White Zimbabweans bring change to Nigeria

Farmers kicked off their land by President Robert Mugabe have made new lives – and raised the local standard of living – in Nigeria.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Musa Mogadi says he is better off since "the whites" came. He's got a new job, learned new farming skills, and he can chat on a mobile phone while zipping around the countryside on a motorbike.

Three years ago, Mr. Mogadi got by as a subsistence farmer. But he now earns a regular wage as a supervisor on one of this town's new commercial farms.

He's applied skills he learned from some of the two dozen white Zimbabwean farmers who moved to Nigeria in 2005, after being kicked off their land by President Robert Mugabe and later attracted by large parcels of land on offer under 25-year leases and commitments of support from the Nigerian government.

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Production on his farm is now up.

"We are starting to use fertilizers," says Mogadi, explaining that he was encouraged to buy fertilizer after seeing yield benefits on the commercial farm. He's also started planting his maize in a more compact formation, like the Zimbabweans, increasing production from each field planted.

Before the Zimbabweans arrived, there was no mobile phone network in the area and so no reason to have a mobile phone. Now he and most of the other workers have snazzy cellphones, and many have bought motorbikes imported from China, often with a loan from their employer.

In the future, when the national power network reaches the Shonga farms, Mogadi is looking forward to having electricity in his home and village for the first time.

Kenny Oyewo, who works as a farm manager, thinks the lessons being learned in Shonga should be exported across Nigeria.

"If there were at least 20 white Zimbabwean farmers in each state," says Mr. Oyewo, "Nigeria would become one of the most rich countries in the world and we would not even depend on our oil." Nigeria is the largest crude producer in Africa, but despite the country's oil-wealth the majority of Nigerians exist on just a couple of dollars a day.

Key support from a governor

Bukola Saraki, governor of Kwara State, actively pursued the Zimbabwean farmers, approaching them through Zimbabwe's Commercial Farmers Union and paying for them to stay in a hotel in Kwara while they assessed several proposed sites.

To date, the governor remains personally involved in the project, visiting the farmers in their homes, taking their calls on his mobile phone and personally stepping in to help when Nigeria's confounding – and often corrupt – bureaucracy gets in the way.

The Zimbabwean farmers are all too aware how key Mr. Saraki's support is.

Another group of Zimbabwean farmers who set up in Nasarawa State, east of Nigeria's capital, Abuja, are close to abandoning their Nigerian venture.

There, farmers have not had strong support from the state authorities, a promised bridge to link their farms to the nearby capital has not been built and agreed-upon bank loans have not materialized.

But Saraki dismisses fears that the commercial farms may stumble with the end of his tenure in three years' time.

"I think the project has sold itself," says Saraki. "When we started there were a lot of people who did not believe in it. But I think by now, when we are employing about 3,000 people in Shonga, they are the ones that are going to defend it."

Oyewo, who is a university graduate and ne w to farming, says it's not just farm employees who are learning from the Zimbabweans. "Even local people have been encouraged to seek advice – and get it – from the farmers," says Oyewo.

In the long term, veterinarian Abubakar Kannike sees great potential for collaboration to develop a new breed of dairy cow that could be exported throughout West Africa.

"The future for us is to develop our own dairy breed mixing the hardy local Fulani breed with the Zimbabweans' high milk-producing Jersey cows," says Mr. Kannike.

The lessons go both ways

But the lessons aren't all being passed in one direction. The Zimbabweans are learning how to deal with a new climate, a new way of doing things.

This area of Nigeria is a far cry from the cool sunny plateaus of Zimbabwe. It's relentlessly hot and close enough to the Sahara to be shrouded in dust-laden desert winds for months at a time. And in the low-lying tropics, farmers and their families are learning to cope with malaria.

White farmer Hunter Coetzee is paying close attention to Nigeria's weather patterns, earning a reputation among the rest of the groups as something of a meteorologist.

One of the steepest learning curves, farmers say, has been unearthing the hidden corrupt practices that mar Nigerian society.

"Our first year farming here, we bought our fertilizer off the market," says farmer Irvine Reid. But when the yield was disappointing, they sent a sample of the fertilizer off for analysis. "There was next to no fertilizer, so little of the active ingredient in there, that we may as well not have bothered."

But after a traumatic and often violent departure from Zimbabwe, the commercial farmers are learning about West African hospitality. "Everyone's been very welcoming," says Reid, "and that's really nice."

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