Sitting restlessly under a huge baobab tree, Chris Katsande, a receiving clerk with the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe (Cottco), takes another glance at his watch.
The time is ticking towards 5pm.
Behind him is a crowd of clearly weary and agitated men and women.
Shaking his head, he slowly walks towards the nearby Ganganganyama Mountain, the only location where he can get mobile network connectivity.
Due to poor connectivity, he tries but fails to make a phone call.
Walking back to the crowd, Katsande first clears his hoarse voice before making an announcement that is greeted by mumblings of discontent.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to tell you that we will not be able to pay you for the cotton that you delivered to us. As you witnessed, the people who were supposed to bring your cash did not show up. Like everyone else, I am not sure when we are going to be paid.”
For close to a week, cotton farmers from areas surrounding Ganganyama Business Centre, which is about 45 kilometres from Rushinga and is located some few metres from the border with Mozambique, had religiously gathered under the baobab tree in anticipation of getting their dues after delivering their cotton to Cottco.
As the dejected farmers trooped home empty-handed, a visibly agitated man loudly swore that he will never sell his cotton to the Zimbabwean company again.
Recently, there have been reports that farmers in northern parts of the country such as Mukumbura and Rushinga in Mashonaland Central province are smuggling cotton and selling it to Mozambican companies.
According to the reports, the country is losing substantial amounts in potential foreign currency earnings.
Reacting to the smuggling reports, Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister Dr Joseph Made threatened to bring all cotton marketing activities under Government control to prevent smuggling and side marketing by private firms.
The minister accused the companies of causing the disorderly marketing of this crop that was known as the “white gold” not so long ago.
In efforts to get to the bottom of the cotton smuggling allegations, The Sunday Mail Society crew travelled to two cotton buying points – one at Ganganyama Business Centre in Zimbabwe and the other one at Kadaki, just across the not-so-well-defined border with Mozambique.
Located in Mukazika Village, which is under Chief Rusambo in Rushinga, the Ganganyama Business Centre – which at one time thrived due to the cotton sales – is now a ghost settlement.
Apart from the farmers that had gathered in anticipation of getting paid, the business centre was virtually deserted, with most of the shops having been closed a long time ago.
After delivering a total of 1 801 kilogrammes of cotton to Cottco, the farmers had, for a week, eagerly anticipated sharing the paltry US$846.
Although Katsande collects cotton on behalf of Cottco, he openly aired his frustrations with the way local farmers are being treated.
“It is so frustrating. I have been here for close to a week now. Each time the responsible people give us flimsy excuses as to why they are not delivering cash. Getting the inputs was a hassle and now we have this,” a fuming Katsande said.
He is also a disgruntled farmer.
He chronicled how Zimbabwean farmers end up smuggling cotton into Mozambique.
“Smuggling is the wrong term. There is chaos on the Zimbabwean side and this has resulted in us getting inputs and loans from Mozambican companies. We grow the cotton in Zimbabwe and when we sell the cotton to Mozambican companies, some people try to make uninformed noises,” Katsande said.
He said after failing to get inputs from local schemes, he approached a Mozambican company which readily availed them to him. The company also gave him cash to cover farming expenses such as labour.
“The cash and inputs came at the right time and I realised 20 bales. After repaying the loan, I was left with about $400 which is substantial to me. When I take my cotton to Mozambique to repay the loan, someone wrongly asserts that I’m smuggling.”
On the Zimbabwean side, cotton is bought for 47 cents per kilogramme whilst in Mozambique it is being sold for either 48 cents or 25 Mozambican meticais.
Gevas Chidodo, another Zimbabwean farmer who sells his cotton in Mozambique, also weighed in.
“Whilst Mozambican companies were buying cotton from as early as April, Zimbabwean companies only started doing so in July. Besides, the companies in Mozambique give farmers enough inputs.
“We are not smuggling, we are simply repaying the loans that we would have been given by Mozambican companies,” Chidodo said.
According to the locals, Cottco only gives Zimbabwean farmers two bags of basal fertiliser, a bag of top dressing fertiliser and 40 kilogrammes of cotton seed.
This is barely enough to cover a three-acre plot.
Crossing into Mozambique, farmers in that country sang a different song.
At Kadaki, which is about six kilometres from the border, farmers expressed satisfaction at the way Olam, a Mozambican cotton-buying company, is conducting its business.
Whilst Cottco had only 12 bales at Ganganyama, Olam Mozambique had in its stock close to 200 bales.
Of the 200 bales, more than 80 had been delivered by Zimbabwean farmers.
Since the beginning of the marketing season, Olam Mozambique has collected a total of 74 tonnes at Kadaki as compared to Cottco’s 154 bales at Ganganyama
Unlike Katsande, a beaming Fiona Lovemore, who is a buyer for Olam Mozambique, was clearly a satisfied worker.
“We have an edge over Zimbabwean companies since we pay cash on delivery. We also give farmers the inputs they want on time and this is the major reason that Zimbabwean farmers flock to us. Business, as you can see, is good,” Lovemore said.
Olam has other buying points at Chingare and Chodo.
Zimbabwean farmers contribute significantly to the cotton stocks at the two buying points.
Whilst business was thriving at Kadaki, where the local shops were well stocked, the Ganganyama business community fondly spoke about the good old days.
“Business was great in 2013-14. I remember I was realising more than $500 every day from my shop. Nowadays locals can no longer afford to pay in cash. We are now resorting to barter trade,” a local shop owner said.
The cotton industry remains at crossroads due to the rampant illegal purchase of contracted cotton by unscrupulous merchants.
During the 2015-16 season, the local Government financed the crop to the tune of $26 million but only bought a third of the 30 000 tonnes produced.
Government, through Cottco, invested $42 million to finance cotton production during the 2016-17 season, 61 percent above the previous investment.
This year, Government secured $60 million with about 400 000 farmers expected to benefit.
Whilst Dr Made was threatening cotton companies, saying he “will not sit and laugh” as public money spent capacitating farmers is spirited away into foreign lands by a few calculating companies, it was business as usual for cotton farmers in Kadaki and Ganganyama.
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