When South African agriculturist Howard Blight arrived in western Mozambique’s Sussundenga district in 2007, both the land and its people were forlorn. The fields were lying idle after a disastrous foray into tobacco farming. The laborers were too weak to get through a day’s work.
What the region did have, though, was a climate that Blight recognized as ideal for the cultivation of increasingly in-demand avocados, lychees and macadamia nuts, if investors had the patience to wait for them to grow. Now, a decade later, fecund tree crops that thrive in the subtropical climate of Manica province — where Sussundenga is located — are filling laborers’ stomachs with food and the region with hope, as a growing band of investors flock there.
It is already helping local smallholders to reach global export markets.
Carlos Moises, of Mozambique’s investment promotion agency
The pioneers among foreign investors in Sussundenga’s tree crops are entering profitability, and bigger firms are rushing in to seize the mountainous region’s agricultural potential. Blight has sold his Mozambican operations to Austrian investors. Multinational avocado producer Westfalia is establishing itself in Manica. And the large-scale agriculture, says Carlos Moises from the provincial branch of Mozambique’s Agency for Investment and Export Promotion, has created 865 direct jobs and many more indirect opportunities where there were none.
“It is already helping local smallholders to reach global export markets,” says Moises.
The former Portuguese colony of Mozambique was declared free of land mines only in 2015 after 28 years of continuous war between 1964 and 1992. Despite averaging an impressive annual growth rate of 6.17 percent since 2000, 82 percent of rural Mozambicans survive on less than $1.25 a day, and the country ranked 98th out of 113 countries on the 2017 Global Food Security Index.
Tree crops — which grow slowly and need investors who are in it for the long haul (macadamia trees produce their first fruit after seven to 10 years) but thereafter can remain profitable for a century — offer a sustainable escape from this cycle of poverty. Millennials’ obsession with avocado toast has seen global demand for the fruit grow at a steady 3 percent every year. Driven by massive demand from China, macadamia nut prices are at an all-time high.
While macadamias were brought to the country only circa 2005, avocados and lychees aren’t new to western Mozambique — they’ve grown there for decades. But till now, they were never viewed as a route to economic salvation by locals because of the huge capital investment required and the long wait for profitability.
Not all investors have had identical experiences. Within Manica, Sussundenga — where Blight operated — has relatively developed infrastructure: tar roads connecting to the world-class port at Beira 155 miles away, which is conveniently located for exports to the European Union and Asia. By contrast, Oskar Komen, the co-owner of Valley of Macs, a 224-hectare macadamia-only operation in the extremely rural town of Catandica, found “almost zero infrastructure” when setting up the farm in 2005. His farm still relies on a self-built hydroelectric plant to generate electricity, and maintains a 30-kilometer access road. While the Mozambique government’s leadership has been welcoming and investment-friendly, the mid-level bureaucracy responsible for renewing work permits and opening bank accounts remains resistant, says Komen. He needs to renew his work permit every year, even though the born-and-bred Zimbabwean has, with partners, invested $10 million in Mozambique and has lived there since 1995. “If you’re not hardened to Africa, you will fail,” says Komen.
One thing both Blight and Komen agree on is Mozambique’s DUAT system, which allows private individuals or organizations to lease land from the government for near dirt-cheap rates, $0.50 per hectare for 50 years. The rush of foreign investors using similar mechanisms has sparked allegations of land grab in other East African nations, like Ethiopia and Kenya. But Mozambique has taken things to the opposite extreme: The extremely inclusive process leaves locals smiling but takes so long that only the most committed investors remain.
Nature has given the region an economic edge. Manica’s northerly location means lychees and avocados ripen up to three weeks earlier than those on South African farms. Exports for this year from Valley of Macs will top 500 tons and are expected to almost double by 2019. Manica now hosts top-notch tree nurseries. What’s more, says Komen, “the soils are fantastic, access to water is simple and the climate is absolutely perfect.”
Moises, who’s spent much of his working life trying to attract investors to Manica, believes the best is yet to come. Macs in Moz, one of the companies Blight sold, has plans to add a further 1,300 hectares to the 700 it already has, across the three crops; there’s a 100-hectare lychee operation near Catandica; and Macavado, a new arrival, is now planting macadamias and lychees.
Macs in Moz employs 400 people, says Moises, and there are at least another seven farms near Sussundenga employing locals. Westfalia, acting as a distribution agent in 2016, enabled smallholders to sell 160 tons of avocados and lychees in 2016, representing an income boost of $14,545 per farmer. By 2020 these smallholders are expected to export 500 tons.
Early ripening in Manica means lychee and avocado cultivators can get their produce to market earlier than Southern Hemisphere competitors. Macadamia farmers are drawn by the excellent yields and the unprecedented market demand for the antioxidant-rich nut, which still comprises only 1.5 percent of the global nut market.
When he invested in Mozambique, Komen had hoped “others would follow.” But for 12 years his journey, he says, has been largely “lonely.” Now, there are signs the tide is turning in Manica, even if it may be a few years yet till Komen has neighbors in rural Catandica.
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