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April 17, 2008

Zimbabwean farmers make new start in Nigeria

Deep in the bush, farmers gather to watch the news as the first results of Zimbabwe's controversial elections unfold. But these farmers are thousands of miles away in Nigeria in a tented camp where generators power the satellite TV.

They are among 30 pioneering white farmers, trying to kick start commercial agriculture in Nigeria.The radical idea is the brainchild of one of the country's top politicians Kwara State Governor, Bukola Saraki.

With Nigeria's oil wealth a finite resource, he saw commercial agriculture as a new driver for economic development. And Zimbabwe's loss is Nigeria's gain.

"I thought if Zimbabwe doesn't want them maybe they'll come here," Sakari explained. "What's good for Africa should stay in Africa. These people are second and third generation and see Africa as their home. They've got skills and they've brought development to the area."

Patrick Ashton left his farm in 2002 when it was seized during President Mugabe's land reforms, by youths claiming to be war veterans. "I was ambushed by about 40 youths with axes and crowbars and still have some scars."

He moved to a farm he had never seen in 2006, in a country he did not know. "I was broke and desperate to stay in Africa. It is in our blood and here was a black African government prepared to offer white African commercial farmers opportunity to restart - most of us grabbed it with both hands. He hopes to establish a cassava farm in Panda, in the state of Nasarawa. Pioneers like Ashtonk have cleared thick woods and navigated remote tracks to set up farms.

Another farmer Pod Cocker, was pleasantly surprised by the welcome from local villagers. "I did think maybe because of what happened in Zimbabwe we could get shunned, there'd be a lot of animosity. It's not white farmers coming into a black area and kicking people off the land, it's a mutually beneficial project set up by the Nigerian government."

The rains are a big challenge making the roads impassable, particularly for lorries trying to move hundreds of tonnes of fertiliser, or heavy agricultural equipment. But the biggest battle was against a banking system not geared to commercial agriculture. It needed the intervention of the state's deputy governor to help - the bank agreed to renegotiate and restructure the initial start up loans and to get additional finance.

Farming finance was also key for another group of Zimbabwean ex-pats in another Nigerian state. Since 2005 another group of 15 farmers settled - many with their families and some with children - near the small town of Shonga in Kwara state. After long negotiations over finance, the farmers secured the backing of a consortium of Nigerian banks with $20m worth of new loans and investment pumped into the farms in Shonga.

Judy Hatty came her with her husband Graham, traumatised by the loss of their home and a reluctant pioneer with both in their 60s. "Nigeria is a high risk - I said I'm too old for this but my husband said 'high risk, high gain'. I say it is worth it now, but if you had asked me last year I would have said no."

Graham, who used to employ 600 people, is learning to grow a new crop, cassava and relishing this lease of life. "I can't believe it at my age; incredible. To me that's the way for Africa, we have got to have commercial farmers to produce food."

Kwara State had been struggling to strengthen its own agricultural base. Governor Saraki's plan is for the commercial farmers to become role models, transferring skills to their local employess. "We want young Nigerians to be attracted to agriculture," he said. He says the experiment has surpassed his expectations in regional economic development in places such as Shonga. "Now more than 3,000 people have been employed, let me give you an idea, the amount of money that goes out on salaries, wages etc, is competing with local government funds for that area."

For the ex pats making a new life in a new country there is a new optimism matching the governor's. In Panda, Patrick Ashton put it this way "Having been beaten, kicked out, looted and house trashed I was in limbo until rescued by the Nigerian offer for me personally I am extremely grateful".

While in Shonga Judy Hatty added, "We are so used to being the enemy of the state in Zimbabwe so when I discovered people here are not anti-white it was such a relief."


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