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In uprooted Zim farmers, Nigeria sees teachers

By Robyn Dixon

THE foreigners who came from afar to the grasslands of western Nigeria seemed like a spectacular circus act to the area’s subsistence farmers.

al, Helvetica, sans-serif”>Local people were amazed by the dozens of tractors, harrows and planters that materialised along with huge amounts of seed and fertiliser. But the residents were flabbergasted again when their new neighbours started planting crops, making, it seemed, some equally spectacular blunders.

They didn’t bother to mound the soil into hillocks around their corn and other plants, a backbreaking tradition since time immemorial. Then there was the spacing: instead of a yard between each corn plant, they left only a few inches.

“They did tell us we were fools,” acknowledged Peter Cocker (33), one of the newcomers. They are white farmers from Zimbabwe, and they expect their methods to increase yields by as much as tenfold.

The white farmers, driven off their farms in Zimbabwe by President Robert Mugabe’s plan to redistribute the land to blacks, have become a hot commodity among other African countries eager to tap their expertise in running large commercial enterprises.

Zimbabwe’s Commercial Farmers Union reported to members in August that 23 countries were scrambling to attract them. Among the most aggressive recruiters was Bukola Saraki, governor of Nigeria’s western Kwara state. He saw an opportunity to teach local farmers better techniques and kick off large-scale commercial farming in Nigeria, a country of 130 million that relies on subsistence agriculture and oil exports, and imports food.

Despite Nigeria’s strangling bureaucracy and rampant corruption, 13 farmers took up his offer. With loans of up to US$250 000 to get started and 50-year leases, they each established commercial farms of 1 000 hectares. The white farmers are planning to add dairy and beef cattle and to grow fruit, flowers and vegetables for export to Europe. Their first crop is flourishing, and along with it, an intense competition has sprung up.

The newcomers’ corn, covering hundreds of acres, stretches green and tall to the skies, dwarfing the nearby widely spaced stalks on mounded earth. But most of the local farmers still shake their heads in doubt. They grudgingly acknowledge that the newcomers’ crops look better but insist that those vigorous-looking plants will never mature.

“When I saw the planting I knew that they had made a big mistake,” said Liman Mohammed (43) of nearby Chikangiworo village. “What they’re doing, well, maybe they don’t know how to farm. My advice to them is that to farm here, they should make ridges. They should adjust the distance of their plants. Since we have been brought up, we’ve made ridges.”

Saraki, the governor, is eager to see the results. “We are waiting until harvest time to see how the Zimbabweans do against the Nigerians,” he said. “Farmers are very conservative. They change only based on what they see. At the moment, they think (the Zimbabweans) are doing something wrong. It’s only when they see the harvest come in, will they see that with the same rainfall, the same soil, those guys are doing five tonnes a hectare instead of one. Then the Nigerian farmers will change.”

As part of the Tsonga project, the Zimbabweans agreed to train local farmers in commercial techniques. “You have to get their respect by showing them you know what you’re doing,” said one of the transplants, Dan Swart (60). “If a person doesn’t respect you they’re never going to do it. You see this vast, beautiful country, and there’s very little agriculture. We are just a very small module and hopefully it will kick off.”

In addition to providing loans and leases, the Nigerians built roads, upgraded the airport and are bringing in electricity for the new venture. The farmers also are seeking irrigation and tax exemptions. Once the land is irrigated, the Zimbabweans believe, the yield will rise to 15 tonnes a hectare. The soil and rainfall are better in Kwara than in Zimbabwe. But the Zimbabweans, battered by their experience at home, were wary when Nigeria approached them last year.

Mugabe’s land redistribution has been widely criticised as ill-conceived and corrupt. Zimbabwe once exported food, but now must rely on imports and food aid. About 4 000 white farmers have lost their land since 2000, leaving only about 400. The land minister, Didymus Mutasa, was recently quoted by state-controlled media as saying the remaining farmers also should be expelled under the government’s Operation Murambatsvina, or Clean Out the Filth. Millions of urban and rural homes and small businesses have been demolished under the programme.

Nigeria has its own reputation for corruption, crime and fraud. “Unfortunately, Nigeria has not got a good brand,” Saraki said. “There was a lot of apprehension. I had to personally talk to some of the wives and reassure them.” Though impressed with the support of Saraki and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the farmers have had their share of problems: buildings and wells have been left half-finished when contractors disappeared.

“The businesspeople need a kick up the backside. They’re not too clever,” said Allan Jack, the Zimbabweans’ unofficial spokesman. “They say they can do a job and they have no idea what they’re doing. The builder says ‘I’ll do it this week,’ and it takes four months. And then he changes his price halfway through.”

The other frustration is financial. Although the government provides start-up loans, Nigerian banks are unfamiliar with the demands of commercial agriculture and reluctant to lend at competitive rates. “They’ve never seen anything of this scale, so they just don’t understand it,” Jack said. Without financing, he said, “it’s another failed project in Africa, and there are millions of them in Nigeria”.

Obasanjo, who wants to attract 350 to 400 more Zimbabwean farmers, has convened meetings with banks and farmers to try to bridge the gap. Some Nigerians have criticised the venture as an example of white colonisation.

Saraki scoffs at the idea. A small number of farmers “cannot come out and colonise 1,2 million people in Kwara state,” he said. “If we had a Nigerian who had the expertise and who can do it, it would be a different matter. No matter what we do in Nigeria, if we don’t improve agriculture we are not going to fight poverty.”

The Zimbabwean farmers have hired 1 000 local people at salaries up to 10 times the local norm. Televisions and electrical appliances have started to appear in the local market. The newly arrived whites, most of them born in Africa, say Mugabe’s government failed to grasp that farming is more complicated than sticking a seed into the ground.

Cocker, who has been promised the next farm available in Nigeria, recalled a street vendor in Zimbabwe who approached his car. “She just said, ‘White man, go back to your farm and grow us some proper food.’ They want us back,” Cocker said wistfully. “You have to laugh, otherwise it will break your heart.”

To him, Zimbabwe will always be home. But he can’t do the work he loves there. “I knew I could never sit behind a desk and be a pen pusher,” he said. “The quality of life being a farmer is awesome. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it at the end of the day. You know what needs to be done and how to do it. It’s planting something and seeing it grow. It’s a pride – pride in the crop.”

For Jack, leaving Africa was never an option. “I was born in Africa. Africa is home, and that’s where I stay.” Those attitudes, and the prospect of success in their new home, are beginning to convert a few sceptics. “I was thinking that their crop will not be good. Maybe it won’t germinate very well,” said Kehina Oyewo (35) a local farmer. “But now I believe that these people are professional farmers. We have to listen and see how they farm.”- The Los Angeles Times.

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