Are displaced Zimbabweans really revolutionizing Nigerian farming?

Dec 8, 2010

by Chido Makunike

Several African countries recruited white Zimbabwean commercial farmers displaced by President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land re-distribution policy. Many of the farmers who chose to try their luck elsewhere stayed fairly close to home, in neighbouring countries such as Mozambique and Zambia. Reports suggest that their fortunes have been mixed.

Apart from sharing similar climate as Zimbabwe, most of the host countries did not have the right mix of conditions required for the success of the model of farming that white Zimbabweans had practised at home. The levels of physical support infrastructure available; government and banking systems; experience and skills levels were different. Disillusionment set in and some farmers who moved to Mozambique and Zambia are said to have reluctantly gone back to Zimbabwe in frustration.

Similar challenges face the farmers recruited by Nigeria’s federal states, particularly Kwara in the country’s east. Recent media reports suggest that despite diplomatically expressed concerns about the difficulty of access to finance, the levels of bureaucracy, corruption and homesickness, the farmers in Kwara are successfully getting off their new farms off the ground. The state governor who courted them in Zimbabwe ensureed that the several dozen farmers were given the support required for them to succeed. The farmers are often quoted as citing the warmth of their welcome in Nigeria, in contrast to the official hostility they experienced in Zimbabwe.

On May 2, the Christian Science Monitor, a U.S. newspaper published an article entitled: “White Zimbabweans Bring Change to Nigeria.” The article heavily relies on the perspective of a Nigerian former subsistence farmer who is now employed by one of the Zimbabweans. He is full of their praise. He now has a wage job, a cell phone and a motorbike. He has also learned new farming skills. The cell phone network was put up to support the recently arrived commercial farmers, and has benefited the neighbouring community as well. When the national electricity grid is brought to the new commercial farms, surrounding villages will also gain.

An impressed Nigerian farm manager is quoted as saying, “If there were at least 20 white Zimbabwean farmers in each state," Nigeria would become one of the richest countries in the world and we would not even depend on our oil."

The Kwara state governor is sure the experiment will outlast his tenure in office. “The project has sold itself,” he says. “When we started, a lot of people did not believe in it. But now, when we are employing about 3,000 people, they are the ones that are going to defend it."

As an example of the key role that pro-active state support has been to the success of the commercial farming experiment in Kwara, the failed effort in nearby Nassarawa state is cited. There, the lack of state support has a group of Zimbabwean farmers close to giving up.

A second article in the same edition of the CSM is entitled “Why White Zimbabwean Farmers Plan to Stay in Nigeria.” In the event of favourable political change at home, they would contemplate returning after examining the pros and cons in light of their new lives and investments in Nigeria. Their new base is both commercial opportunity and personal challenge. Nigeria hopes to use their skills and experience to "kick-start commercial farming operations in a country of 140 million where farming has long been neglected."

In the BBC article “Nigeria Adopts Zimbabwean Exiles,” the Kwara state governor says he hopes the Zimbabwean farmers will become role models who will transfer skills to their Nigerian employees. “We want young Nigerians to be attracted to agriculture,” he says.

This fascinating story and experiment will be worth monitoring to decipher its lessons for Nigeria,Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa, as the continent battles to find a suitable model of commercial agriculture. All the accounts so far suggest that at least in Kwara state, it is turning out to be a win-win situation. However, in that success lie troubling questions about Africa’s seriousness in lifting itself out of hunger, poverty and economic weakness.

The sudden collapse of commercial farming in Zimbabwe after the chasing of white farmers was an embarrassing indicator of how the country’s agriculture and economy were not underpinned by a native skills and capital base. In its twenty years of independence, the country had not developed ( and is not ready to develop) a viable agricultural/economic fall back plan to replace what was being suddenly dismantled. It is clear Zimbabwe is having an uphill battle to now put a new functional system in place.

The history, dynamics and conditions of Nigeria may be quite different, but it is similar to Zimbabwe in utterly failing in the vital, unavoidable task of devising its own successful model of commercial agriculture. On one hand, the articles I have cited here are about redemption and a second chance for traumatised white Zimbabwean farmers who were caught totally off-guard in an epic battle straddling intersecting issues of history, politics, race, economics and ideology. On the other hand, the articles are a shocking indictment and mockery of Africa’s failure to find its own solutions to its many challenges.

What does it mean for a few dozen white Zimbabwean farmers to “bring change to Nigeria?” The articles all emphasize the skills and dynamism of the relocated white Zimbabweans. But what is the un-stated but heavily present counter-balancing message about the Nigerians, the Africans? Why does “change” have to be “brought” from without? Is such kind of “brought change” stable and sustainable? What have been Africa’s experiences in this regard in the last few hundred years of rapid imported change? What are the Africans doing when others are “bringing change” to them?

Zimbabwe’s failure to do the required hard thinking work to institute a suitable-to-it agricultural paradigm since 2000, or even further back to independence in 1980, is bad enough. But equally outrageous is Nigeria’s steady agricultural regression from soon after its independence way back in 1960, a process which accelerated with the development of its oil industry.

Is it just me who feels a deep sense of sadness at the idea of mighty Nigeria being so bereft of agricultural ideas, drive and commitment that it is reduced to putting its best hopes of setting in place a viable system of commercial agriculture on a few dozen white farmers all the way from Zimbabwe? Is this not just as pitiful as Zimbabwe having failed to think hard and successfully enough to not progress beyond agricultural and economic dependence on an almost exclusively white agri-business sector?

Zimbabwe has belatedly discovered at a huge, painful cost to itself the folly of a dominant agricultural paradigm that does not have a significant native component. The dangers are not just to food security and export receipts, but in an agrarian society, to the social and political stability of the country itself. Another lesson is that simple expropriation is no more of a wealth strategy than is the silly idea of “importing” development. Abiding, meaningful wealth has to be created and a singular failure of the post-colonial African state is to think and strategize cleverly enough to create the locally appropriate conditions for that creation of new wealth.

Zimbabwe made the basic colossal mistake of thinking agricultural ”empowerment” meant just moving on to white farms and living happily ever after. Hopefully from the results of the folly of that naïve idea will rise a fundamentally fresh way of wealth-creating thinking. But likewise, Nigeria’s hope that the solution to its similar failure to think and strategize for its own benefit can be covered up for by simply importing white farmers from Zimbabwe is just as painfully naïve. It is to hope for an easy way to avoid thinking hard, taking risks, trying new things, falling down and picking ourselves up: these are the only ways we are going to become “developed.”

It is quite possible that the replicated example of the Zimbabwean farmers experiment in Kwara state could become a small but important subset of Nigeria’s commercial agriculture. But apart from the important experience component of the Zimbabwean farmers, have there been any similar attempts to aggressively create enabling operating conditions for Nigerian commercial farmers? If so, what went wrong? Was there a decision to abandon such efforts instead of learn from the mistakes and fix them? Is that not the experience Kwara is undergoing with the Zimbabwean farmers? If there have been no such efforts in the close to 50 years of Nigerian self-rule, why is that? Why is the red carpet that is being rolled out for the Zimbabweans not created many times over for an identified core of aspiring Nigerian commercial farmers?

When a Nigerian, without a hint of irony, believes that the lesson for him of the white farmers Kwara experiment is that each of the rest of the country’s states should have a similar group of white farmers, are we not coming close to abdicating all responsibility for our fate? To the person who expressed this naïve, shocking desire, it is clear that he does not attribute much of the success he sees to the farmers’ experience as well as to the unusual support. He does not compute the fact that where such experience existed but without the crucial state, banking and other support, such as in Nassarawa state, Mozambique, Zambia or elsewhere, the experiment is floundering. To him the take-home message is the whiteness of the farmers, rather than the mix of the experience and the aggressively created enabling environment of Kwara.

*Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant based in Dakar, Senegal

**This article was originally published under the heading 'Are Zimbabwean Farmers Revolutionizing Nigeria?' in the 07-14 May 2008 edition of The African Executive.

Related article:

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

The challenge of reviving Zimbabwe’s commercial agriculture


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