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May 04, 2008

Why white Zimbabwean farmers plan to stay in Nigeria

A jet carrying a herd of Jersey cows touches down at an airstrip in the Nigerian countryside, transporting dairy cows from South Africa.

Their new owners, a small group of white farmers from Zimbabwe, watch as the herd clip-clops down the gangplank. The farmers casually contemplate flying back to homes they lost to President Robert Mugabe's supporters. But whatever the outcome of Zimbabwe's disputed presidential poll, they are not likely to be returning to the land they love soon.

"My heart would want to go back, but my brain would say no," says Susan Mactavish, who's spent her whole life in Africa and now lives on a 1,000-hectare farm in Nigeria's west-central Kwara State. "I've put too much into this place to abandon it."

Zimbabwean farmer John Sawyer says he would look closely at the Zimbabwean economy before reinvesting in farming there. Zimbabwe's infrastructure and services have decayed as Africa's breadbasket has turned basket case with hyper-inflation of 165,000 percent and 80 percent unemployment. The seized farms have largely failed, and nearly half of Zimbabweans are malnourished.

"If we go back to Zimbabwe tomorrow, then it's like when we arrived here. We'd have to start all over again," says Mr. Sawyer, who wears the khaki sun hat and shorts that are almost a uniform for the white farmers. He goes barefoot, even when working in the fields.

While the Zimbabwean government evicted most of the 4,000 white farmers without compensation (some 130 were chased off in the past month), the Nigerian government has spent millions of dollars to woo these farmers here. In southern Africa, English and Dutch settlers tilled large farms for hundreds of years, causing friction with local groups over ownership of the land. But Nigeria's history is different: English colonialists never tried to own land and race relations have never been politicized.

For the Zimbabwean farmers it's a commercial opportunity and personal challenge. For the Nigerian government, it's a chance to tap into years of expertise and kick-start commercial farming operations in a country of 140 million where farming has long been neglected.

Until the group of 13 arrived in Nigeria, the land they now farm was, they say, "bush." There were a few scattered subsistence farms, no electricity, and no mobile phone coverage. But the nearby Niger River promised unlimited water once bore holes and irrigation systems were in place.

Three years later, Nigerian farmers have been moved to alternative land, with compensation from the government. Boreholes have been drilled, some 13,000 hectares of land cleared, mobile phone coverage is in place, and each farm has a house with Internet access, satellite TV, pretty gardens, pet dogs, and swimming pools.

Though the farms have yet to turn a profit, the farmers are optimistic about their investment. "My projected wealth is more here [in Nigeria], than what I left behind," explains Irvine Reid, who moved here with his wife, Gayle, and son, Callum, though their two older daughters are in South Africa. "If everything goes to plan," he adds.

The enthusiasm from Nigerian authorities is in sharp contrast to the government-sponsored violence that forced the farmers out of Zimbabwe. The Reid family was repeatedly visited by large mobs performing protest dances until one day they visited when Mrs. Reid was home alone.

"I was sat down and told that if we were not off the farm by the following Monday, they would come back and chop off his head," she says, pointing to her husband. Their farm is now owned by a general in the Zimbabwean Army and commercial farming has all but ceased, say the Reids.

Despite the farmers' welcome in Nigeria, their time here has not been without problem. The newcomers were promised that their land would be connected to the national power grid with guaranteed 24-hour power and irrigation to the farms. None of that has happened.

"It's frustrating," says Sawyer, of his new life in Nigeria. "Everywhere there is a lack of regard to time. And in farming that's a major problem. Crops won't grow if they're not in the ground on time," he says in between shouting instructions into his walkie-talkie. "If it hadn't been for people not understanding the timing factor, we should have been further down the road now."

Nigerian banks, which have provided the bulk of the investment through loans underwritten by the Kwara State government, have been slow, too. "Banks here don't understand agriculture," says Sawyer.

Nigerian banks have little experience of lending to commercial farmers. Though agriculture accounts for about one quarter of Nigeria's gross domestic product, that production comes from small-scale and subsistence farmers. Since crude oil exports took over as the bulwark of the economy in the 1960s, food production has steadily declined.

To date, the Zimbabwean farmers say, the maize and soya yields have been disappointing. "It's just too hot," says Reid. In Zimbabwe, Reid could expect at least eight tonnes of yield per hectare, compared with just four tonnes in Nigeria.

"And in Zimbabwe, the inputs [such as fertilizer and seeds] were cheaper," says Reid. Like most of the other farmers, Reid has decided there's more money to be made from dairy or poultry farming, but that's required more expensive investment in milking and slaughtering facilities.

Back on the airport tarmac of Kwara State's main airport at Ilorin, crowds watch the first batch of some 690 cows imported at a cost of about $3,000 per head. Despite the expense, Nigerian officials are optimistic that large-scale investment will bring large-scale returns.

"The government realized that agriculture could grow our economy, but that to do this there must be a shift from just peasant farming," says Mohammed Gana-Yisa, Kwara State commissioner for agriculture and natural resources.

"At the time the government was conceptualizing moving into commercial agriculture, there was this land use problem with Zimbabwean white farmers," says Mr. Gana-Yisa. "So the government took advantage of that situation."

CS Monitor

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