White farmers—evicted from their farms in Zimbabwe during the country’s controversial land redistribution policy—have just been given the all-clear to begin farming in Nigeria’s western state of Kwara.
The invitation came from Kwara’s state governor, Bukola Saraki, whose goal is to use the farmers to kick-start Nigeria’s moribund agricultural sector.
“I had a tobacco farm in Zimbabwe employing around 450 people, but I was chased away two years ago,” Dan Swart, a broad man in his late 50s, told me as he and four other white farmers discussed the boundaries of their new farms in a hotel bar.
“Then we were given the offer to come to Nigeria.”
‘Commercial farmers needed’
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, but despite an abundance of fertile land, most of its food is imported—a legacy of years of corruption and misrule.
“Our farming sector is largely driven by peasant farming. And small family groups don’t have the capital for mechanised farming or the ability to raise credit from banks.
“We need to have commercial farmers to do that,” Governor Saraki said.
“We thought: ‘Those are farmers. Zimbabwe doesn’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 is 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. 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,” said Mr Saraki.
“Banks will invest in the agricultural sector. And Kwara will be the backbone for Nigeria’s agricultural drive.”
Nigeria is not the only African country to try to woo the 4,000 white farmers who have been displaced.
Zimbabwe’s Commercial Farmers Union has also had overtures from Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi.
Some farmers have already resettled in Mozambique and Zambia.
But Nigeria is the first country to offer incentives.
Governor Saraki has promised to help facilitate bank loans, and invest about 300m-400m naira ($2m-$3m; £1m-£1.6m) in irrigation, electricity, roads and housing.
The new farms will be built on land leased for 25 years around Shonga village—an underdeveloped region of gentle green hills near the state’s northern border.
The Zimbabweans have been marking out their territory—striding around in knee-length shorts under the midday sun with hand-held GPS devices. They have now begun clearing their land.
Initially, many people in Shonga were concerned that the Zimbabweans would steal their land, introduce a South African-style apartheid, and exploit their resources.
But local officials have made efforts to explain that the farmers want to settle in Shonga, employ local workers and pass on better farming methods.
“In the beginning we had fear as we were not alerted. But now some people have told us about them and we are willing to receive them,” said a young mother, standing in the shade of a tree in Shonga village.
Her words were echoed by a motorbike driver on the dusty main street: “We welcome them, of course. We hope they will bring us jobs.”
The Zimbabweans have also asked that no-one is relocated to make way for the farms, although one family will be moved on from their small red brick compound in the middle of the bush.
But even with this good will, can the project really succeed?
It is a hugely ambitious scheme, and one that invites scepticism.
Nigeria is currently ranked as the third most corrupt nation on earth, and many people do not trust government officials to keep their promises.
It is also a volatile country, with thousands of people killed in inter-communal violence in the last five years alone.
The Zimbabweans, however, are ready to face these challenges and determined to build a new life.
“Africa’s never easy.
“We’ve realised the potential agriculturally. So let’s just stick and see what we can do,” said Allen Jack, the wiry leader of the Zimbabwean team.
“My friends think I’m mad,” added Dan Swart.
“But once we succeed they will come . . . a lot will come.”