Cees den Boer, originally from Strijen, has spent time in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Congo. For the past five years, he’s been working in Uganda, at Royal van Zanten’s Mukano site. In his role as operational manager, he’s responsible for cultivation and technique.
How did you end up in Africa?
“That more or less happened by chance. In 1981 I saw a job posting in the newspaper, from development organisation SNV, they were looking for volunteers. I completed the tear-off slip and sent it off. That was my first job application and I got the job. I became settlement advisor in Zambia. There was a war going on in neighbouring Angola and I assisted the Zambian army with their logistics. I actually only started working in horticulture quite recently. I lived in Zimbabwe for 17 years. Until we were thrown out by Mugabe.”
That must have been a difficult time?
“I lost three farms. But at some point, those things no longer really matter. I had a wife and four children. I’d already made sure the two eldest could leave. And then we fled to the Netherlands with the two youngest children. We couldn’t bring more than 10,000 dollar to make a new start. But that’s Africa. You’ve got to learn starting all over, again and again.”
And yet, you returned to Africa?
“I left Zimbabwe with a leg injury, so when we came to the Netherlands, I spent a year in hospital. After a while, I decided to take up work again. In a refugee centre. I had to do something. But I didn’t like it much in the Netherlands. There’s all this constant rushing around. So we went to Ghana, where I got a job in a coconut factory, but my wife and children couldn’t stand it. We moved to Gambia, where I worked for Farm Frites. Followed by a year in Sierra Leone. That didn’t really work out. The war there had just ended and the project that I was working on just never materialised.”
What was your best experience?
“The best time was in the Congo. I worked as a manager at a 3,000-ha farm of a German investor. We grew potatoes and vegetables. The Congo has so much to offer. It’s a huge, beautiful country with lots of space. It’s a boundless and rough place. You’ve got to be able to handle that. There are rules, but no one sticks to them. And the Congolese are nice people. They’re fantastic technically skilled workers. We’ve got to thank the Belgians for that. And there’s a gigantic market. You’ve got to be a good organiser and be able to deal with unexpected situations. I mainly worked in places where companies were struggling. I got them back on track. I’m a strong operational manager and I love action.”
What was your worst experience?
“I worked in the orange trade in South Africa for a while. South Africa was boycotted and orange trees in Zimbabwe were felled. The reverse happened later on, when Zimbabwe was boycotted. I didn’t like South Africa. I wouldn’t want to live there. Too racist. From both sides.”
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen?
“In Zambia I knew this really headstrong Danish man, who lived there with his son. The north-west of the country wasn’t safe, but he drove up by himself anyway. He was stopped. When we drove past, we saw him lying at the roadside, shot dead, and his son was just standing there. The weird thing is, that when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t think much of these situations. They only creep up on you after you’ve left. I returned from Zambia after four years and a day, and when I visited doctor De Graaf, he advised me to go and see a psychiatrist. In that respect, Zambia made the biggest impression on me. More so than Zimbabwe. Although, I had 32 staff members there, and after a few years, there were only 16 left. All the others had died. At some stage you say to yourself: we’re still alive, let’s keep going. When we’re born, we only get one certainty and that’s that we will die one day. It’s up to us to decide how we’re going to live our lives. Some people are more adventurous than others.”
Is Uganda providing you with enough of a challenge?
“Sure, I work with a great company and there are new challenges every year here. We expanded last year. And this year, we’re switching to organic cultivation. There has to be something going on. When everything runs smoothly, I get bored. But there are plenty of challenges left for me here. At the moment anyway.”
Sounds like there might be another adventure ahead?
“I do still feel a very strong desire to return to the Congo. I’m turning 64 this year, so I’m not getting any younger, but I think it’ll work out fine. My dream is to start my own farm. I’d love to get going with a few cows and some potato fields. Preferably together with my eldest son. He’s an agricultural mechanic and he speaks a few of the local languages of the Congo fluently. I had 30,000 guilders to start the farm in Zimbabwe. That isn’t possible in the Netherlands. But it is in the Congo.”
What do you do in your spare time?
“My great hobby is going on safari. Maybe that’s why I live in Africa. I’m specifically interested in elephants. I’m involved in elephant conservation as well. There’s a fair bit of poaching here. The elephant population of Africa has gone down. In Zimbabwe, many years ago, they used to shoot 2,000 elephants each year, because there were too many of them. There’s no need for that anymore, there’s a lot of poaching going on. Uganda is a great country for safaris. And it’s very safe here. Although the north-east isn’t under control yet.”
Never back to the Netherlands?
“I’ve still got a house there. I was in the Netherlands a few weeks ago, because two of my children, my grandchildren and my ex-wife live there, but to be honest with you, I was ready to leave after a week. We’re working hard in Uganda too, but the atmosphere is totally different. There’s still room for real pioneering here. There’s a mentality of freedom. In the Netherlands, everything is bound by rules and regulations – in Africa, there’s the freedom to explore and find your own way.”