Nov 1, 2012 – I arrive in Nampula in north Mozambique on the invitation of Arpan Mathur, who has left his banker’s job at Deutsche Bank, New Delhi, to become a farmer. He has lured me with the promise of exploring the countryside, meeting famers and, of course, a good time.

Mozambique – in south east Africa, bordering the Mozambique Channel, between South Africa and Tanzania – gained independence from the Portuguese in 1975 and has had a chequered history since. Peace returned to this sparsely populated but resource-rich developing country after a bitter civil war on October 4, 1992. Possibly the largest African natural gas reserves have been discovered offshore at Rovuma-1 and other sites and the region is attracting global attention. A few Indian companies are also investing here and will be generating employment.

Starting from a very low base, the country’s gross domestic product is growing at 10 per cent and investments in minerals and gas will keep Mozambique’s GDP growth in double digits for years to come. The question is not whether the country’s growth potential will be realized but if this new found prosperity can be equally distributed amongst all sections of its people. Failing this, Mozambique will become another Nigeria, rich for the few and pathetic for the poor, an unstable strife-torn nation. That could happen but hopefully will not under the leadership of President Armando Emilo Guebuza.

I happen to be in a village that the president had visited. The president asked the villagers about their problems, explained the situation and looked for suggestions. The complaints were redressed and all those who had something to say got a very patient hearing. That is much more than I can say for India when it comes to its political leadership giving a patient hearing to those at the grassroots and actually redressing grievances. These are encouraging signs.

Foreign donations help the economy substantially. Many American and European non-government organizations work here and it is easy to spot them at cafes at Nampula. I saw long queues at bank ATMs and, on inquiry, was told that as per law all salaries need to be paid into bank accounts. Normally, one would have to wait in the line for two to three hours.

A shop is usually a large painted store house where everything is sold under a single roof – from toilet seats to fertilizers; from barbed wire to refrigerators; from generators to household goods; from kitchen utensils and toiletry to motorcycles. The local currency is meticais; the exchange rate is Rs 2 for one meticais. Taxi fares are steep at meticais 2,500 per day, tractor hire charges per acre for ploughing operation is 800 meticais. The cost of labour is 70 meticais a day even though opportunities for work are limited.

I base myself around Namialo, which is 140º south of the equator and the sun in November is directly overhead. It is peak summer time. The bright sun is harsh on my skin but under the shade of a Cajueiros (cashew) tree, it’s pleasant. The breeze is inviting, unlike in India where the loo (summer wind) is dust laden and hot. The nights are pleasant; one can sleep without a fan. The more striking news was that in this wonderland mango and cashew trees grow wild.

Farmers pluck the cashew and sell it to aggregators, who make the money. Mangos just fall off the trees for want of buyers. Even though water is accessible, farming is rain-fed because creating an irrigation infrastructure is an expensive proposition. In November, I saw farmers clearing the land of grass and bushes, even burning them to prepare the land for sowing cassava, green moong, peanuts, white maize, sesame, cotton, groundnut and such others. Yellow maize is not liked. Normally, poor farmers grow one crop a year depending on rains. Being close to the equator, rains are usually consistent unlike the Indian monsoons.

The language spoken is a mixture of local Makwa and Portuguese. I needed an interpreter to interact with farmers and Basilo Trinta in the hamlet. Basilo is 44 and has studied till class four. He has four children studying in Namialo. Education is free in government schools till class seven after which a nominal fee is charged that may be paid in kind.

The average size of the farm appeared to be around a hectare but not because of land limitation. Surprisingly, the farmer family manages to clean only that much land. Basilo, like other farmers, has extra time on hand and also land to put under cultivation but little spare cash. Land is abundant and 60 per cent of the arable land in Africa is yet to be put under cultivation.

Small farmers keep their own seeds for use the next year, while larger farmers may go and buy their seeds from the market. Small rain-fed farmer families are at a disadvantage vis-à-vis large farmers and those with perennial source of water as everywhere else in the world. Larger farmers hire tractors to plough the land and get a better yield of around 25 per cent more than from a hand prepared field.

Basilo said hospital medication was free even though they charge a nominal registration fee. It already has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. The electrification rate is only six per cent. Everyone, including Basilo, works from 6 am to 12 noon. All shops and offices, even in Nampula, close for lunch between 12 noon and 2 pm and stay open for another two to three hours. Afternoon siesta is possibly courtesy the south European influence. Like in many places in India, wood charcoal made from cut down trees being transported on cycles is a common sight.

Basilo lives in a capana; just the kind of house as those that I had seen in Ethiopia; thatched roof houses with walls made of wood tied as a grid interfiled with mud. There were similar capanas in such other areas as Netia, Monopo, Kuran and Nametili. As in Ethiopia, thatched roofs are being replaced by tin roofs. I saw a Chinese-owned tin roof making facility. The villgers use no cow dung because they do not keep cattle but rear only goats and some pigs.

Basilo’s usual food is vegetables with lots of meat. We had a village feast given by the head man, who is like a sarpanch in India. The menu featured chicken, meat, rice and curried beans cooked with sweet potato. Cassava is a root crop yielding up to four kgs per plant over 11 months and is the staple food. There is limited cereal production. A goat research station would be beneficial and help improve the lot of the farmers more than anything else. Every market had goat meat, eggs and milk imported from South Africa.

Practices differ between large and small farms; small farmers place less than a thousand cassava plants per hectare but only for personal consumption. The multinational Corridor Agro puts 12,500 plants per acre for commercial sale to international beer companies. The good part is that they are helping small farmers change practices by supplying them cassava cuttings, technology assistance and complete buyback too.

There are Brazilian, Chinese, Vietnamese companies that are moving in to Mozambique in the provinces of Zamabesia and Niasa.

I visit multinational corporation Matanuska’s 1,500 hectare banana plantation in Muzarban in Monopo district, which employs 3,000 villagers. There is no local equipment to hire or use, everything needs to be imported – tractors, tyres, plough and seed drills. If the continent could get its act together, it could become the food basket of the world.

The Brazilian government along with the Japanese government started ProSavana, an agriculture research centre that will soon start extension services. The latitude parallels being the same as Brazil, it decided to do further research and transfer knowledge to Mozambique. The soya bean yield in experiment stations here is better than in Brazil, even though GM crops are not allowed in the country. It took Brazil 40 years of research and work to make the Cerrado region a success.

Henoque Riberiro da Silva, the research coordinator from the Brazilian agriculture research corporation told me that they are confident of changing Mozambique’s agriculture in 20 years. One hoped that such long term vision would obtain in India too.

One needs an invitation or a sponsor from Mozambique to get a visa. Arpan wrote to the CPI or Investment Promotion Centre at its Nampula office and received an invitation to visit it. After a yellow fever vaccination, Arpan arrived in Mozambique. The CPI in Nampula was exceptionally helpful. Such dedication will secure much-needed foreign investment for the country.

Agriculture land that can be leased from the government for a few dollars per acre is very cheap but it takes a lot of effort to clear the land of the trees and make the land easily cultivable. The procedure to lease land is very straight forward. The CPI put Arpan in touch with the SDAE (Serviços Distritais das Actividades Económicas) – Distrital Services of Economic Activities, which can help with identification of land. If one likes the land, the next step is to meet the Community Authority (Regulo) and administrative post officer.

They call a farmers’ meeting to explain the investment. Those who have objections have one month to raise them and these are seriously investigated. After the administrator has signed the papers for endorsement of the governor of the province, through the Provincial Agriculture Department, one gets a provisional document for the use of land (DUAT) for two years. This is followed by a land demarcation and survey for compensation by the geography and cadastre. If the land identified is not populated, the process could be far simpler and faster.

The cost of leasing land (per hectare; per year) is incredibly low but the compensation that needs to be paid to the farmers will increase that value many times over. More fruit trees on the land not only mean more compensation. It is also extremely expensive to uproot them for farming. Compensation needs to be paid for the fruit trees on the land to be leased from the government.

A survey of the land is undertaken and a count of the trees is taken. Different trees are charged differently: cashew 750; banana 200; mango 350; Lichi 1,200; coconut 1,200 meticais each, for example. If any farmer agrees to be moved from his land, he needs to be compensated separately, after which the land can be used. Two years later, if the acquirer of the land is found to be using the land, he/she gets a 50-year DUAT. Otherwise, the land reverts to the government.

My friend arrived in Nampula two months ago and is hopeful that he will be allotted land in another month. Arpan is impressed with the pace of work and the assistance provided by the CPI, Provincial Agriculture Department and the administrator of Monopo district and so am I.

Visiting underutilized farmlands in Mozambique reinforces my opinion that the world will be able to meet its food requirement for decades into the future. India will continue to import produce from countries like Mozambique, where production will increase manifold in the decades ahead. Mozambique makes me wistful: What if India had more responsive representatives? Why can India not elect the right people for the right jobs?