By Ranga Mataire
Just 40 kilometres from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, lies Mazowe Citrus Estate, once the home supplier of the orange juice used to produce Mazoe Orange Crush drink. The sprawling farmland, which used to produce prime oranges for Zimbabwe’s prime export product – Mazoe Orange Crush ‑ drink has been reduced to a sorry state by sheer neglect and greed.
In its better days, Mazowe Citrus Estate, which was owned by Interfresh Holdings, used to employ thousands of workers and was a source of livelihood for the community. But all this is gone, as some of the orange trees have been cut off.
Most of the land now resembles a bushveld, with infrastructure like the sorting sheds in a dilapidated state. Most of the infrastructure is so tattered that it can be mistaken for giant mannequins. Sad to imagine that this is the home of Mazoe Orange Crush, Zimbabwe’s staple juice whose history is as intriguing as its staying power as a top export brand since the early 1930s.
Ironically, Mazowe Valley was the rendezvous of the revered spirit medium, Mbuya Nehanda, who was instrumental in the first rebellion against white settler colonial rule, widely referred to as the First Chimurenga. That a drink symbolising the triumph of colonial luxury would grow to become one of the staple juices in post-colonial Zimbabwe is still a marvel for historians and marketers.
The drink also has its own secret birth pangs. The man famed for holding the original “patent” for the juice never hailed from Mazowe Valley but more than 500 km away in Zimbabwe’s second capital, Bulawayo.
A man called Arthur Sturgess started a small soft drink factory in Bulawayo around the 1930s. The 1930s were the pinnacle of colonial settler rule where white colonials were strutting around in farms and mines taming the “wild” African safari.
It was during Sturgess’ experimental venture with his small soft drink factory that he realised a glaring gap in the local market for a real fruit juice. He reasoned that the most readily available fruits were oranges from the Mazowe Valley. As he continued with his research, Sturgess “struggled to come up with a name for the drink he had developed and his wife suggested naming the drink Mazoe, and thus a national treasure was born”, according to Schweppes Zimbabwe Limited, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, which produces Mazoe Orange Crush today.
By 1953, the Mazowe Valley was producing a famous citrus drink, Spa Mazoe Crush, now (Schweppes) Mazoe Orange Crush concentrate juice. The juice concentrate, which is diluted to individual taste, became and still is the staple drink in Zimbabwe and its Diaspora.
From Namibia to South Africa, and London, Mazoe Orange Crush takes pride of space on supermarket shelves. At the centre of Mazoe’s intriguing history is how a colonial luxury commodity was turned into a necessity in every household. Over time, Mazowe Valley managed to turn itself from a mere mining and farming district in colonial Rhodesia into a metaphor for pioneer mettle and success.
The Mazoe drink had done the most improbable thing typical of capitalism by making it easy to swallow with pleasure while obfuscating the bitter historical truth of the parallel history and memory of the Mazowe District, as the bedrock of early colonial resistance.
A recent visit to Mazowe Citrus, which used to supply the orange concentrate to Schweppes, revealed a sorry state of despair and dereliction. While there are still some sections where orange trees are still visible, nothing of major significance takes place at the production centre, which is in urgent need of repair.
An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said while Mazowe Citrus prides itself in being the original supplier of the concentrate that sustained Mazoe Orange Crush for so long, there is really nothing to show for it as the standards have drastically plummeted.
A few oranges that were being offloaded for processing looked small and emaciated. The citrus farm has been carved up and divided after new owners came in under the country’s land reform programme. But it appears the current proprietors are just keeping up appearances with no visible serious production going on. “We used to supply the concentrate to Schweppes but they have since abandoned us. “They complained that our product no longer meets their standards,” said one employee.
Schweppes had a decision to make: abandon Mazowe Valley and the rich history that forever ties Mazoe Orange Crush to it, or keep at it and risk damaging the brand? It was a no-brainer. Schweppes turned to Beitbridge Juicing Company (BBJ) 620km south, on the border with South Africa, where orange trees line the length of the Limpopo River.
Beitbridge Juicing Company (BBJ)
Schweppes acquired a controlling stake in BBJ in a vertical integration move that will see the beverage company strengthening its supply chain by taking control of its key raw material.
Schweppes Zimbabwe chief executive officer, Charles Msipa, says BBJ now supplies 75 percent of its Mazoe Orange Crush raw materials, while the remainder is imported from South Africa. “The acquisition has enabled us to secure a critical component in our supply chain,” said Msipa.
Prior to the acquisition, BBJ was a subsidiary of Harare-headquartered Rift Valley Holdings. The company was established in 2005 and started operations in 2006 with a production plant in Beitbridge.
The plant is currently operating for 120 days in a year and processes 28,000 tonnes of oranges with plans to gradually increase output to 150,000 tonnes of fruit per annum. While the migration of Schweppes to Beitbridge might have been a purely business decision aimed at ensuring and maintaining a quality product, most consumers with the historical memory of the juice’s birth will feel a bit disillusioned.
The juice producer still maintains that its Mazoe Orange Crush name was proposed by Sturgess’ wife, although no longer having any links with Mazowe Citrus Estates. What’s in a name? Schweppes will not care too much for as long as Mazoe Orange Crush maintains its quality and continues to fly the flag, for it sure is Zimbabwe’s gift to the world. – This article was published by The Southern Times