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In Uprooted Farmers, Nigeria Sees Teachers

Whites driven from their land in Zimbabwe get resettlement aid to share their modern methods in a nation of subsistence agriculture.

October 01, 2005|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

TSONGA, Nigeria — The foreigners who came from afar to the grasslands of western Nigeria seemed like a spectacular circus act to the area's subsistence farmers. Local people were amazed by the dozens of tractors, harrows and planters that materialized along with huge amounts of seed and fertilizer.

But the residents were flabbergasted again when their new neighbors started planting crops, making, it seemed, some equally spectacular blunders.

They didn't bother to mound the soil into hillocks around their corn and other plants, a backbreaking tradition since time immemorial. Then, there was the spacing: Instead of a yard between each corn plant, they left only a few inches.

"They did tell us we were fools," acknowledged Peter Cocker, 33, one of the newcomers.

They are white farmers from Zimbabwe, and they expect their methods to increase yields here by as much as tenfold.

The white farmers, driven off their farms in Zimbabwe by President Robert Mugabe's plan to redistribute the land to blacks, have become a hot commodity among other African countries eager to tap their expertise in running large commercial enterprises. Zimbabwe's Commercial Farmers Union reported to members in August that 23 countries were scrambling to attract them.

Among the most aggressive recruiters was Bukola Saraki, governor of Nigeria's western Kwara state. He saw an opportunity to teach local farmers better techniques and kick off large-scale commercial farming in Nigeria, a country of 130 million that relies on subsistence agriculture and oil exports, and imports food.

Despite Nigeria's strangling bureaucracy and rampant corruption, 13 farmers took up his offer. With loans of up to $250,000 to get started and 50-year leases, they each established commercial farms of 1,000 hectares. The white farmers are planning to add dairy and beef cattle and to grow fruit, flowers and vegetables for export to Europe.

Their first crop is flourishing, and along with it, an intense competition has sprung up.

The newcomers' corn, covering hundreds of acres, stretches green and tall to the skies, dwarfing the nearby widely spaced stalks on mounded earth. But most of the local farmers still shake their heads in doubt.

They grudgingly acknowledge that the newcomers' crops look better but insist that those vigorous-looking plants will never mature.

"When I saw the planting I knew that they had made a big mistake," said Liman Mohammed, 43, of nearby Chikangiworo village. "What they're doing, well, maybe they don't know how to farm.

"My advice to them is that to farm here, they should make ridges. They should adjust the distance of their plants. Since we have been brought up, we've made ridges."

Saraki, the governor, is eager to see the results.

"We are waiting until harvest time to see how the Zimbabweans do against the Nigerians," he said. "Farmers are very conservative. They change only based on what they see.

"At the moment, they think [the Zimbabweans] are doing something wrong. It's only when they see the harvest come in, will they see that with the same rainfall, the same soil, those guys are doing 5 tons a hectare instead of 1. Then the Nigerian farmers will change."

As part of the Tsonga project, the Zimbabweans agreed to train local farmers in commercial techniques.

"You have to get their respect by showing them you know what you're doing," said one of the transplants, Dan Swart, 60. "If a person doesn't respect you they're never going to do it. You see this vast, beautiful country, and there's very little agriculture. We are just a very small module and hopefully it will kick off."

In addition to providing loans and leases, the Nigerians built roads, upgraded the airport and are bringing in electricity for the new venture. The farmers also are seeking irrigation and tax exemptions. Once the land is irrigated, the Zimbabweans believe, the yield will rise to 15 tons a hectare.

The soil and rainfall are better in Kwara than in Zimbabwe. But the Zimbabweans, battered by their experience at home, were wary when Nigeria approached them last year.

Mugabe's land redistribution has been widely criticized as ill-conceived and corrupt. Zimbabwe once exported food, but now must rely on imports and food aid. About 4,000 white farmers have lost their land since 2000, leaving only about 400.

The land minister, Didymus Mutasa, was recently quoted by the state-controlled Daily Mail newspaper as saying the remaining farmers also should be expelled under the government's Operation Murambatsvina, or Clean Out the Filth. Millions of urban and rural homes and small businesses have been demolished under the program.

Nigeria has its own reputation for corruption, crime and fraud.

"Unfortunately, Nigeria has not got a good brand," Saraki said. "There was a lot of apprehension. I had to personally talk to some of the wives and reassure them."

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