DRAFT – introduction to my Zimbabwe £50k charity appeal
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Zimbabwe fundraising articles
Article 1 – My fact-finding trip to Zimbabwe – how it came about
I’ve been publishing the Small Cap Value Reports on Stockopedia.com since 2012, with a readership growing to several thousand per day. There’s not much broker coverage of small caps these days, so it fills a gap in the market. Readers are supportive, and engaged, and quite often I receive emails from readers, telling me a bit about their investing, and would I like to meet for lunch or drinks.
A chap called Tom Benyon OBE popped up in my emails, and we began discussing interesting shares. All his emails ended with information about a charity called ZANE, which provides humanitarian aid to destitute pensioners in Zimbabwe. It turns out that Tom founded ZANE in 2002, having heard about the appalling injustices going on in the country. In particular, farm land seizures had resulted in highly productive farms being broken up and destroyed in Government-backed, yet chaotic (and often violent), politically-motivated attacks. This resulted in hard-working owners, and labourers, on thousands of farms, being displaced, and becoming destitute. ZANE sprang up to provide what relief it could, to the worst cases.
I understand the point that land ownership & re-distribution was an issue that needed to be addressed. However, the way it was done was absolutely appalling – impoverishing everyone.
Formerly the bread basket of Africa, feeding not only itself, but also supporting surrounding countries, Zimbabwe descended into economic collapse. Things are worsening to this day. The currency has collapsed in hyper-inflation on 4 separate occasions, each time wiping out the savings of the prudent and hard-working.
Unemployment is over 90%, with most working-age people scratching a basic living from odd jobs, or street vending of anything they can lay their hands on. Industry is gone, and almost everything has to be imported now. Many people have left the country, to work abroad, and send what money they can spare back to relatives remaining in Zimbabwe. Infrastructure has widely collapsed. It is an absolutely tragic situation. Plus of course, Zimbabwe has also been ravaged by HIV/AIDS, with so many deaths that pensioners often become guardians to orphaned children.
Tom Benyon invited me to lunch in London, in summer 2016. I found him quite intense (“I don’t do small talk!”), but very interesting – we got on well straight away, and remain firm friends to this day. He had served as one of Mrs Thatcher’s first cohort of MPs, during her turbulent first term. Thatcher has always fascinated me, so I was looking forward to talking to Tom about that. We touched on that subject, “She was all over the place, most of the time!”, Tom quipped, denting my previous impression of her.
Tom steered the conversation onto these topics;
- His charity, ZANE
- Poetry (“Do you like poetry”, “No, not really”, “Good, well let me give you this anthology that I compiled, it’s very interesting. It raises a lot of money for ZANE each year. Why don’t you like poetry? You’ll like this!”)
- Death, religion & politics (“Why do people avoid these topics? What else is there to talk about!?”)
- Shares – we like to swap investing ideas & discuss
All of which was very interesting. It was a stimulating & enjoyable lunch. His passion for ZANE was obvious, and Tom succeeded in piquing my interest. I had no idea that things were so bad in Zimbabwe, so hearing Tom’s harrowing stories of how decent people had been left to die from malnutrition & lack of essential medicines, certainly made me think how lucky I am to live a comfortable life in the UK.
Looking through my calendar, Tom and I had a further 9 lunches over the next couple of years, during which time I became increasingly interested in helping ZANE, in a small way myself. Aside from our informal lunches, Tom invited me to a couple of formal ZANE functions, one of which was held in the Attlee Room at the House of Lords. I’d never visited the Palace of Westminster before, so this was a memorable experience, and I took Mum, who has also become a small ZANE donor. There was a delicious lunch, but more importantly speeches were given by a variety of interesting speakers, in a wonderful, historic setting. A portrait of Clement Attlee opposite me seemed to be staring directly and accusingly into my eyes, for being a lifelong Tory voter! Or maybe I’d just had one too many glasses of wine? Tom leaned over to the nice lady sitting next to me, and pointing at me, joked, “Watch him, he’ll be pissed as a fart by the time we get to desserts!”
We heard from a former farmer, who gave a vivid & harrowing account of how she had been intimidated & eventually forced off her land (which she had bought post-independence). We also heard from a human rights lawyer, detailing the terrible situations that were common in Zimbabwe. Various contacts of Tom, politicians and senior military figures, gave supportive speeches about ZANE. This included a breathless Penny Mordaunt, whose voluminous hair (and cleavage!) bounced magnificently as she strode into the room. She apologised for being late & having a stinking cold, then gave a short speech in support of ZANE.
Tom successfully secured a Government grant for ZANE from Penny, during her stint at DIFID. Tom joked that he had urged her to sign on the dotted line asap, once she had agreed the grant for ZANE. “In case I’m sacked?!” she quipped! “No, in case you’re promoted, and your successor doesn’t share your passion for ZANE”, Tom replied with a twinkle in his eye. The ink was barely dry, before she was indeed moved on. Knowing how politics works from the inside, Tom’s invaluable experience greatly benefits ZANE. He very much leads from the front, and uses his political & military connections to the full, in spearheading ZANE’s fundraising efforts.
Tom (with wife Jane, and dog Moses) are renowned for their annual sponsored walks. These raise a considerable sum from the charity’s regular donors each year. The routes are set to include personal visits to major donors, often with overnight stays. Well into retirement, in age anyway, if not activity levels, Tom and Jane have walked thousands of miles over the years, and raised millions of pounds for ZANE. Like many other donors, I am in awe of Tom & Jane, continuing their punishing walking schedule each year – even after Tom has so far had both hips, and one knee replaced, he’s still going strong!
The Benyon’s walk for ZANE in 2019 was from Canterbury to Oxford. Tom publishes a robust personal blog to accompany each sponsored walk – warning don’t read it, if your politics is left-wing! Thankfully mine isn’t, so I enjoy Tom’s blogging – he’s a great writer, and an interesting & thoughtful man, often very funny too. Even his blogs that I disagree with, are thought-provoking. He pointed out to me that the blogs are to a certain extent designed to appeal to the main audience – an older demographic, sometimes exasperated with the modern world. It’s a highly successful format, which raises a lot of money for the needy, which is what matters the most. Therein lies ZANE’s biggest challenge – about 10% of its donors are sadly dying off each year. Hence the increasingly urgent need to draw in the next generation of supporters, to continue ZANE’s wonderful work.
Following these events, I decided to become a regular monthly donor to ZANE myself. ZANE’s outgoings (commitments to individual pensioners) are regular, so it needs regular income too. Over time, I increased my standing orders, and occasionally, if I made a decent profit from one of my stock market investments, I would send over say £500 from the profits, to ZANE. Given that only $15 can provide a pensioner with a month’s supply of vital medicines (literally to keep them alive, such as insulin or asthma drugs, being very common), there is undoubtedly a feel-good factor with becoming a ZANE donor – you know that your donations are actually saving lives, in real time, and giving good people some dignity in their old age. It makes a little money go a long way. Plus there are other projects, helping many other people, not just pensioners, more on that in later articles.
Planning our trip to Zimbabwe
In late October 2018, over one of our lunches, Tom told me, “I’m going to Zimbabwe in the new year, with the trustees. Why don’t you come with us?”. To say I was taken aback, is putting it mildly. “Is it safe?”. “Of course it is! I wouldn’t be taking my wife with me, if it wasn’t safe!”.
I paused for a second, then smiled broadly, and replied, “Yes I’d love to visit Zimbabwe. Let’s do it!”
“You’ll have to pay for your own flights of course, but we’ll put you up in basic accommodation. Just bring a few US dollars for incidentals, and for tips. This trip could be quite life-changing for you. You should probably get some jabs done at the Doctors, just in case. One chap came with us, and was dead a fortnight later. Bitten by a tick in long grass”.
We’d better avoid long grass then!
ZANE booked my flights, so I wired them the money to reimburse. The charity’s policy is that staff can only travel economy. Since I wasn’t staff, I paid for an upgrade to business class, since it’s a long flight to Johannesburg, and my shares must have been doing well at the time. The irony of me eating fillet steak, and drinking expensive wines, on a flight to observe a charity looking after the destitute, wasn’t lost on me. So yes, I did feel guilty.
Tom made a joke at my expense, when we were queuing to board the plane. The elderly ZANE trustees, including Tom, were in the economy queue, whilst I peeled off into the priority boarding section. I heard this voice boom out, “Oi, Scotty!”. Some distance away, Tom was leaning over the railing above, and with a broad grin, he mouthed, “You bastard!”, then we both collapsed laughing!
Unrest & protests
In early 2019, the UK television news began to carry stories about unrest, rioting, and violence in Zimbabwe. Unsurprisingly, I began to worry, emailing Tom to ask if our trip was still going ahead, given the violence which had been triggered by a large hike in fuel taxes.
Tom dismissed my concerns, saying we would be perfectly safe. We would be with locals all the time, who know which areas to avoid, and in any case, nobody would want to harm us. Political violence, and protests, are not directed at visitors. Outsiders perceive Zimbabwe as a dangerous place, because of TV news coverage of protests, and police/army violence, but it really isn’t. Crime is only a fraction of that in neighbouring South Africa, and violent crime is rare.
Zimbabweans are generally renowned for being warm, and peaceful people. Everyone I knew who had been to Zimbabwe said the same sort of thing to me, “The people are amazing. So warm & friendly. You’ll really enjoy visiting Zimbabwe and meeting them. It’s so sad that such lovely people are in such a desperate situation”. They were right, that was exactly my impression too. Hence why I think Zimbabweans not only need, but deserve, our help, in this time of crisis.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, our trip apparently came within days of being cancelled by the team in Zimbabwe. Luckily, the security situation stabilised in time, and our trip went ahead, in early 2019.
Here we are, a year later, and I regret taking so long to write up my experiences. I literally think about Zimbabwe every day, and all the hundreds of wonderful people I met there, connected with ZANE in some way. ZANE is really a network of small charities, deeply embedded in Zimbabwe society. It’s the closest thing Zimbabwe has to social services, caring for people with no support at all elsewhere.
Over the next 10 days, I was to see for myself the work ZANE does on the ground, meet almost all its staff, many of its associates (i.e. people who help its work in various ways, e.g. friendly doctors doing pro bono work), and meet hundreds of people that ZANE assists with mainly food and medicines. All told me the same thing – please would I say thank you to all the people in the UK who donate money to ZANE. Without our help, many of them would have died a painful death, without vital but basic medical supplies, and adequate nutrition.
I’m sure you can imagine what a moving experience it was for me, when elderly people from all communities in Zimbabwe, helped by ZANE, grasped my hands, and looked into my eyes to say thank you for the support they get from ZANE.
Much in the same way that I do the due diligence on small caps shares, to help investors avoid dodgy balance sheets and dodgy management, I’ve also done the due diligence on ZANE – seeing for myself what it does, and how much is achieved with relatively little money. This is why I’m launching a fundraising appeal for ZANE, to raise a vitally needed £50,000, in order to keep one of its key aid programmes running for another year.
(this is the first in a series of articles about ZANE, and Zimbabwe, written by Paul Scott)