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African Farmers' Improvement Fund

Volume 499: debated on Thursday 24 April 1952

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11.5 p.m.

I want to raise tonight a matter on which I have addressed a number of Questions to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, both of the present and the previous Governments, namely, the question of the North Rhodesian African Farmers' Improvement Fund, its administration, its purposes and its prospects. I am not raising the matter in any spirit of criticism—at least, in the first instance—but rather for the purposes of obtaining more information than it has been possible to obtain by the procedure of Parliamentary Question and answer.

I presume that the Minister is as aware as I am that there is a great deal of disquiet and distrust and, maybe, a good deal of misunderstanding amongst Africans in these territories about the prospects and management of this type of fund, which operates in other territories also. Therefore, there is a great need for the maximum clarification and publicity amongst Africans in order that any misunderstandings may be removed.

In regard to the fund, I should like, first, to have some further information than I have so far received about the need for the large balances that are held in the fund and about the need for the large contributions that are still required from year to year from the African farmers in relation to these very considerable balances.

The fund is of comparatively recent date. It arose from the old Maize Control Board, whose funds were transferred to the Native Areas (Controlled Areas) Fund in 1944 for the purposes, mainly, of soil conservation and of encouraging African farmers in improved methods of farming. In January, 1949, it was renamed the African Farmers' Improvement Fund.

So far as I have been able to ascertain from the information supplied to me by the Minister, its main use so far has been for purchasing seeds and various items of equipment, for soil conservation, which covers quite a number of activities, for bonuses to the African farmers who show signs of improving their methods, and for various loans, to co-operatives and so on.

In regard to the balances, I was told by the previous Minister that the balance at 1st January, 1949, was £149,461, out of which the total amount of bonuses paid to the African farmers was only £4,607. The total paid for soil conservation during that year was £4,313; so that there was a total expenditure of £8,921 out of a balance of £149,461. In 1950, the balance was still about the same—£140,000. On 1st January, 1951, it had gone up to £158,000, and the expenditure had gone up to £19,000.

When I wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in the previous Government, I obtained certain information about the expenditure in 1950, which had not then quite finished. Amongst the items of expenditure that were anticipated was an interest-bearing loan of £10,000 to start co-operatives amongst the contributors to the fund, for the sole use of the contributors.

On examining the balance sheet for 1950, I find that that £10,000 is not shown and that the only co-operative loan was one of £1,500 to the Tonga Plateau Cooperative, of which £1,200 was repaid within that year. I should like to know what has happened to the original proposal to loan £10,000 for co-operative development, and what steps are being taken still further to extend what seems to me to be the most advantageous method of encouraging effective farming methods amongst the large number of small farmers in that type of area.

There are one or two further questions I wish to ask. First of all, who controls the expenditure of this fund? Are there sufficient African representatives on the control? What methods are used for deciding the expenditure of the fund, and how far is this decided in mutual consultation between the African and European farmers and the Colonial Administration? Is the Minister satisfied, in view of the small amounts that are paid annually from the fund so far—and I appreciate it is only in its infancy—that the staff for supervisory purposes is sufficient, or whether a sufficient staff is being secured for the purposes?

On the question of encouraging co-operatives, I understand that there is a co-operative training school, the total attendance of which is about 12 students per year. How far is the fund being used, or can it be used, to assist the development of that school in order, in turn, to assist the development of agricultural co-operatives?

I should also be interested to know how the prices for the maize are fixed, and by whom; and why it is that there is such a differentiation between the prices in the various areas. Why is such a large contribution as 9s. per bag taken from the African farmer towards this fund, particularly when the average production, as I believe, is about four bags per acre, which means they are paying 36s. per acre towards the fund? And why the difference in the prices ruling in the different areas? This again is no criticism. I just do not know.

I understand that in the maize control area the European farmer is paid 35s. per bag and the African 26s., so the African pays 9s. towards the fund. In the Eastern Province the price is 13s. 6d., of which, I gather, only 1s. 6d. goes to the fund. In the Northern Province it is 28s., so there is a difference between 26s., 13s. 6d. and 28s. in the various areas. It may be that in the Eastern Province the main reason, if not the only reason, is that this is a deficit area, which means that by the time they import maize to make up the balance necessary for the population—at a price, I gather, estimated at about 45s. per bag. taking transport into account—the average for the Province comes to somewhere near 26s. and 35s. in the maize control area. It would be interesting to know the full reason.

I think we might just as well state frankly what it is the Africans fear about this. It is commonly said amongst the Africans—and I have ample correspondence on the point over a long period—that this low price in the Eastern Province is fixed deliberately in order to provide the European farmers with cheap food for their workers and cheap labour for their farms.

It is also asserted—and this is probably one of the things that gives colour to that idea—that the Member for Agriculture and National Resources is himself a tobacco farmer, who is elected only by European farmers. I do not know whether this is true, but if it is, is it wise that that should be the case? Is it difficult to understand, if that is the case, that there must be a certain amount of suspicion amongst the African farmers about these regulations and prices? What steps does the Minister take, if that is the case, to make sure that the Africans have that kind of fear removed from their minds?

My final point is on the production of tobacco in this territory, which is linked with the same question. I understand that there are two main kinds of tobacco produced in this territory. Flue-cured or fire-cured, produced by the Europeans, and a poorer quality tobacco, Burley, produced by the Africans. I understand that the tobacco is sold through some kind of auction, which refuses to handle any but the cheaper type of tobacco from the Africans. Are they public auctions? And why do they refuse to handle any better tobacco from Africans? Naturally, this again gives rise to the feeling among Africans that the prohibition is vindictive on the part of European tobacco growers, and, if that is their feeling, we must clear their minds if we can.

In Southern Rhodesia, it is quite clear that the Africans are prohibited from producing tobacco at all, so that it is not surprising that suspicions are roused in Northern Rhodesia when Africans are allowed only to produce cheaper tobacco. If there is a substantial reason for this distinction, it would be useful to know what it is. If it is suggested that the African farmer is incapable of producing better tobacco, there are many who are in a position to judge who disagree. But, if that should be the argument, is not this precisely the kind of activity that could be usefully pursued with the aid of the Betterment Fund, in order to encourage and help the African farmer to produce the better type?

I raise these points, not in a spirit of criticism, but because they are questions that have been raised with me and it is desirable that they should be cleared up. While this lack of understanding exists in these territories, there is a lack of co-operation; and while there is a lack of co-operation we shall obviously not be able to get the best administration of our Colonial Territories in the direction we all desire—to bring the Africans to the point where they will be able to manage their own affairs.

11.17 p.m.

Those of us present in the House this evening will be glad the hon. Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) has raised this most important subject. It is an important subject, affecting the welfare and progress of a large number of our fellow citizens in Central Africa.

I know the hon. Member will not expect me to be over-careful of his feelings in any observations I make, because tonight he has shown a readiness to lend himself to suggestions and charges that may be made outside this House, without formally agreeing with them. He has, in fact, been ready to wound but afraid to strike. It is most important that I should quite frankly deal definitely not only with the facts of the hon. Member's speech but with the innuendoes to which he has also committed himself.

Is it in order for a Minister to charge a Member with innuendo for conveying suggestions that have been made to him by constituents?

I hope that I shall justify what I say in my argument—to which I most fervently cling—that the suggestion that there has been any improper or unfair use of the undoubted powers that lie in the hands of the Government of Northern Rhodesia is completely untrue.

The hon. Member has raised the question of maize and tobacco prices and production in Northern Rhodesia, and, running through all he has said, there has been a suggestion that agricultural policy in Northern Rhodesia is designed to benefit the European farmer at the expense of the African.

The hon. Member has broadly hinted that as the Member for Agriculture and Natural Resources in Northern Rhodesia is himself elected by Europeans and is a tobacco grower, he is not in a position to tender unbiassed advice or give unbiassed decisions. I do not say the hon. Member himself accepted that view, but he has said that it is felt outside. I see from my copy of "Dod" that the hon. Member is himself a railway clerk and a member of the General Medical Council. When matters affecting both those important bodies are before the House, or outside it, I would not lend myself to the view that he was not qualified to give his advice on these two great subjects in an unbiassed way. I hope that he will concede the same of Mr. Beckett, the Member for Agriculture and Natural Resources in Northern Rhodesia, on whom now fall difficult and important decisions which have to be reached in that territory.

The whole purpose of the agricultural policy in Northern Rhodesia is to make Northern Rhodesia self-supporting in regard to foodstuffs. All the time we are conscious of the need, in order to secure that, both to raise the standard of cultivation among the Africans in Northern Rhodesia and firmly to establish, and give illustrations of, our belief in the principle of partnership among all races in Northern Rhodesia.

The hon. Member suggested that as the Member for Agricultural and Natural Resources was a tobacco grower some people might feel that his advice had not always been wholly unbiassed. I should like to make plain that we in this House who have responsibility for a large area of the British Colonial Territories are always doing our utmost to encourage the best of our fellow-citizens overseas to pay their part in the economic, social, and political development in the Colonies in which they live. If those who are ready to do this find themselves involved in imputations against their integrity, it will be the more difficult to get the right sort of people to take an active part in the development of the Colonies.

The Member for Agricultural and Natural Resources in Northern Rhodesia was appointed in January, 1949, and for the last two years during which we had a Socialist Government in power in the U.K. he has been the Member in Northern Rhodesia. The price fixed in the Eastern Province, which figured largely in the suggestions of the hon. Gentleman, is not a matter for the Member for Agriculture. Price fixing is in the hands of the Economic Secretary, and, eventually, in the hands of the Executive Council as a whole. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that it was during the period of his own Party that there was given to the Executive Council very considerably increased power in Northern Rhodesia. So that if all the unofficial and elected members of the Executive Council made a recommendation to the Governor, unless the Governor were prepared to invoke his reserve powers, he agreed to accept that recommendation.

I think that the more we look at the story of what has happened during the last few years the more we are entitled to say that the Member for Agriculture, confronted with great difficulties, has played a part in the development of his country which does him the greatest credit and deserves the fullest confidence from both sides of this House.

Let me go into the detail of one or two of the charges which the hon. Member has made. He has spoken of the difference between the fixed prices for maize in the line of rail area and in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. I think he realises that the great need is to make Northern Rhodesia self-sufficient in foodstuffs. That being so, the main concentration must be on encouraging food production in that part of the territory most likely to give maximum and quickest results. That territory is along the line of rail for some 25 or 30 miles on either side. So the price fixed there has been deliberately designed to encourage the maximum production of maize.

The price is exactly the same for Europeans and Africans, 37s. for a bag of 200 lb. There is a bonus paid directly to the European grower of 2s. a bag, and there will be a bonus of 2s. paid to the African grower, though whether it is to be paid directly to him or to the African Improvement Fund is a matter which is now being considered by the Executive Council on which African interests are represented.

As to the price in the Northern Province, it is true that it is considerably less, but it is not as low as the hon. Gentleman suggested. The price is 27s. in some districts and 24s. in others. The justification for that, which appears to us to be sensible, is that maize in that Province is not a staple crop and the soil is not suitable for its production. In the Eastern Province, to which the hon. Gentleman also referred, the price paid is governed largely by questions of geography and transport. In 1951 it was 15s. a bag, but adding the cost of transport to that production delivered at Port Jameson, where it would have to be marketed, it would have cost 32s. a bag and in the present year 36s. a bag. If the same bag of maize had been taken to Lusaka, which is the nearest railway for that Province, it would have cost 52s. a bag.

The purpose of the Administration has been to encourage the production of maize in the Territory most likely to yield the maximum and the quickest return. We do not want to encourage Africans in that part of the Territory to grow crops, which will not yield them a good return. We want to encourage them to grow cash crops for export where the comparatively high price will cover the exceptionally high transport cost of that district.

The next thing the hon. Gentleman suggested was that the difference between what is paid for the crop and what the African actually gets is too high. If I might detain the House for a moment with a comparison of these figures, the price paid is 37s. 0d. plus bonus, but the actual cash payment to the African will be 25s. 3d., leaving a difference of 11 s. 9d. between what his crop fetches and what he himself receives. Where does the difference go?

It goes in two forms. Some 3s. 9d. a bag goes towards the cost of the Maize Control Board, which is a marketing board. The difference, 8s. 0d. a bag, is paid to the African Farming Improvement Fund, which is steadily raising the standard of production among all the Africans in that district. It is helping the Africans by financing various soil conservation schemes, the construction of small dams, access roads, and helps of that kind, the provision of subsidised fertilisers, carts, and other accessories.

The bonus that is being paid to the Africans in that Territory is paid according to the standard of cultivation that the African shows. If he gives cultivation which is first-class in the view of the local agricultural officers, he gets in the end exactly the same return as the European. The registered Africans year by year are steadily increasing in number, and they are taking advantage of this opportunity given to them to receive the best possible price for their product.

The hon. Gentleman—I hope he is staying to hear the reply—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursaunt to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Eleven o'Clock.