What the experience of the less successful of Zimbabwean white farmers in Nigeria tells us about developing commercial agriculture

Oct 16, 2010

by Chido Makunike

Much has been written about the small group of white Zimbabwean farmers who have relocated to Nigeria to seek a new start after being dislocated from their home country. Among the elements that regularly feature in the stories done about them are their pioneering spirit, ready to carve out new farm land where there is mostly bush and where the support infrastructure is rudimentary.

Particularly in Shonga, Kwara state, where the governor actively sought out the Zimbabwean farmers to give a kick-start to commercial agriculture in the state, the farmers have enjoyed top-level political support. This has helped them considerably in their efforts to obtain bank finance, electricity set up and so forth.

Despite the difficulties of adjustment to a new environment, the articles that have been written about these farmers suggest they are making good progress in beginning new lives and in introducing a model of large-scale farming that has not previously taken strong hold in Nigeria, nor indeed in too many other countries in Africa. It is an interesting experiment, and time will tell if what long-term significance it has
for the development of Nigerian agriculture.

I have previously expressed disquiet that a country with all of Nigeria's advantages should put so much of its commercial agriculture hopes on a tiny group of farmers from Zimbabwe. It is still far from clear to me why with Nigeria's wealth and with all the people the country has who are trained in agriculture at home and abroad, the country has seemingly given up supporting the development of an indigenous commercial farming sector and feels the solution is to import one ready made.

Zimbabwe's present agriculture failures may be due to bad politics as well as bad economics, but neither would seem to apply to Nigeria in quite the same way.

So then, perhaps the white farmers, in Zimbabwe and in Nigeria's Kwara state, have been successful simply because they are white. Could things be that clear-cut, even if it is not politically correct to say so? Could the white farmers just perhaps be blessed with inborn 'commercial farming genes' which the blacks of Zimbabwe or Nigeria lack? Could this be why Zimbabwean agriculture has 'collapsed' in the aftermath of the decimation of the white farming sector, and could this be why mighty, populous, rich, well-educated Nigeria must subject itself to the humiliation of putting it's commercial farming hopes on a small group of middle-aged white farmers from Zimbabwe?

Let us look at the reported experiences of the group of white Zimbabwean farmers in Nasawara state, to the east of Kwara and separated from each other by one other state in between. This group of Zimbabwean farmers are in general not doing nearly as well as those in Kwara, as several articles have mentioned, including a recent one entitled 'Nasawara's white farmers hang on despite the odds' by Ini Ekott. (http://234next. com/)

The 19 white Zimbabwean farmers who arrived in Nasarawa State in 2006, on the invitation of the state government, were given a mandate to develop commercial farming to a scale unheard of in the country. This effort followed on the progress recorded by an earlier initiative in Shonga, Kwara State.

The promise of a new land tenure, a guarantee for a loan facility, security and infrastructure became a rallying point for the farmers, who hoped to begin a new life in Nigeria growing cassava, maize, soya beans and rearing pigs and cattle in commercial quantities. The state government provided the essential capital, which they were denied in Zimbabwe: over 10,000 hectares of land. But just less than a year after, the realities and the uncertainties that ranged from poor infrastructure such as access roads, flooded rivers, to late season cultivation, affected the yields, forcing eight of the farmers to leave in 2007.

"These were people who had to live in very basic conditions, away from their wives and families," said Colin Spain, a farmer in Farm 10. "The challenges were almost too much in the first year, although we fortunately found four new farmers to replace the ones who left." But three and a half years down the path, the challenges that pushed some of the farmers away have not abated, in a scheme reported to employ over 2,500 locals. Of the initial number of farmers who came in 2006, only eight are left today for a project the Nasarawa authorities hoped will assist food production and help develop agriculture in the country.

The farmers said the conditions under which they have worked over the past years are different from those agreed with the government and the financial institutions which agreed to provide a long term funding for the plan. And as a result, yearly projections have scaled down significantly and even
becoming worse in cases where farms lay fallow many months through the season, as a result of lack funds.

"Commercial farming obviously will be made difficult without long term loan," said Patrick Ashton, a specialist mango farmer at Panda, the site of the project. "But the banks here do not want to lend long term. If you cannot pay for your house in five years, I simply cannot repay agricultural credit in five years." An agricultural economist in Abuja said the coming of the Zimbabwean farmers have exposed the flaws within the nation's agricultural sector. He said Nigerian banks are not used to issues of agricultural loans, hence the difficulties the farmers face assessing them. Mr. Ashton said the bank involved has maintained a largely unstable rate system, which has not assisted the project.

The UBA Plc, which offered the first loan to the farmers in 2007, accepted that it will be on the basis of eight per cent interest. The interest rate has since oscillated between 19 per cent and the present 24 per cent, even with the intervention of the Central Bank of Nigeria.

"Over half of the money graciously granted us, is gone to interest rates," Mr. Ashton said.
Several calls to get the reaction of UBA for this story did not succeed. One of the spokespersons for the bank, Nasir Ramon, repeatedly promised to get back with information over a period of two weeks.NEXT, however, learnt that the bank refused to grant additional funding to the farmers because of the interest rate issue.

Interest rate trouble

For instance, Mr. Spain lists the planned cropping for 2009 to include the cultivation of 2,590 hectares of cassava, 410 hectares of maize, 210 hectares of rice, 1,000 head of cattle and others -including piggery, poultry, bananas, potatoes and vegetables - with a total labour cost estimated at over N104 million.

The plan, Mr. Ashton said, has been "destroyed by bank failures to provide funds as contracted. They seem not to know what they committed themselves to." For the 2008 season, the farmers said enough finance was released to enable timely cropping. However, half-way through the season, they said the
bank refused to release the other sums of finance. This meant crop maintenance was not completed and this caused significant loss in yields and, therefore, significant lower returns than budgeted and expected.

The revenues from the 2008 season were used to finance land clearing and, later, some cultivation for 2009, Mr. Ashton said.

However, in most cases, cultivation went down to as much as 90 per cent on 2008 levels. At the moment, 30 months after negotiations commenced on funding, the project got a little respite in August, 2009, when some money was released to the farmers.

The Permanent Secretary in the Nasarawa State Ministry of Agriculture, Peter Okaba, told NEXT that the poor funding of the project was due to a restructuring of the scheme, particularly with respect to the interest rate which the government "insists must be reversed to its initial charges." "To my knowledge, the government said the current rate is too high and called for a reversal. The matter is with the executive council for now, and I cannot say of its outcome," he said, advising that the commissioner, Oyigye Iyimoga, who was unavailable to NEXT, would be the most competent to release details of the government's decision on the funding and other challenges of the farmers.

Again, although the farmers said the state government and the community of Panda have been reasonably supportive, some indigenes said they suspected the project may not be receiving as much attention from the governor, Akwe Doma, as it got from the immediate past governor, Abdullahi Adamu, who initiated it.

"I think the government continues with it without a choice," said a man who gave his name as Musa Mohammed. "The fanfare has really reduced about it and the government may be using it for their politics." But Iliya Bello, a doctor of agronomy who serves as an adviser to Mr. Doma, said whatever
challenges the scheme faces falls within the normalcy of any enterprise.

"It cannot be true that the governor has less interest in it," he told NEXT in Lafia. "Any business comes with challenges, which the businessperson solves over time. Nasarawa State is largely agrarian, and any leader who wants to have a direction cannot do without agriculture. The project has started, and it will be there." Mr. Bello, incidentally, is a native of Panda, a distance of about 150km east of Abuja where the farmers were given 20 farms in 2006. He said the governor has also started a N1 billion small scale farming scheme that does not include the Zimbabwean farmers. "He cannot do that if he does not believe in agriculture, " he said.

Inherited tenure troubles

But whatever might be afflicting the farms could certainly be traced beyond Mr. Doma's tenure. For instance, the former administration of Mr. Adamu assigned the farms on a location with unresolved communal issues. Some of the residents still lay claims to the land allocated to the Zimbabwean

One of the farmers spoken to by NEXT said in 2008, he lost about seven and a half percent of his gross turn-over to intrusions from unrestrained nomadic farmers who graze the area with their cattle. This affects about eight of the farms "That is about 40 per cent of my profit," the farmer said. "We are very fortunate to have very supportive people around, but this is business, and you get helpless sometimes."

So there we have it, a detailed exposé of all the interlinked factors that the farmers in Kwara state have enjoyed but those in Nasawara have largely lacked. And guess what folks: very different support conditions, ergo very different results!

The white farmers of Zimbabwe developed their group farming expertise over decades. Along with their willingness to work hard was the cheap labour of the Africans and support from successive governments going back decades before independence in 1980, which government support continued for a good many years into the independence era before the farmers fell out with their erstwhile pal Robert Mugabe.

The white Zimbabwean farmers earned their reputation for farming prowess over a long period of time under a special set of conditions. Remove enough critical parts of those conditions for success (political commitment over the long term, security of land tenure, access to affordable and long-term finance, infrastructure in place, access to inputs and markets, etc, etc) and it doesn't matter how knowledgeable or committed those farmers are; you end up with failure.

Both the Zimbabwean and Nigerian governments in their different ways seem to stubbornly refuse to learn these basic lessons in order to create  viable indigenous commercial farming sectors. So you find that the Zimbabwean government had the naive, silly idea that if they just drove the white farmers out of their bungalows and put in favoured blacks who had no particular interest in farming seriously and had no interest in going through the decades long learning curve that had resulted in the white farmers being such mighty big-scale tillers of the land , everything would somehow magically turn out alright.

Nigeria has seemingly decided to learn from the experience of Zimbabwe's once powerful white farming sector in a similarly shallow way. Nigeria's 'brilliant' idea was not to apply and modify the lessons of the white farmers to the task of designing a home-grown, indigenous commercial farming sector but to hope that the model and the success could simply be transplanted whole from Zimbabwe by importing a few white farmers!

In Kwara state where the authorities seem to have thought things through holistically and made the commitment to bend over backwards to put in place as many of the support factors the Zimbabwean farmers needed to try to replicate the success they had built up in Zimbabwe over decades, there are already promising early signs of eventual success.

But in nearby Nasawara where many of these factors are missing, the experiment is floundering, just as in Zimbabwe agriculture has stumbled after a naive government destroyed one model of farming without giving any thought to devising and then supporting a replacement model!

I have connected enough of the dots, anyone can fill in the rest to draw a picture of the hard, long-term thinking work that Nigeria and Zimbabwe need to do to develop serious commercial farming sectors dominated by "indigenes", but which neither country seems the slightest bit interested in doing.

(first published October 15 2009)


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