to handle comfortably, and go away to do business.

This innovative approach is not only good for business all round, but must make a positive contribution – no matter how small – to Zimbabwe’s chronic unemployment crisis.

Simple yet effective
At the company’s airport depot just outside the city, they make up daily orders of bananas in 1kg packs for the retail trade. They use an ordinary counter-top scale to weigh the packs – by no means an ideal method but once again an instance of making the best of the situation. As we flew back to Johannesburg, I suspect that we both realised the learning process of the previous days had been very much a two-way street!