Zimbabwean farmers in Nigeria: As many questions as answers

Jun 30, 2011

There is yet another article about the experience of Zimbabwean farmers who were recruited to Nigeria by a regional governor. But as with many previous such articles, there remain many unanswered questions about what the important lessons are for agricultural development in Nigeria, or anywhere else in Africa.The article in question is Lessons from Kwara, one of the Nigerian states that invited dispossessed Zimbabwean farmers to set up shop in that country several years ago. It is a glowing report about their successes.

The article begins with a summary of the poor state of Kwara's agriculture that prompted the then governor, Bukola Saraki, to think of inviting the Zimbabweans:

"...the majority of farmers were old and lacked education – hampering access to credit - were reluctant to use fertilisers, saw money handouts as a “dividend of democracy” and lacked the commitment to pay back money or justify it through results, while the agriculture ministry that oversaw the project lacked the necessary training and experience. “We realised a fundamental mistake we made: we tried to mount a new carriage on an old horse that was also ill,” he said

Saraki turned to commercial farming. He made contact with the Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe - by 2004 a memorandum of understanding had been signed, and by 2005, after the state stepped in to clear land and provide fertilisers and insecticides,13 Zimbabwean farmers were running five dairy, four poultry and four mixed farms in the new Shonga project, each with 1,000 hectares of land under a 25-year renewable lease.

The author of the article writes, "the impact of the farmers was transformative." He then highlights some of the results of this experiment, including that the farms "now employ up to 4,000 people at harvest time." Crop yields are higher than the national average and are increasing each year. Locals have benefited from electricity, a new clinic and water, as well as from jobs on the farms.

It is an inspiring story, but one that also leaves many troubling questions about how relevant the experience of these 13 farmers is to overall agricultural development in Nigeria, or anywhere else in Africa.

The under-performing farmers in Kwara who are described as old, uneducated, resistant to new ideas and so forth were never serious candidates for large-scale commercial farming, no matter how much support they would have received. An unexplained issue critical to Nigeria's agricultural development is why when 'Saraki turned to commercial farming,' the first thought that came to mind was to resort to a dozen Zimbabwean farmers.

If support for basically subsistence-level farmers had not produced satisfactory results, what about supporting the legion of Nigerian graduates of agricultural colleges, local and foreign? If experience for quick and dramatic results was the main criterion, are there not 13 established commercial-level farmers across Nigeria who could have been recruited to Kwara and massively supported to succeed as the Zimbabwean farmers have been?

There must be good answers to these questions, but one never hears them asked or answered in the stories about the importation into Nigeria of the Zimbabwean farmers. These questions will not go away because the Kwara experiment has been deemed successful. Even if its results are to be tried elsewhere, it will have to be with Nigerian commercial farmers, and the questions that were relevant in 2004 will be equally so today.

Why did the agriculture of a state in populous, educated, oil-rich Nigeria have to wait for transformation by 13 Zimbabweans? Without these issues being addressed agriculture in Nigeria will not make any great farming leap forwards, regardless of how well the Zimbabwean farmers in Kwara continue to do.

If just half the Zimbabweans' results had been achieved, but with Nigerians, that is the kind of result that really stood a chance of being truly 'transformative' and with a chance of being widely adopted elsewhere in Nigeria and beyond. That would be true 'development' in a way importing a small group of foreign farmers can never be.

If the perceived ease of oil money has ruined Nigeria's mindset, making people regard farming as too hard a method of trying to make money, the Kwara experiment will do little to change that. Ex-governor Sakari seems to mainly place blame for Kwara's poor farming culture significantly on the mindset of the state's farmers, which may well be true. That will need to be changed somehow, hard as it may be to do.

But it is equally true that politicians like Sakari will have to accept that they have a mindset change to undergo as well; to realising that it is part of their difficult responsibility to spur the necessary mindset change necessary to spur development, whether in farming or any other sector. Part of the politicians' mindset change is not only to accept that challenge, but to have more confidence in their own people.

Sakari has been widely lauded for importing the Zimbabweans, but that is an easy cop-out that is not much relevant to the basic issue of how Nigeria can get its agriculture out of its slump. The article in question here mentions that "a critical element of the project is ensuring that local Nigerians can continue the work of the Zimbabweans," including training. But the article also says Sakari has noted that "young Nigerians are not attracted by a profession which failed to lift their parents from poverty." It is doubtful that the example of a small group of foreign farmers that is given every assistance to succeed will change the un-attractiveness of farming for young Nigerians.

It is when highly-motivated, well-chosen and then well government-supported groups of young Nigerians are allowed to be examples of success that there could be hope of significant attitude change about farming.

Not mentioned in this article but in others about the Zimbabwean farmers is the massive and deliberate support they have received from the state government, directly or through its intervention: roads, loans, grants, electricity and so forth. There is no questioning their skill and experience, but it is a significant flaw in the narrative about them to fail to mention this backing, without which they would not have succeeded. Proof of that is how a group of similarly skilled and experienced Zimbabwean farmers in another state, Nasawara, have not been as successful as those in Kwara because they did not receive similar support.

There are surely many lessons to be learned from the experience of the Zimbabweans in Kwara. The fact that so many of the hard fundamental questions are being sidestepped in the gushing praise for this experiment may mean that despite its success, it will mean little or nothing to Nigeria's much bigger, deeper and wider agricultural problems.


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