Tsonga Project: Assessing Gains of Commercial Farming

This Day (Nigeria) | 01.27.2009

When the Kwara State Government invited the displaced Zimbabwean farmers to the state for the Tsonga farming project, many thought it was another white elephant exercise. But with the series of awards garnered by the government on the success of the scheme, it means that it can never be ignored. Tunde Sanni looks at the project, the initial knocks and the plethora of awardsGovernor Bukola Saraki of Kwara State saw the golden opportunity in good time when President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe drove away the white farmers and their tractors from his country during the country's controversial land redistribution policy. Saraki never failed to grab that opportunity.

Nigeria is not the only African country that wooed the 4,000 white farmers who had been displaced, but through Saraki's first move, the country won the 'bid' for the farmers. There were overtures on the commercial farmers from Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi. The governor admitted sending emissaries to woo the farmers for the country and his state.

The new farmers were settled on a land leased arrangement for 25 years around the new farming community of Tsonga village, an underdeveloped region of the gentle green hills near the state's northern border. But the locals apparently ignorant to the actions of the governor resisted and boasted that the farmers would never be settled in their community. They vowed never to allow the white farmer a breathing space in their community, calling them neo-colonialists who, under the guise of commercial farming wanted to colonise them the second time.

They also feared that the Zimbabweans would steal their land, introduce South African-style apartheid, and exploit their resources. But Saraki was able to convince the local communities on the gains of the agricultural project. He said, “A small number of farmers cannot come out and colonise 1.2 million people in Kwara State. If we had a Nigerian who had the expertise and who can do it, it would be a different matter. No matter what we do in Nigeria, if we don't improve agriculture we are not going to fight poverty.”

The initial minor fight later on turned bloody as the locals employed the services of their hunters and other marksmen to repel the farmers and of course the agents of the government, which included the police who were deployed to bring the situation under control. Saraki soon retreated to a new strategy, a strategy of financial collaboration and incentive, which included employment of the locals by the farmers as well as handsome financial payback for those who would be displaced by the white farmers.

With the apparent irresistible incentive, the stiff opposition of the locals soon became tampered and gradually, the governor, with the aid of the village monarch, Haliru Yahya, a world-class medic started winning the restive locals to their side and with that began an agricultural revolution that has continued to bring more laurels to the state and his person.

The arrowhead of the opposition against the project, Alhaji Muhammad Ndagi, the Galadima of Dumagi, with the Saraki new onslaught, at a press briefing rallied his community behind the scheme and apologised for the negative attitude to the project and pledged his full support for the commercial farming scheme. The Galadima of Dumagi however urged the state government to fulfill its own side of the agreement by paying compensation promptly to those who gave up their farmlands.

Dumagi was one of the villages in Tsonga district that contributed land to the project. Before the Ndagi press briefing at the time, the displaced farmers had received various sums of money as compensation totaling N86 million in the first phase. N35million compensation was paid for the second phase of the settlement, apart from the farmers being provided alternative land nearby to continue farming.

The alternative farmlands were prepared for cultivation by the state government, which also provided the affected local farmers with seedlings, fertilisers and chemicals at a cost of about N60 million. The governor gave out free bicycles to the displaced farmers, while others benefited from free training on mechanised farming from agric extension agents. The goal of the governor is to use the farmers to kick-start Nigeria's moribund agricultural sector.

Led by Allan Jack, the farmers with their wives started arriving in Tsonga in batches. However, jolted by Mugabe's action, one of the evicted farmers, Dan Swart, had told newsmen how he and four other white farmers left Zimbabwe to start another life in Nigeria. “I had a tobacco farm in Zimbabwe that employed about 450 people, but I was chased away two years ago. Then we were given the offer to come to Nigeria.”

Though the country has an abundance of fertile land, her citizens have found out that successive government complacence, as a result of the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta, has relegated farming to a scandalous second position, necessitating in the importation of some food items into the country. The last time Nigerians laughed on the dawn of agricultural revolution was during the Operation Feed the Nation policy of the General Olusegun Obasanjo regime.

An attempt by the succeeding Shehu Shagari administration with the introduction of the Green Revolution only witnessed a legacy of corruption and misplaced priorities as the principals in the ruling government of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) were only interested in the monetary release rather than the success of the policy.

With the dearth of mechanised farmers, hordes of retired military and political office holders who had the capital to invest came into mechanised farming, while peasant farmers tilled majority of the nation's farmlands. The peasant farming groups don't have the capital for mechanised farming or the ability to raise credit from banks.

Saraki who recovered from the hiccups posted by the locals boasted, “in about 10 years' time, Kwara will be the backbone for Nigeria's agricultural drive and we need to have commercial farmers to do that.

“We thought those Zimbabwe farmers don't want them. I'm sure they'd rather stay in Africa than go somewhere else. So we sent someone to talk to them." The plan was to have 15 Zimbabweans moving to Kwara this month. They will initially live in the bush in tents while they build their homes. Then, as the months' progress, more farmers and their families should fly out with the calculation that within a decade, as many as 100 farmers could be based in Kwara.

“I hope in about 10 years' time our airport will be busy and young chaps coming out of university will think about going into farming. Banks will invest in the agricultural sector. And Kwara will be the backbone for Nigeria's agricultural drive,” said.

With the fear that the farmers might not be able to get the financial muscle needed for the project, Saraki soon mobilised the then Federal Government to the aid of the farmers. 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, beef, cattle and to grow fruit, flowers and vegetables for export to Europe. He took the farmers to Aso Rock where Obasanjo, himself a mechanised farmer before the travails and gains of life received the farmers with fanfare and even promised his administration total support for the project.

The agrarian environment wore a political look the day Obasanjo led the federal team to the community and from then on, all forms of hostilities and rejections against the project ceased and the commercial farming project which a year on at the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the white farmers, had its name changed to Kwara State Commercial Agriculture Project (KWACAP).

The former president put the blame for the poor investments in agriculture in Nigeria on the commercial banks that he noted “are not really prepared to understand what farming entails in terms of financial support. He appealed to banks to see how the rural areas can be activated, can be made to create jobs, can be made to develop.” He canvassed a summit of governments, farmers, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and commercial banks on how to generate financial support for serious farmers at the affordable interest rate. All categories of farmers, he said, “must be supported”.

Obasanjo who spoke moments after a tour of the farms praised the accommodating and hospitable nature of the host communities and commended them for rising above primordial sentiments, in spite of the misleading insinuations at the initial stage. “What else could be the essence of land if not for productive use? The former president hinted that plans have been concluded by the Federal Minister of Agriculture to build 25,000 tonnes silos for the storage of grains in Kwara and neighbouring states and pointed out that the effort will go along way to remove the seasonal nightmare of incessant waste of farm produce as a result of lack of storage facilities.

“The present generation of farmers is too old to carry on the rigorous business. Thus, there is an urgent need for successor farmers to inculcate new ways of doing things, modern ways of doing things,” Obasanjo said. Saraki at the occasion admitted that the commercial farming project was a high-risk initiative to “create employment and reduce poverty, by first boosting food production and developing the small and medium scale agro-allied industry. The initiative became expedient in view of the fact that 75 per cent of our people in formal employment are in the civil service. Kwara State is dangerously dependent on Federal allocations for running the government and propagating social development.”

He said company and income taxes generated in the state is just about 20 per cent of the state's annual earnings, which further emphasises the precarious financial position of the state. He predicted a situation where street-side electronic shops and sellers of household items would enjoy more sales, therefore indicating their knock-on effects of this project.

The project has the capacity to generate immense opportunities. Saraki however hinted that “learning and transfer of skills to our local farmers” are part of the many benefits of the new initiative.

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