Punjab’s African plot

Indian Express | 11 July 2010


by Dinker Vashisht

Jagjit Singh Hara’s 50-acre farm in Kanganwal village in Jalandhar leaves him with little time for anything else. Still, he has taken time off to make a trip to the Pasteur Institute in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, to get himself inoculated against yellow fever before he sets out to scout for land in Africa.

As land holdings in the state shrink and the soil becomes less fertile, Punjab’s farmers are already looking for greener pastures. And this time, it’s Africa, where governments, especially in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Sudan and Namibia, are looking for the right expertise, technology and farming skills.

Hara, a farmer in Jalandhar who has contacts in the agriculture ministry, says he has been repeatedly getting offers from Congo, Namibia and Nigeria to take land on lease and start cultivation.

“Our state government and armchair experts at Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) have failed us. Land holding in the state has shrunk, water levels have depleted and fertility of soil has gone down. The farmers of Punjab will have to fend for themselves. If it means going out of the country and starting cultivation elsewhere, they will,” says Hara.

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And so he is going—to Africa. What started as a trickle a few years ago is now gaining momentum. Harcharan Bajwa was among the early travellers. He started a floriculture farm in Ghana five years ago. “In Patiala, I had twenty acres of land where I alternated between wheat and rice. Today I have 250 acres of land on lease for 50 years. I am able to export my produce to Holland. People think Africa is torn apart by violence but that’s not true of all countries. It is a bit like India where some states see violence while others are completely peaceful,” he says.

Jagtar Sodhi is another farmer who took land on lease in Uganda seven years ago. Today, he’s completely at home in his new surroundings. “It is not as if you are coming to an alien land. Indians have been coming to Kenya, Ethiopia, Namibia and Sudan as teachers and other skilled workers. More recently, big firms from Gujarat and Karnataka have invested in agriculture. So if a farmer comes from India, he will see a lot of familiar faces and things here,” says Sodhi.

And it’s not just individual farmers who are flocking to Africa. Prominent agro groups from Punjab, including the Ponty Chadha group and Rana Sugars, too are exploring possibilities of investing in agriculture in Africa. In fact, the bulk of the dairy industry in Kampala (Uganda) is run by farmers who migrated from Punjab.

In the last few months, the process seems to be speeding up with more and more farmers checking out Africa. Raghubir Singh Sangha, a farmer from Jalandhar, is one of them. Sangha recently returned from a seven-day trip to Ethiopia. The trip was fruitful. Convinced that farming in Africa is a feasible and profitable venture, Sangha is all set to return to Ethiopia next month to negotiate a deal to buy land on a 50-year lease.

The news coming out of Africa is often grim—of civil war, disease and hunger. But Sangha is not disturbed by them. “When farmers from Punjab went to the Terai region of Uttarakhand in the fifties and later in the eighties, they were not deterred by the hostile land or by leopards, bears and pythons. So, they are not going to be afraid in Africa either.”

Jaswinder Singh, another farmer from Jalandhar, is also just back from a trip to Ethiopia. Convinced that the opportunity to invest in Africa is ripe, he says, “Vast tracts of arable land are lying vacant. There is no technology. In my entire trip of seven days, I saw two tractors and that too of the sort that we stopped using in India some 30 years ago. The land is fertile, the climate is suitable and water is abundant. Also, both land and labour are cheap.”

Farmers from Punjab setting up farms abroad and making it big is not a new phenomenon. In Argentina, there is Simar Pal Singh who is known as the Peanut Prince and in the US, there are the Tut brothers who own vast plantations. But what’s new this time around are the sheer numbers. The interest farmers are expressing in Africa is unmatched.

THE sudden spurt in interest in Africa can be traced to an Africa summit held in Patiala four months ago. Minister of State for External Affairs, Preneet Kaur, who is an MP from Patiala, brought along ambassadors and high commissioners to India of seven African nations and together they exhorted farmers in Punjab to explore opportunities in Africa. They pointed out the advantages of farming in Punjab—and that Africa was more than just a continent torn apart by war. And last month, Ethiopian Ambassador to India, Genet Zewdie, came on a four-day visit to Jalandhar, met local farmers and invited them to take land on lease in Ethiopia.

Responding to these overtures, Punjab’s farmers, already grappling with small land holdings (70 per cent of fields in Punjab are less than four acres in size) and poor soil quality (ground water has plunged to alarming levels), smelt a big opportunity in a vast land.

The offer from Africa basically means a farmer can take a large tract of land on lease for 50 years, and in some cases even up to 99 years. With land prices in Africa much lower than those in Punjab, farmers can think of doing agriculture on a scale that’s unimaginable in the state.

“The land lease rate in Punjab’s Doaba region is a minimum of Rs 40,000 per acre. In most African nations, land lease rate in terms of Indian currency comes to Rs 700 per acre. This means that for every one acre in Punjab, we can own 60 acres in Africa. With a per capita land holding of 1.5 acres in Punjab, agriculture is ceasing to be a sustainable activity. During my trip to Africa recently, I saw our farmers owning tracts as large as 2.5 lakh hectares,” says Jaswinder Singh.

Then there are other advantages—such as easy export to the lucrative European market. To protect their agricultural produce, several European nations have imposed stifling regulations on the import of Indian horticulture produce. For instance, in April, a consignment of grapes from India to Europe was stuck and delayed on a small food security issue. But when it comes to produce coming from the virgin lands of Africa, these checks are relaxed considerably. Also, the proximity of some of these nations to the Mediterranean Sea ensures that they have quick access to Europe.

Gokul Patnaik, a former IAS officer and now a well known agri-consultant based in Delhi, says, “Agriculture in Africa is not developed and the continent is facing acute food shortage. Therefore, you see a lot of African governments actively seeking the expertise of Punjab’s farmers. It is important that the Indian government offers its support—which, unfortunately, had been lacking till recently, unlike China which is backing its African investments to the hilt.”

The government, especially the Ministry of External Affairs, is now assuring farmers of more help. Experts attribute it partly to the rising exchanges between India and Africa. Trade between the two countries has gone up from $5 billion in 2002 to about $40 billion in 2009. “During the Green Revolution, our farmers made India self-sufficient in food. There is no reason why they can’t replicate their success in Africa now. I can assure that MEA will play a facilitating role,” says minister Kaur.

Gunbir Singh, head of the Punjab chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), says, “Let’s accept the fact that people from Punjab have always been going abroad. Going to Africa and cultivating land is far superior and remunerative than illegally immigrating to Europe and working as household helps or cabbies. At CII, we feel that if fully utilised, the agriculture opportunity can yield far greater returns than the remittances from Punjabi expatriates in the Middle East.”

But there is a darker side to the African dream too. The threat of diseases and security fears are never far away. Satbir Nijjer, a pioneer of crop diversification in Punjab, says, “Yes, but then, no pain, no gain. It is as simple as that. The opportunity in Africa exists because of these disadvantages. If everything was hunky dory, Europeans would have captured these advantages much earlier.”

He says it’s important that people think beyond such worries. “The mistake that we committed in Punjab should not be repeated there. We succeeded in increasing the yields but failed to set up the relevant food processing industry or infrastructure, such as cold storage. This means that agriculture in Punjab is not as remunerative as it used to be.”

Though Africa offers endless opportunities, critics talk of how the dream to own land was once grounded in Burkina Faso, a country in west Africa. In 1999, many farmers from Punjab migrated to Burkina Faso as part of an Indian government programme. But in the absence of agriculture infrastructure and irrigation facilities, the programme had limited success and wound up almost three years after it began. Neither the Indian government nor the African government could convince Indian farmers to take land on a long-term lease.

But, counters Patnaik, that should not stop farmers from going to Africa. “You can’t use one example to say that everything will go wrong. Burkina Faso may not have worked but Uganda and Kenya will.”

Gunbir says going to Africa is in no way more dangerous than illegally immigrating to Europe via Cyprus “We can blow hot and cold over over the issue, while Chinese are exploring the opportunity. They are investing heavily in mining in Africa.”

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