Chigwell Estate used to be a multi-million dollar business that produced citrus fruits for export to the Middle East, Europe and Russia.
BY BLESSED MHLANGA
Just a decade ago, the farm used to employ 1 200 people and was exporting about 300 000 cartons of oranges each year, fetching between $7 and $10 per carton.
But nothing could be more ironic than Bright Matonga’s authoring of what he claims to be one of the bestselling books titled Resettled Farmers and Food Security in Zimbabwe: Current Trends and Debates, while clearly presiding over a classic example of how not to farm.
Matonga, a holder of a Ph.D in Strategic Management, who has left a trail of destruction in the corporate sector after presiding over the rot at state-owned Zupco from 2003 to 2005 as CEO, took over one of the most productive citrus farms in Zimbabwe at the height of the controversial land reform programme, but ran it down and wrote a book while at it.
“The argument in the book is that the resettled farmers have surpassed the former white farmers in agricultural production, albeit with few resources, thus vindicating the need for land reform in the country,” he writes in his book.
However, a visit to Chigwell Estate — once a major citrus exporter under the ownership of Tom Beattie, 115 km along the Harare-Bulawayo Road — proves his claims were far off the mark.
The farm can now easily be mistaken for a wilting forest suffering under the burden of the unforgiving heat.
The citrus trees at the over 700-hectare farm are now dry while shrubs block water canals. The once rich alluvial soils also used to grow soya beans, maize and wheat, but now not even thorns can survive — 10 years after Matonga took over the farm.
He inherited the estate when it had a plantation of 42 000 orange trees, state-of-the-art export packing sheds, 10 000 hectares of irrigable land, 200 permanent and 300 seasonal workers, but he brought it down to its knees.
Tonderai Mutora walks in between dry orange trees, which last bore any semblance of fruit some three years ago, when “cellphone farming” took centre stage at Chigwell Estate.
Mutora worked for Beattie and then Matonga. He is now working for Agri Alliance, a farming company owned by a white farmer who only identified himself as Tom, who is at the farm courtesy of a government-supported initiative to bring it back to life.
Speaking with a lot of excitement, Mutora said Matonga was the best example in the world on how not to farm.
“He watched the water pumps die down, harvested the oranges and spent the money on quite the high life, while he neglected putting fertilisers and paying the workers,” he said.
“He only came here for the harvest and braais with his friends and nothing else.”
Mutora said before Matonga occupied the farm, five haulage trucks would pick export produce from the farm every week, leaving enough to keep the local market sufficiently supplied.
“We would load five haulage trucks every week here for export and leave more for the local market, which we supplied throughout the year. Now not even a bucket of oranges can come out of this plantation,” he said, while working on the fields that used to be green with life, but are now a mere desert of wilt and bareness.
The neglect could be seen on the 11km-long water canal which stretches from Mupfure River.
Tom and his workers are now clearing the shrubs that had grown into trees and blocked the dry carnal.
Owing to the neglect, 12 000 citrus trees have been reduced to dead wood, only good to be used as firewood.
There is, however, still hope for 30 000 trees which Agri Alliance is working to revive so that in six months’ time they can give fruit to earn Zimbabwe the much-needed foreign currency.
Centre pivots that used to keep the rest of the land under irrigation providing the seasonal maize and wheat, were neglected to the extent of being irreparable.
Since taking over just six months ago, Tom has repaired two centre pivots and put 400 hectares under maize seed.
Workers said they expected their first orange harvest in the next three weeks after putting in work to revive the once shining light of Zimbabwean agriculture.
Barbra Nyamhunga, who is now a member of Agri Alliance, once worked for Matonga and watched sadly as oranges slowly turned into “lemons” under her former boss.
“I left before things were that bad, but I observed fruit quality deteriorating. Trees were left to wilt, while bushes were hardly being cut and this affected the growth of the citrus plantation,” she said.
Oranges produced at the farm under Matonga were mockingly referred to as “leranges” — a mixture of lemons and oranges — because of their bitter sweet taste.
Matonga is reported to have borrowed a lot of money from banks to finance operations at the farm and is reportedly struggling to repay the money.
He has since left the farm, paving way for Agri Alliance in a land utilisation deal that involves the Ministry of Lands and financial institutions.
The five-year deal will see Agri Alliance leasing the property from Matonga, and instead of paying him, the money will go towards settling the loans with the banks.
Tom, who is at the centre of the deal, refused to get into details of the agreement, simply saying, “I am here to farm and make sure this land is productive again.”
In a political environment where land tenure is only guaranteed by political affiliation and loyalty, Tom and his team prefer to stay out of the spotlight.
Matonga said he was working on reviving the farm and referred The Standard to his “bestselling” book for answers on how the farm would be revived.
“Thank you very much for your request. I shall be inviting you to my farm in six months’ time to witness the massive transformation that would have taken place. In the meantime, I would like to invite you to read my best-selling book,” he said.
However, Matonga did not say how he was going to revive the farm.
Commercial Farmers Union deputy director Marc Carrie-Wilson said he was aware that government was entering into land utilisation deals with farmers who were evicted from their farms.
In what appears to be a subtle admission that the land reform programme crippled the agricultural sector, government is silently luring evicted farmers, albeit as lease holders and not owners of the land.
“We have heard that government has given the green light for joint ventures in essentially short-term agreements of up to five years where farmers enter into partnerships with investors or farmers with the expertise to improve production,” he said.
“In other instances which involve banks where resettled farmers who took loans have failed to pay them, they have roped in those with the farming expertise to inject capital and bring the land back to life while paying back the loans.”
Carrie-Wilson said CFU was torn apart by the latest developments because while they were happy to support land productivity, the conditions were not right.