Somaliland’s miracle dairy farm
BBC Africa Editor Mary Harper describes how she came to report on a remarkable green field dairy farm in the middle of the desert in a rejuvenated Somaliland.
I didn’t believe a word Abdullah Farah was saying when he first told me about his farm.
I had met him by chance in the Man-Soor Hotel while reporting for Assignment in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland – a dry, arid territory that broke away from Somalia 20 years ago and classed by the BBC as a ‘hostile environment’.
Like so many Somalilanders, Abdullah had fled the territory during a civil war in the 1980s. He ended up as a refugee in Canada, where, from nothing, he built up a lucrative business.
But he had returned to his homeland to set up what he told me was the “Green Valley Dairy Farm”.
I’m sorry to say that I laughed at him and joked that he was living in some kind of fantasy land because I could never imagine such a thing in Somaliland.
On my journey through the territory, I had seen hardly any green vegetation and certainly no dairy cows. Just camels and goats.
He asked if I’d like to visit and I couldn’t resist, so the next day we set off early in the morning in his dusty jeep.
We flew across the sand at great speed, bouncing and leaping across territory that is still being cleared of the hundreds of thousands of landmines planted there during the civil war.
Suddenly, in stark contrast to the sandy landscape, appeared an expanse of bright green.
I thought I had seen a mirage, but there, built amongst the lush fields, was a green cowshed, full of black and white dairy cows.
Mr Farah didn’t know anything about farming when he started the project, but he wanted to produce fresh milk in Somaliland because many people, including his father, suffer from weak bones caused by calcium deficiency.
“I learned all of this from the internet,” he said, laughing.
His can-do attitude and spirit of adventure was something I encountered a lot in Somaliland, especially amongst those people who had returned from exile overseas.
I came to think of them as the ‘Somaliland pioneers’.
Somaliland doesn’t have access to big international loans because it doesn’t officially exist as a country.
Its government is poor and weak, but business people and local communities are rebuilding Somaliland from the rubble of war.
Twenty years ago, Hargeisa was called the ‘Dresden of Africa’ – the city had been flattened by systematic aerial bombardment by Somali government forces.
Now it is a boom town and many of the roads, bridges, schools and hospitals have been built with private money.
Some Somalilanders have contributed millions of dollars, others perhaps a camel, a goat or a few shillings.
Despite Somaliland’s ‘hostile environment’ status, I felt extremely safe there.
Most expatriates won’t leave their homes without armed guards, but I travelled all over the territory with no armed escort.
There were several checkpoints manned by veterans of the civil war, but passing through them was always a good-humoured and relaxed experience.
The riskiest thing about my trip to Somaliland was getting there.
I travelled by air from the Kenyan capital Nairobi, via the Somali capital Mogadishu where, on an almost daily basis, al-Qaeda linked fighters battle a weak transitional government backed by African Union peacekeepers.
Fortunately there was no heavy fighting on the day I was there and the atmosphere was fairly relaxed.
But the city was heavily militarised – a complete contrast to Somaliland, where most of the guns have been put down and people are doing what they can to develop their homeland, including making sure the population has fresh milk to drink.