Family after family fled along this dirt road towards Harare as they were evicted from their farms by Zimbabwean war veterans.
The road through the country’s prime, red-soiled land was a front line in Robert Mugabe’s policy of seizing white-owned farms, first implemented more than 20 years ago.
The luckiest farmers were given enough time to collect up their belongings and stack them in the back of vehicles. Others fled empty-handed, chased, often violently, from their farmhouses.
Thousands of white farmers were forced from their land without compensation in areas like this between 2000 and 2005 in a policy Mugabe said was to redress colonial-era land grabs.
Of some 4,500 white-owned farms in the country in 2000, soon only around 300 remained on portions of their original land. Several white farmers were killed in the evictions. Mugabe’s land reforms cast the country into diplomatic isolation and contributed to its near ruin as agriculture collapsed.
Much of the farmland in this corner of Zimbabwe has been fallow ever since, but between the abandoned fields, other farms are coming back to life. Driving along the road now, large new irrigation systems are visible, watering huge fields of wheat. Tobacco curing barns are busy once again.
Some two decades after the white farmers were chased away, more than a dozen are now back running farms along this road alone.
“Agriculture is taking off in Zimbabwe again and it’s because the government has realised you need the best people on the land, regardless of what colour they are,” said one white farmer who declined to be named.
‘We’ve almost got enough for a cricket team’
Across Zimbabwe, there are now thought to be as many as 900 white-run commercial farms. The farmers are not usually working their own land, but are renting in joint ventures from black farmers given confiscated white-owned land.
“So many have come back to farm up our way, we’ve almost got enough for a cricket team again,” said one white farmer in another part of the country.
After the evictions, some seized farms were handed over to politically connected beneficiaries linked to the ruling Zanu-PF party. Mugabe and his wife Grace built an empire of around a dozen farms themselves. Others were divided up into small-holdings and shared out.
Beneficiaries often borrowed against their new farms, but in many cases struggled to make them productive.
Faced with financial pressure from banks to repay debts and political pressure from the government to boost agriculture, many beneficiaries have in recent years turned to the proven expertise of some of the white former farmers.
Some of the new white farmers lost their own land 20 years ago, others are an entirely new generation.
“Beneficiaries got access to the best land and cheap credit, but when the economy dollarised, that became hard debt. Then they had to find a partner who could farm them out of debt. For people who wanted to farm and had lost their land, it made sense,” said one farming source.
Straight after the evictions, many white farmers tried to set up in Zambia or Mozambique. But they often struggled in unfamiliar terrain.
“Now, you can come to Zimbabwe and get a farm and blow the cobwebs away and the guy is perfectly happy to be renting it to you for eight per cent,” the source said.
The joint ventures between new black landowners and white farmers are commercially pragmatic but can come with sensitivities. Some new white farmers seek out the original evicted owners to ask if they have objections to them working their old land. Others agree to pay the original owners a small share.
Farmers said agriculture in Zimbabwe was now booming in a rare bright spot for an economy in crisis.
Tobacco, long a favourite crop in the country, had a record harvest this year, selling 263 million kg, worth £626 million.
The increase is not due to the return of white farmers alone. One black farmer who had received 750 acres of seized land said there had been heavy government investment.
“Farming is going well at the moment,” he said.
In the largest supermarket in Zimbabwe, in Borrowdale, north of Harare’s scruffy city centre, the vegetables are all locally grown. At the height of the agricultural collapse caused by the farm evictions, they had to be imported from South Africa. Now, Zimbabwean produce, such as berries, is back on sale in shops across the Rainbow Nation.
It is too early to tell if the uptick in agriculture in a country once known as the breadbasket of Africa will haul up the rest of the economy. Inflation is running in triple figures and the local currency has plummeted. The public health system is nearly derelict.
Yet while some new white farmers are doing well, they admit their situation could be precarious and they rely on the patronage and protection of their new landlords.
“We stay out of politics, that’s the golden rule,” said one.
Another said: “Ultimately security comes from standing next to power and not the law. That means staying out of politics.”
Zimbabwe’s white farmers are being welcomed elsewhere in Africa, bringing with them the promise of jobs and economic growth
Some of Zimbabwe’s white farmers were welcomed elsewhere in Africa after being forced to leave Credit: GEORGE OSODI/AP
Meanwhile, many who lost their farms are still in limbo. Others died penniless.
In 2020, Zimbabwe agreed to pay $3.5 billion (£2.8 billion) compensation to white farmers whose land was expropriated. However, the country does not have the money to give.
One former successful farmer from eastern Zimbabwe now farming outside the country, but who still longs to return, said: “The few remaining [white] farmers not too old to go back to the land must be able to as whites and own land with title deeds.
“At present we, the odd handful of old white farmers are, in terms of the law, not able to own land.
“Most of our colleagues are dead, or left Zimbabwe, or are too old to go back to farm,” he added. “We are no threat to indigenous farmers as there are so few of us.”