HARARE – At its peak, Kondozi Farm earned $15 million annually.
Today, Manicaland governor Christopher Mushowe, the man who grabbed the farm almost a decade ago, hardly makes $10 a-day from a once thriving farm store at the estate.
Never mind the actual farm, which he has turned into a ruin.
The haughty governor is turning into a living example of how President Robert Mugabe’s much vaunted land reforms are off-centre.
A tobacco revolution is sweeping across this eastern region, except at Kondozi, where the only sign of farming is a maize patch suffocated by weeds.
Villagers and resettled small scale farmers surrounding Kondozi have joined the tobacco frenzy that has hit the country and are growing the golden leaf in measures never seen before.
And Mushowe’s Kondozi is proving the dwarf among the crop of farmers in this area, a mix of resettled farmers and villagers who have traditionally been subsistence maize growers but are now minting cash from tobacco farming.
As a 3 500 hectare horticultural concern employing over 5 000 people and sub-contracting work to dozens of local small scale farmers, Kondozi was a model of commercial farming and community empowerment.
That was before Mushowe set in.
With the help of marauding war veterans and State agents, the farm was violently seized on Easter Friday in 2004.
“He (Mushowe) and his wife are living in the new house one of my sons built on the farm … but they don’t know how to farm,” former owner Mienkie de Klerk was quoted as saying then.
It is a feeling now commonly shared by locals who are mesmerised at how a man they claim is a constant beneficiary of government largesse can fail so spectacularly, especially when they compare to their own situation.
Despite having to toil using outdated methods with no meaningful support from government, these “small time” farmers are rubbing with glee at the recent opening of the tobacco selling season.
Most of these local farmers are former employees of the then large-scale white commercial farmers, who and their employers were booted off the farms during Mugabe’s controversial land reform programme.
Having acquired the skills to produce the golden leaf during their stay at white-owned tobacco farms, the “small time” farmers have found the opportunity to venture into tobacco production on their small pieces of land.
“We could be doing even better if we got the free inputs which these top officials receive,” says Tendai Maone, whose crop is in the final stages of curing.
This is not an empty statement.
Maone has a healthy three hectare tobacco pick.
The passion for tobacco here is so deep that driving through the treacherous dusty roads which link this vast terrain reveals that literally, every household has joined the bandwagon while abandoning the staple maize.
Analysts say despite government guaranteeing a maize market, failure to offer competitive maize producer prices and delayed payments have led to the shift from maize to tobacco.
The sudden boom in tobacco production has also been necessitated by the introduction of the multi-currency system, which has enabled farmers to directly pocket the much-sought after greenback, and the availability of a guaranteed output market.
“When I sold my tobacco bales in 2007, the money I received was not enough for bus-fare back home. We were just producing the crop for the government. But now, after selling my crop, I can easily buy inputs for the next season and use the remainder to develop my home” said Esthere Chiwasha.
Unlike in the past when tobacco grower’s numbers were the preserve of white commercial farmers, small-scale farmers can now easily get a grower’s number from their local Agritex extension workers, making it easier for farmers to sell their crop to the various auction floors in the capital.
In areas such as Mukuni, novice tobacco growers — and there are many of them — regularly visit the veterans for advice.
“I try to help whenever I can but it is time we start organising workshops because the whole community is growing tobacco. It is the only way out of poverty,” says Misheck Ndoro, a Zanu PF councillor for ward eight in Mutare North constituency.
Ndoro has been in the game for decades and helps greenhorns with zeal, even those who do not belong to his political party.
A mini-mansion at his six hectare tobacco plot stands as proof of the profits he has reaped.
Yards away from his huge house are four young chaps busy feeding firewood into the furnace of two barns and with torches fitted on their heads take stock of the temperature.
“The quality of the crop is poor if the temperature is not right,” he says.
At the local shops, men in their 20s and 30s gather in the dingy Zumbare Bar.
Faintly lit by candle, the only alcohol one can really drink in this “bar” is illicit brew.
While our crew is miffed by the lack of a cold beer, the locals’ minds are elsewhere.
Talk is all about tobacco and between sips they take turns to proffer advice, argue and brag — all about tobacco.
From here through to villages in Zhawani, Gondo, Chikundu, past Kondozi to Nyamajura and Chinyika it is the same craze and with auction floors now open, talk is shifting towards issues to do with pricing.
Some of these villagers and small scale farmers were once out-growers contracted by Kondozi’s former owners to grow crops such as beans, corn and melons.
They went bust after Mushowe took over the farm.
Now they can’t help but quip at the irony.
“These people just took the farms, get fertilisers from government but they have no idea on how to do the work. Their warehouses are staked to the brim with fertilisers and other inputs but there is nothing to show for it on the ground.
The only big fish doing well is Chinamasa (Justice minister Patrick),” says Phillip Jasintu, whom we meet in Nyamajura while he is busy preparing his crop for the market.
“At least we are showing them the way and the nation can rely on us,” Jasintu says, his gestures betraying an air of importance.
Despite inheriting a farm that consists of equipment such as several T35 trucks, four scania trucks, 48 tractors, 26 motorbikes, five UD trucks as well as crops, Mushowe has failed to live up to expectations.
All that is gone. The remaining workers, who now survive on poaching, claim some of the aluminum irrigation pipes “disappeared”.
For that, he has become the butt of jokes by locals.
“Mushowe anorima tsine (black jack),” says a drinker at Odzi Shopping Centre, which is in Kondozi’s vicinity.
Chips another: “Maybe he can make more money by turning that store into a beerhall.” The drinker is referring to Beverley Hills Store, the little farm shop which today stands near empty along the road to the shopping centre.