BENGHAZI, Libya — Greg Cunningham is a long, long way from home. Since early 2004, the Colorado agribusiness consultant has lived in eastern Libya — growing wheat and corn irrigated with water piped in from the Sahara Desert. Cunningham, general manager of Technofarm International Ltd., holds the distinction of being the first American businessman in Libya once the doors opened. But risk-taking is nothing new for this 54-year-old entrepreneur, who’s lived and worked in at least 20 countries from Egypt to the Philippines.
“We did not have an ambassador here even a year ago, and a lot of American companies are uncomfortable investing in a country where there’s no active embassy,” Cunningham told The Diplomat. But he added that “Libya’s a very friendly place. Never in five years has anybody given me any trouble.”
Technofarm started in 2002 with 1,000 hectares of crops. Today, it has 10,000 hectares in the Benghazi area, another 5,000 hectares in Sirt, 400 hectares in Tarhona and a new 800-hectare project of intensively irrigated olive trees near Tarhona.
None of these crops would exist without the Great Man-Made River, which brings fresh water from underground desert aquifers to Libya’s coastal regions, making large-scale agriculture possible.
Cunningham’s life currently revolves around the Al-Khadra Irrigation Development Project, a joint venture between Nebraska-based Valmont Corp. (52 percent); Wisconsin-based Case New Holland (28 percent) and Libya’s government-owned Great Man-Made River Authority (20 percent).
The venture aims to produce 100,000 metric tons of corn and wheat a year — all of it for domestic consumption. At current market prices, this comes to between $25 million and $30 million. Total operating capital is roughly $5 million.
Under the venture, Food and Agribusiness Resource Management Co. (Farmco) supplies the seeds, chemicals and input, while the Great Man-Made River Utilization Authority supplies land, equipment and water.
Valmont, which used to employ Cunningham, is the world’s largest manufacturer of irrigation equipment, with a 50 percent market share for center pivots. Case New Holland is a division of Italy’s Fiat.
“This is a big step for both of them,” said Cunningham, interviewed at his field office about an hour’s drive from Benghazi. “I’ve been working with these companies for 20 years, and I’ve been trying to convince them that Africa is the direction they need to go.”
Cunningham said the project is long overdue for a rapidly growing country as bone-dry and thirsty as Libya.
Libya imports 90% of its food
“The choice was growing food in the south and bringing it north, or bringing the water north,” he said. “Libya imports almost 90 percent of its food. Now that the GMR is finished and there’s water available on the coast, there is great potential.”
Cunningham, noting that Col. Muammar Qaddafi visited one of his company’s projects in 2005, said the Al-Khadra venture requires 15,000 cubic meters of water per hectare per year. It draws its water from the nearby Omar Mukhtar Reservoir, which holds 24 million cubic meters and ranks as one of the largest reservoirs in the world.
He acknowledges that the Great Man-Made River is controversial, and that nobody really knows how long the underground aquifers will last.
“The TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] was controversial also,” he pointed out. “But if I were importing 90 percent of my food, I’d be worried from a security point-of-view — that’s a dangerous position to be in. Obviously, Libya is never going to be Iowa. But they could supply a larger percentage of their own food than they’re doing now.”
(This guest post is written by Larry Luxner, journalist and photographer.)
More on Libya and the environment:
Libya’s Great Man-Made River an 8th Wonder of the World
Libya and BP To Start Drilling for Oil
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A Sustainable Architecture Conference in Libya