The CIDA/New Brunswick Malawi Dairy Farm Project
As many of you know, my interest in things African, and specifically in Malawi, was piqued as a teenager. I remember the day back in Grade 11 in good old Sussex, New Brunswick, Canada when they came back early. A family had been sent to Malawi, Africa to establish a modern dairy farm.
In 1980, a successful banker turned farmer moved with his wife and teenage daughter to Lilongwe, Malawi, on a two-year contract. Their employer was the Province of New Brunswick and the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA.
They lasted for just over a year before moving back home to Canada.
The project—the development of a modern, efficient dairy farm complete with Canadian dairy cattle and technology seemed like such a fantastic idea. The government of Malawi granted 600 hectares of land just outside of the capital city for use in the project. The Province of New Brunswick would supply the farmers and the livestock, and CIDA would contribute capital.
The country of Malawi is blessed with a long growing season and ample rainfall. The local cattle, the zebu, produced very little milk each day, but bred with Canadian Holsteins, capable of producing 30L per day, would certainly increase their yields, while making the Holstein lineage more hardy.
The project timeline was four years from start to finish. The Department of Agriculture in New Brunswick had oversight and control over the project. What could go wrong?
What Happened To The Project?
As best as I can piece together, after 10 years of effort and tens of millions of dollars spent, in 1991 the NB/Malawi Dairy Project was turned over to the people of Malawi.
It was a postcard-perfect farm, with several hundred head of high-producing cattle, a modern automated milking system, and vast, gleaming refrigerated storage tanks. It was the pride of CIDA and the government of Malawi.
Yet by 1994, the equipment and machinery had all ceased to function, the cattle were sickly and dying, and the farm had failed. In 1996, it was sold at auction, basically at scrap value.
Very little official information is available through government sources. I get it, digital records did not yet exist, but somehow, the disastrous failure of this project is scant recorded—or its records are being conspicuously overlooked and are otherwise unobtainable.
I found an old article in the Hamilton Spectator daily newspaper, dated Fe. 20, 2008, citing CIDA’s “collective amnesia” surrounding the project the Daily Gleaner. It mentioned that a dairy farm started in Malawi in the 1980s had been sold to a South African farmer who tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to keep the dairy farm going. To help make ends meet and to earn hard currency (USD), he started renting rooms out.
He quickly learned that foreign tourists loved his farm, and what began as a side hustle turned into a highly-rated tourist lodge, the Kumbali Country Lodge, famously known for being the preferred (and only) lodging for Madonna whenever she returns to visit Malawi, her “second home” from whence she has several adopted children.
My Trip To Malawi – What I Discovered
I booked myself into the KCL when I travelled to Malawi to research my book. When I arrived at the front desk, I saw a mazunga (literally a white man) nearby eyeing me curiously. In a South African drawl, the owner of the Lodge asked me point blank what had brought me from Canada to his hotel. When I told him my story, his jaw dropped, and he said “You and I are going to spend a lot of time together.”
And we did. He told me the story of what he found when he purchased the property. He showed me a few of the remaining cows, each bearing some white and black genetic spotting from their Holstein lineage. He showed me the original shipping containers with Canadian flags upon them. My host was excited to learn the backstory of his property.
We sat on his deck later one evening, and I explained how my friends had come full of excitement and enthusiasm in the early days of the project, only to have their keenness crushed by bribery, corruption, and red tape. They couldn’t stand it and returned home early.
Successive teams of farmers were sent year after year until finally it was complete. And then within a few short years, a decade of investment, effort, and good intentions were crushed under the weight of further corruption, greed, and governmental oppression.
My host now grows bananas, primarily for the domestic consumption market.
When A Successful Project Goes Wrong
Great intentions. Worthy objectives. A successful aid project gifted to the people of Malawi, albeit delayed and wildly over budget.
Yet once more, however, this project shines brightly as a glaring example of foreign aid gone wrong—again!
I look forward to sharing this journey with you. Let’s connect on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram; or my newsletter here.
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