In the Tanganyika badlands, British pioneers are waging a new African conquest.. Not for diamonds, not for gold, but for margarine on a hungry world's bread

HAROLD A. ALBERT January 1 1949


In the Tanganyika badlands, British pioneers are waging a new African conquest.. Not for diamonds, not for gold, but for margarine on a hungry world's bread

HAROLD A. ALBERT January 1 1949


In the Tanganyika badlands, British pioneers are waging a new African conquest.. Not for diamonds, not for gold, but for margarine on a hungry world's bread


FOUR years ago, as Trooper Robert Wallace, he drove a Canadian armored reccie car through a storm of enemy gunfire. Today,

Tractor Driver Bob Wallace—bom and bred in Hamilton, Ont.—is bulldozing through the twisted scrub forests of Tanganyika and, grinning wryly, he tells how he butted a hollow baobab tree and came under a blitz of indignant giant bees. Hospital nurses at base camp spent three days taking the stings out.

The scene changes but not the gusto. As Bob sees it, what’s going on at East Africa’s peanut plantations is not far from the war days in courage, endurance and enterprise. Plowing up 5,000 square miles of jungle, dynamiting the toughened roots of the thorn thickets, fighting clouds of tsetse flies —to the tough youngsters doing the job it’s one of the most exciting and rewarding adventures of modem times.

The ex-soldiers—and the planeloads of newspaper reporters and visiting politicians—call it Operation Peanut. In the mess the veterans sing a crusty song of their 8,000 African co-workers, “We are the peanut pioneers, we are the boys who get the jeers . . .”

British Food Ministry officials tersely call it the groundnuts scheme. Miles from everywhere, facing incredible difficulties, nut-cracking tough transport

and water problems,

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the peanut pushers are conducting the biggest farming operation in history, digging and draining 3,250,000 acres of darkest Africa as an initial bite, it is a government enterprise run by Britain’s Overseas Food Corporation.

In this first phase, the pioneers visualize 107 plantations of 30,000 acres each, with 40,000 acres of village space, spelling new economic wealth for Britain, new opportunities for the African and ammunition against world famine. Out why peanuts? With $98 millions of the British taxpayers’ money invested in capital expenditure, the answer’s in a nutshell. Rich in fats, the humble peanut is the quickest crop to meet the present world shortage of edible oils.

From each 100 tons of shelled peanuts you get 44 tons of oil. Add salt and water and you have 50 tons of margarine. Change the formula and it’s 50 tons of soap. Peanut oil could end the world shortage of cattle food, it, will bring down the price of cooking fat to Canadian housewives. What’s more, the peanut comes to maturity in five or six months, barely five per cent of the time taken by the palm tree. You plant the seed in December and reap the harvest600,000 tons annually by 1953—in April or May.

Ships in Peanut Line

Currently the world shortage of fats and oils is running at four million tons. With many more hungry mouths in Manchuria and India, the former ma jor supply sources, the scarcity bids to got worse. Hence the urgency of this sixyear scheme with 800 miles of new highways and railroads, its swift new towns and communities, its hurricane rush of cement and machinery to the new $10 million deep-water port of M ikindani.

But let's look at Kongwa, the centre of Project One. The peanut hoys are pioneers in the toughest physical sense. They started with no roads except the rough jungle track followed by Stanley and Livingstone, no suitable port or machinery. The only railroad was 16 miles away, a single-track line from Dar es Salaam, often broken and washed away by the winter rains. Their first bulldozers were scrap junk from war-littered beaches of the Philippines. It’s still less than two years, in fact, since the first surveyor rammed the first stake in a wilderness of leopard-infested bush. Rut come to Kongwa.

Got your bearings? You’re in a plane some 2,500 mil«« northeast of Cape Town and 600 miles southwest of the silver sheet of Lake Victoria. There to the east is the port of Dar es Salaam. Those infinitesimal black dots are ships waiting their turn in the peanut lineup for dock space. Some 250 miles inland from the ocean, beyond the Nguru Mountains, you sight the vast uncultivated plain studded with white circles, the craters of longextinct volcanoes, like a map of the moon.

Suddenly, as you lose altitude, a reservoir glistens below the hillside and you see the tents and prefabs, mudthatch huts and marquees, stores and workshops, the hospital and movie theatre of Kongwa. Eighteen months ago it didn’t exist. Now broad roads traverse the area, leading off to the experimental farms and tractor-training schools, the soil-research station and golf course, the plantations and clearance zones.

And meet the boys. The boss is Major - General Desmond Harrison,

formerly Earl Mountbatten’s chief engineer officer in Burma; his second is “Bwana” Dave Martin, a brownarmed agricultural organizer who has given his life to heavyweight jungle fighting. Then there are the entomologists, the soil experts, and chemists, men like Tom Morcott who runs an experimental bush farm and asserts the chief pests are elephants; men like Wally Turner whoonceran a Manchester dance hall and now gets the natives rhythmically building sawmills in swing time.

Birth of a Vision

Truckloads of singing native workers roar past the marquee on their way to the clearance sites and you’re reminded of the jingling wagons hurtling through a movie of the pioneer west. Kongwa works and slumbers to the reality of everything starting from scratch—the scratch of the heavy rooters as they tear at thorn thickets and a multiplicity of stumps that proved too much for normal rooting machines and required development of new rip eq uipment.

But why take on land so thickly covered with bush when the swamps and velds of inner Africa await exploitation? The answer is that natural grasslands get waterlogged in the rains and the East African groundnut requires a light, easily crumbled soil, soil which is bound to be under some form of forest growth in its virgin state.

That’s why the idea of peanuts popped into the mind of Frank Samuel when he found himself flying over the badlands of Tanganyika just two and a half years ago.

Samuel is managing director of the United Africa Co., which is a branch of Unilever soap interests. United Africa grows oil palms. Though inspired by the plane trip Samuel visualized at first only another small mechanized development. The more he talked the plan over with Tanganyika colonial officials, the more pitiful it seemed in comparison with the possibilities.

If only hundreds of tractors and bulldozers could be spirited into the desert, if wells could be sunk, if hundreds of scientists and doctors and administrators could be mobilized as for an operation of war.

Pulled Some Boners

Samuel flew home to England, his thoughts in a ferment. Supposing $100 millions could be spent? Groundnuts could be produced at $56 a ton compared with the prevailing world price*of $128 and the total expenditure could be recouped at only $4 a ton over 33 years. For Tanganyika, for Northern Rhodesia and Kenya, here was a scheme, but it was too big for United Africa Co., or Unilever, so big that it could be handled only at national government levels.

Samuel literally locked himself in his study as he worked out the details. On March 28, 1946, he completed his memorandum. The paper went the rounds, to the Colonial Office, the Ministry of Food and the Treasury. In April it was discusses:! by the British Cabinet.

On June 20 Dave Martin and two kingpin colonial experts were dispatched to Tanganyika to investigate. In the nine weeks they covered 10,(XX) miles by air, 2,000 by road and another 1,000 by rail. They laid bare some snags. Dar es Salaam, for instance, had no deep-water berths and all the vessels bringing equipment would have to anchor in the harbor and unload into lighters. As it later developed they also pulled a few boners.

On Sept. 20 they presented a report.

In November Parliament was told of the forthcoming Bill to establish the Overseas Food Corporation. One of the world’s greatest experts on vegetable oils, W. A. Faure, was assigned to launch production. Within a week he was ordering agricultural machinery from Toronto, rounding up trucks and tractors from all over Africa, moving Sherman Mark III tanks from Germany and sending them to British factories to be converted for bushwhacking.

Then, in February, 1947, the surveyors began to lay out the first camps, recruiting labor and building material. The only inhabitants were a tribe of primitive Wagogo. Hundreds of natives, with food stores and equipment, had to be moved inland by truck and jeep. In the hinterlands native chiefs were persuaded to set other labor reserves marching.

Baby Sitters in the Bush

When the rains came the Dar es Salaam facilities proved insufficient to warehouse incoming supplies and the overworked railroad failed to keep them moving. Jack Megaw, a veteran of wartime road convoy work in Abyssinia, began staging enormous road convoys overland with dozens of African drivers.

Elephants charged the convoys, lions held up the trucks for days. When ignitions failed and gasoline feeds choked, repairs were carried out sometimes while rhino snuffed at the track verge. But the project went on.

Harrison laid out an air strip and constructed a reservoir. Now there’s a piped water supply to the Park Avenue of Kongwa, permanent buildings of blocks of local soil compressed with local lime. There are talkies, though they’re called squawkies owing to defects in the apparatus, with a twice-weekly program, first for the 850 Europeans, then for the native compounds. In streets that were jungle two years ago there are baby carriages —and a lively nursery-sitter system for white mothers who still wish to do office work.

But first rails and ties had to be man-hauled for the 16-mile rail extension from Msagali to Kongwa. Then someone blundered and, after they had wasted valuable ship and transport space, 187 giant tractors brought from the Pacific proved to be useless junk. Despite this, 13,000 acres were cleared and 7,500 planted that first year, sufficient for future seed stocks, and every mile was a miracle.

This year some 135,000 acres are being planted. Meanwhile, 600 miles inland a group of young ex-commandos are surveying the area for Project Two, with its 115-mile extension from the railhead. And in Southern Tanganyika the ultimate 1,650,000-acre turnover of Project Three has been racing forward.

Yield Above Expectations

Here there was no port at all. Tank landing craft used as lighters ran up the mangrove swamps to unload at improvized piers at Lindi. Nearby, however, is a natural landlocked harbor.

Work is well in hand this winter on construction of a full-sized port and a 120-mile railroad. The harassed architects were perhaps proudest of providing a pipe line to run fuel oil to the plantations area 120 miles inland. Then one of the clerks totted up the applications for land space and found they were building a city for 40,000 people minimum. Instead of a nominal $10 millions the Mikindani harbor scheme will cost $16 millions.

Not all these much-criticized mistakes have been on the debit side. Frank Samuel originally counted on a yield of 750 lbs. of peanuts per acre. On the worst soils, so far, the yield has been 900 lbs.

It was expected, too, that the training of African tractor drivers would prove long and tedious. The majority had never touched a machine before. Yet they gain proficiency in a few weeks, failures being fewer than 15%. Startling?

Barely a mile from the nativemanned repair shops, the Wagogo herdsmen water their skinny cattle. And for hundreds of miles around men like Colonel Addy Myers and his field staffs are teaching the natives basic English, preparing them for civilization with film strips and look-learn booklets. If there’s any prophetic pointer in the campaign, it’s the government proposal to turn the plantations over to the African people when they can prove their ability to conduct such ventures for themselves.

Newcomers to Kongwa receive a booklet entitled “Hints on Handling African Labor.” It says, “Don’t call them niggers. Do crack a joke with them. Do be polite, even if you don’t call them Mister.” A clearance manager like George Watterson, however, had to learn the art of diplomacy first hand.

Other Vast Projects

On day a skull fell from a baobab tree. Bulldozer brakes jammed on and there was an ominous hush. Certain baobab trees are sacred and the dead are buried in their hollow trunks. “Call a council of the elders,” Watterson ordered. To them he explained, “We have disturbed the skull of the ancient one. That is bad!” and he waited for the chorus of assents. Then he added, “But let the ancient one be placed on my right hand, let him whisper wisdom in my ears—that is good !” Work went on.

Upcountry from Mikindani, a smallpox epidemic broke out. Alone on the scene, a young sanitary inspector scarcely four months out from Britain hurried back to the roadhead to learn how to give vaccination. At the risk of falling sick himself, he tramped from kraal to kraal, overcoming the superstitions of the native chiefs, Ultimately he vaccinated 11,000 tribesmen and checked the epidemic in barely four weeks, an amazing feat.

Operation Peanut is just beginning but a hundred similar projects are shaping, from the enormous new industrial coal fields of northern Rhodesia to the $72 million hydro-electric harnessing of the Zambesi near Victoria Falls, a proposition bigger than Boulder Dam. Another great scheme will build a dam across the headwaters of the Nile and perhaps open a shipping highway from Cairo to Nyasaland. Stores of gold, platinum, diamonds, iron ore, tungsten, chrome and manganese await the tapping. In the past Britain has drawn immense wealth from South Africa with its 472,494 square miles and population of 11 millions. In East Africa awaits a dominion of 1,143,000 square miles with a population approaching 19 millions.

But let’s take the last word of an unbiased neutral observer, America’s Professor Lowell Ragatz of the George Washington University. “Britain is far from done for,” he says. “She still has an ace up her sleeve, creating a wealthy industrial empire in Africa. Britain has built and lost two great empires—in the UnitedStatesand India —but the prospects are that her th;rU, in Africa, will be her greatest.” ^