Globe And Mail
Saturday, July 6, 2002 Print Edition, Page A5
By STEPHANIE NOLEN

Amin Shivji salvaged the hope of a village from family ruins

How one man's labour of love is transforming his nightmare into a new life for the poor

Amin Shivji salvaged the hope of a village from family ruins, STEPHANIE NOLEN discovers

KAMPALA -- Amin Shivji never intended to stay.

On a hot day in 1990, he stepped onto the 600-hectare Ugandan sugar-cane plantation he and his family had fled 20 years before, and surveyed the chaos. Bush had reclaimed the farmland; the house was a shambles, and what equipment remained littered about was rusted and ruined. As he had expected, it looked quite hopeless; his family's fortunes in Uganda were lost. There was nothing for him, and he prepared to return to the comfortable life he had built in Vancouver.

Then the local villagers caught sight of him, recognizing him as though the 20 years were nothing. They rushed around him.

"They were pulling at my clothes; they tore my shirt, they said, 'Please come back,' " Mr. Shivji recalls, still visibly moved by the memory. "Twenty years had passed since anyone had worked for a salary."

Mr. Shivji was one of 50,000 Ugandans of Asian origin whose property was nationalized by Idi Amin in 1972. Accusing them of prospering by robbing the country, the crazed dictator expelled the Asians, who had been the country's mercantile class.

Like about 3,000 others among those refugees, the Shivjis moved to Canada. Forced to leave all they owned behind them, they landed with $76 to their name. They went door to door asking for work in Vancouver. He found a job for $1.85 an hour in a clothing shop; his wife, Gulzar, once a professor of geography in Kampala, got work as a temporary secretary.

Over the next 30 years, Mr. Shivji earned an MBA, bought a supermarket and rose to be president of a publicly traded company; Mrs. Shivji became a senior manager in another. Their three daughters excelled in school: One became a teacher; one became a lawyer, and the youngest is now a University of British Columbia student who won a half-dozen awards this past year.

But in 1990, Mr. Shivji heard President Yoweri Museveni was returning the Asians' expropriated property, a move intended to bring a new flow of capital and commerce into the country.

Mrs. Shivji, still scarred by the memory of their terrifying departure from Uganda, wanted nothing to do with it.

"The way we were kicked out, it totally broke our faith," her husband explained. "Everyone remembers those last few days, all of us hiding in a room with no light -- my wife still had a great deal of bitterness. But I had overcome it." He was ready to go back, if only to see what remained.

And while his heart sank at the sight of the plantation upon his return, he couldn't bear to turn his back on the villagers who greeted him with such desperate enthusiasm.

The Shivji plantation had once employed hundreds of local workers for meagre, but competitive, wages, but there was no one to hire workers after the family left.

The villagers spent two decades in poverty all the more galling in comparison to the wealth Mr. Shivji had built in Canada.

Mr. Shivji regained possession of the plantation in 1991: It took some time to sort things out with the army officer who took it over during the Amin years. But he did not return to growing sugar cane. Instead, he had a new idea, one he believes can bring Uganda great prosperity: organic farming.

Today, his farm produces six to 10 tonnes of fruit and vegetables each week, depending on the season. There 84,000 pineapple plants on the verdant land, plus beehives, silkworms and vanilla vines.

Some of the produce is shipped to Europe fresh, while some -- sweet, chewy morsels of pineapple, banana and ginger -- is dried and packaged for export.

African Organic, as the new business is called, is certified organic by the Swiss oversight body IMO, which makes regular unannounced visits to the farm, located about a three hours drive north of Kampala. Mr. Shivji has taught 60 local outgrowers about organic farming, and pays them a premium for their chemical-free hot peppers and matoke, a root vegetable exported for the Caribbean population of Britain.

African Organic is as anomalous in the region as it is successful: an organic, fair-trade farm in a country largely devoted to subsistence farming or the export of raw coffee beans for minuscule prices.

Mr. Shivji encouraged the outgrowers to organize into a co-operative. African Organic funds its schools, sports fields and a new marketplace -- whatever the outgrowers decide they need in their community hearings.

"We have a strict code of conduct," Mr. Shivji explained. "We offer maternity leave, a day off each week, food at breakfast and lunch, medical services, recreation facilities."

He passes the premium that his organic fruit earns in Europe on to his growers, paying them up to five times the local market price. Mr. Shivji conceded that his Ugandan staff members think he is crazy for offering such benefits, unheard-of in most local farms, "but they do it."

He said he sees the effects of almost a decade of 6-per-cent annual growth in Uganda.

But the roads and electrical networks are still unreliable, and resurrecting his business has been a labour of love.

Only about 80 of the 12,000 Ismaili Muslim families who fled in 1972 have returned, Mr. Shivji said. (He has been put in charge of rehabilitating Uganda's Ismaili schools by the Aga Khan, the sect's spiritual leader.)

This spring, Mr. and Mrs. Shivji talked about the farm and asked their children what they wanted to become of this land, their birthright. Curious, the daughters have visited Uganda. But their lives are in Canada.

"So we are going to form a trust and turn it over to the villagers," Mr. Shivji said, before proudly proffering more of his sweet pineapple.