By Bold Hungwe recently in London
Have you ever imagined an African journalist giving up his profession to turn to agriculture and growing a tropical crop no one could imagine being cultivated in the United Kingdom? The crop is not even a familiar one in Britain; it is one that few Brits have ever seen before but can now order by phone in droves.
“It came a time when I missed food I grew up eating in Zimbabwe. As a result I started experimenting growing white maize, one of the foods I really missed when I came to the UK because it was not available.’’ said David Mwanaka, now a successful farmer in the UK.
Mwanaka successfully grows white maize in the UK, a tropical crop that thrives in hot temperatures, like back in his home country, Zimbabwe. But he listened to his heart more than the facts on the ground where any agronomist would have dismissed with contempt.
Before he started selling white maize, few in UK had ever seen or eaten fresh white maize as the country is at home with the variant, yellow sweet corn. Thanks to Mwanaka, people can now buy white maize via a phone call from as far as Scotland.
When I first heard that Mwanaka was growing white maize in London, I thought this could only be in his back garden or green house. But when I met Mwanaka, I was stunned to see a 20 hectare farm in Enfield, North London.
In 1991, Mwanaka left his job as a journalist, as the uncertainty of Zimbabwe’s politics and economy was beginning to evolve into the turbulent years. Upon arrival in Britain in 1991, Mwanaka began searching for a job as a journalist. The idea of making it big as a farmer had not registered in his mind at that point.
“Down the line I worked as a traffic warden, in factories and there came a time I was so frustrated doing jobs I was not interested in. I was not interested in anything except journalism,” he said.
The idea of growing white maize came when Mwanaka started craving for African food.
It took six years for him to hit the jackpot.
The first time of selling his crop was not a walk in the park.
“The first year after growing white maize, I remember the very first day I packed in the boot of my small car with 30 dozens of maize. I went down to Tottenham because I said (most) people in North London are blacks; they will all go for my white maize,” he remembers.
Unfortunately, that was not the case as nobody bought the white maize. He went home with all the 30 dozens. Eventually, word of mouth and also a bit of advertising did help him to market the products.
Mwanaka now farms 100 acres of land from four farms dotted around England and supplies white maize far and wide and to luxurious shops such as Harrods and Sainsbury.
When I arrived at the farm in Enfield, the 20- hectare field had green maize cobs ready to harvest. Surprisingly he was using bare hands like we do in the village to harvest with the help of his wife, Brenda.
It was a farm invasion of sorts, this time of a different kind from the violent land expropriations that took place in his country of birth, where government drove out over 4 000 white farmers to make way for blacks.
The land reform programme in Zimbabwe ended up benefitting mostly political elites and their cronies, and never the black peasant farmers who were meant to be moved from arid, rural settlements to the acquired farms.
That Mwanaka is a black farmer successfully tilling the land in Britain sounds ironic; Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has declared that white farm owners should only be allowed to own land in towns and cities.
For Mwanaka, the switch to farming demanded tenacity.
“The person who actually helped me to start growing maize hung up the phone and said I was still wasting my time and could not grow white maize in this country. It’s too cold for white maize; do not phone me again and just hang up,” Mwanaka said, clutching six maize cobs.
But he did not give up.
“I set there thinking, I either have got to give up because this man has told me it’s not possible to do it in this country or I have got to prove him wrong. So one reason I started growing white maize was, I just wanted to prove him wrong,” he said, chuckling.
When I arrived at his shop, a lady of African origin wanted to make an order of white maize – this time she insisted on getting hard ones.
“We do have lots of customers from Southern Africa, East Africa, Asia and South America. It’s the local population that does not know white maize,” Mwanaka said.
Mwanaka’s farming experience in the UK has had several hurdles.
“We had a field in Leicester and it happened to be behind some houses. When locals saw us harvesting our crop they reported us to the police claiming that we were thieves stealing maize. We had three reports within a few days and every time there was a report the police came to investigate.
“I take it that the locals had never seen blacks working in a field hence they reported us to the police. Once in a while we still get locals passing comments like ‘We are alerting the police. We know you’re stealing.’ It doesn’t bother me. As long as they don’t physically attack us I don’t take notice of them.”
He has also had pleasant and memorable moments.
“The most satisfying moment was probably when we started delivering white sweet corn to one of the biggest supermarkets in the country called Sainsbury’s and Harrods.
“That was really something…. I have achieved something that some farmers in the country can’t probably do.”
While Mwanaka could not reveal his turnover, media reports suggest he turns out about £500 000 per year. Like many African migrants, he sends remittances back home. Diaspora remittances represent 20 percent of gross domestic product in Zimbabwe. Financial Gazette