Five years ago, Alpha Omega Dairy was one of Zimbabwe’s fastest-growing dairies, with a range of products that became dominant on supermarket shelves and the streets in the country’s major cities.
Built by former first lady Grace Mugabe on commercial farms grabbed from White Zimbabweans, sometimes violently, Alpha and Omega boasted state-of-the-art milk processing plants and its products were advertised for free by the country’s only television station, ZBC.
A subsidiary of the late president Robert Mugabe’s sprawling agro-business company Gushungo Holdings, at its zenith Alpha Omega produced a variety of yoghurts, ice creams, mineral water, fruit juices and milk.
So rapid was its growth that in 2015 then agriculture minister Joseph Made announced that Alpha Omega had snatched 30 percent of Zimbabwe’s dairy market from established firms, including the state-owned behemoth Dairibord Zimbabwe, just three years after its establishment.
The former first lady once described her operation as the second biggest in southern Africa and claimed that they had installed equipment capable of milking 64 cows at once.
She said the dairy was anchored on a herd of more than 2,000 cows.
It was touted as a model of success for the southern African country’s controversial land reform programme that began at the turn of the millennium.
The company became a serial winner at the country’s annual trade showcase – the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair – where Mugabe would shower accolades on his wife’s dairy like confetti at a wedding.
At the ruling party Zanu PF’s televised rallies, it became routine for cameras to zoom in on ministers happily feasting on Alpha Omega ice creams.
At Robert Mugabe’s communist-style birthday parties held at large venues on February 21 every year, it became a fashion statement for top officials to be seen eating ice cream.
At one of the fetes in his last days, the octogenarian was photographed struggling to swallow a bolus of ice cream.
On the eve of the coup that eventually toppled Mugabe, his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was the vice-president at the time, had to issue an apology for claiming that he fell ill after eating Alpha Omega ice cream during one of the rallies.
Mr Mnangagwa started vomiting amid claimed diarrhoea at a rally in the southern town of Gwanda and was immediately airlifted to South Africa for treatment.
His backers insinuated that it was the Alpha Omega yoghurt that caused his illness and this did not go down well with his boss.
He was subsequently fired for allegedly plotting against his boss, only for him to return as president after a couple of weeks following the November 27, 2017 coup.
That incident could have marked the end of Alpha Omega’s dairy market dominance and the beginning of the demise of a business empire built by one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents as the Mugabes lost power a few weeks later.
A few years after his inglorious exit and subsequent death in Singapore in 2019, the empire that Mugabe built is crumbling like a deck of cards.
President Mnangagwa’s new government turned off the taps for lucrative contracts from state-owned enterprises and all of a sudden Alpha Omega had to face the real market on its own.
Some of its major buyers were the army, parastatals, public hospitals and police, among other state institutions.
When creditors came knocking on its doors, Mugabe’s widow could not keep the business afloat.
She is now leasing part of the company’s dairy estate in the Mazowe area, west of Harare, to a local businessman, but this has not helped to revive Alpha’s fortunes.
A survey in Harare showed that leading retailers last received Alpha Omega products several months ago.
At the sprawling estate in Mazowe, a fleet of broken-down delivery trucks catch any visitor’s eye.
Employees who spoke to Nation.Africa complained that they now go several months without receiving their salaries.
“Things have not been looking good since the death of president Mugabe and after his widow decided to take a back seat in the running of the business,” said a Gushungo Holdings worker, who sought anonymity fearing reprisals.
“At times we go months without getting paid and business is now hard since the owners no longer wield the influence they used to have.”
Auctioneers also regularly put farming equipment and vehicles from Mugabe’s Gushungo Holdings and Gushungo Dairy Farm on sale as the family scales down operations.
The last auction was on February 22, a day after the late ruler’s birthday, which is now a national holiday in Zimbabwe.
Old vehicles and farming equipment such as combine harvesters went under the hammer.
A family member said the auction was part of a plan to scale down business operations by the late dictator’s widow, who has rarely been seen in public since her husband’s death.
The 56 year-old former first lady, who had serious political ambitions at the time of the coup, is said to be spending most of her time in Singapore, and when she is in Zimbabwe, she retreats to her rural home in Zvimba, west of Harare.
“A decision was taken to sell the equipment at the farms because it was no longer being used due to the serious downscaling of operations,” said a Mugabe family member, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The farms are no longer as productive as they used to be.”
When he was still in power, Mugabe was accused of commandeering state institutions to provide services at his multiple farms and this gave the false impression that he was running a thriving farming business.
Signs that the dairy business was in distress started appearing a few months before his death, when in May 2019 he was forced to auction five combine harvesters, five pickup trucks and other farm equipment.
One of Mugabe’s farms on the outskirts of Harare has been invaded by suspected supporters of President Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu PF party.
The invaders, who are already farming at the property, are accused of decimating Mugabe’s herd of cattle after the government reduced security presence at his farms following the coup.
Another farm located in the Mazowe area has been taken over by artisanal miners.
The invaders, who are supporters of Zanu PF, have even set up a gold milling plant within the Mugabe family’s sprawling farmland.
Mr Mugabe’s daughter Bona and her husband Simbarashe Mutsahuni Chikoore are fighting in the courts to block the government from redistributing part of the vast farm, which was also seized from a White Zimbabwean by the dictator.
The couple accuses the government of unilaterally seizing sections of the property they were allocated in 2017 without considering their investments and farm utilisation.
On the other hand, the government argues that the 1,804 hectares is beyond the stipulated maximum farm size that can be owned by a single family.
In 2019, President Mnangagwa said a land audit had revealed that Grace Mugabe’s widow owned 16 farms and indicated that excess properties would be seized.
Using her moniker, the Zimbabwean ruler said: “I know of one lady, ‘Stop It!’, who has about 16 (farms) yet the law says one family one farm.”
Although the land audit report that revealed that top ruling party officials and government mandarins amassed vast tracts of land during the chaotic land reform programme was handed over to the president in December 2019, no action has been taken against the former first lady or any other owners of multiple farms.
Mugabe’s sympathisers believe the invasion of his farms and the threats to seize them show that President Mnangagwa’s administration is vindictive.
“I have never seen a country that treats the family of its former leader like this. It's sad,” said Terry Mhungu, a former Zanu PF youth league member.
“Comrade Mugabe empowered us with land and we cannot thank him by dispossessing his widow and children of the same land they took back from our colonisers.”
There is, however, little sympathy from ordinary Zimbabweans for Ms Mugabe, who was nicknamed ‘Gucci Grace’ in her heyday because of her penchant for shopping in the most expensive designer shops in Western capitals.
Her lifestyle in a country where the World Bank says nearly half of the population lives in extreme poverty made her husband extremely unpopular in the tail end of his rule.
Legal quarrels after Mugabe’s death revealed that the former first lady had ordered a $1.3 million diamond ring from a Belgium-based dealer.
She also owned an extensive portfolio of luxury homes overseas, including a $7.6 million home in Hong Kong
At the time of Mugabe’s death, it was rumoured that he had amassed billions of dollars in his 40 years in power but his registered estate shows that he was only worth millions.
The estate registered in a Harare court in December 2019 by his daughter Bona showed that he left behind $10 million held in a local bank, four houses in the capital, 10 cars, a farm, his rural home and an orchard.
Those familiar with the former first family say some of his assets could have been registered under the names of his relatives to evade Western sanctions.
In the last 14 years of his rule, Mugabe was the subject of an asset freeze and travel ban by the United States and the European Union over allegations of human rights violations and electoral fraud.
A total of 15 farms he seized from white Zimbabweans at the height of the country’s land distribution programme and Alpha Omega were some of the business ventures that were not listed on the estate.
‘Gucci Grace’ will, however, still live comfortably for the rest of her life even if the businesses that her husband left her collapse, as post-coup law ensures that she has a decent pension.
As a former first lady, she is entitled to a “Mercedes Benz E300 or one four-wheel drive station wagon or an equivalent or similar class of motor vehicle and one pickup van,” says the law passed in 2020.
The vehicles will be replaced every five years. She also gets an entertainment allowance and two foreign trips annually where she flies business class.
Her workers are allocated a vehicle or vehicles seen fit by the president. She is entitled to two security personnel, a driver, a personal secretary, one aide-de-camp officer, a fully furnished office, a domestic employee, one gardener and one cook.
In 2018, Mugabe complained that he was given only $467,000 in pension, not the $10 million that was widely reported.
He was also given two houses, including a mansion built for him by the Chinese while he was still in power.
The Harare mansion, famously known as Blue Roof, remains the Mugabes’ family home in the capital.