Windhoek-Panic-stricken black commercial farmers, who reportedly owe Agribank a combined N$500 million in unpaid debts, have approached President Hage Geingob to help stop looming repossessions of their farms by the state-owned bank.
Agribank last week said it is owned monies in excess of about N$500 million. Farmers who spoke to New Era yesterday on condition of anonymity confirmed their meeting with Geingob but said the president referred them to Finance Minister Calle Schlettwein, with whom they said they had two meetings.
Agribank embarked on a debt collection campaign last year with the aim of recovering money owed to it by the farmers.
Agribank has since hired Red Force Debt Management and United Africa Group (UAG) to collect outstanding arrears.
New Era understands that if no solution is found, hundreds of black commercial farmers could lose their farms. Farmers who spoke to New Era want Agribank to discard hired debt collectors and deal with the farmers directly.
This is because the bank is allegedly making deductions from their accounts to pay the debt collectors for their work, a situation that plunges them into further debt.
Speaking to New Era yesterday, farmer and former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Mines and Energy, Kahijoro Kahuure, said they have individually and collectively tried their best to engage Agribank to see if options are available to sustain farmers’ operations so that they can earn enough money to service their loans.
“It seems over the last two years that the bank’s attitude has changed and all they look at is figures…figures,” he said.
“We applaud government for its foresightedness. The scheme ideally was to assist above- average farmers in the communal areas to acquire commercial land, but it is not the case now,” he said.
He said due to recurring droughts across the country, farmers have been enduring serious cash-flow challenges and therefore were unable to fully meet their financial obligations towards the bank.
However, in a statement last week, Agribank Chief Executive Officer Sakaria Nghikembua said his office has been open to discussions.
“I see clients who come in to discuss their repayment arrangements.”
“Customers are coming in daily and we do not see why some customers would want to refuse to make any repayment arrangements,” he said, adding “if a customer does not come, how do you make an arrangement with him? This is the core question to ask.”
He said the bank has heard claims that they are insensitive to customers’ situations.
“This is far from the truth. There is no single customer who has responded to our call to make repayment arrangements that we have turned away or not listened to,” he said.
He said those making such claims know they are exaggerating.
“We do not know their reasons for exaggerating because they have not responded to our call. We have made this call directly and in writing to the ‘concerned’ farmers as well as frequently through the media,” he said.
Nghikembua says they have also heard claims that there is a directive from President Geingob and Minister Schlettwein to Agribank to stop the collections.
“I can confirm without fear of contradiction that there is no such directive,” he said.
“What we do know is that there is absolute support from the shareholder for the bank to collect the arrears and for the approach adopted by the bank that customers must individually approach the bank to make their repayment arrangements,” he added.
He said the bank’s objective is not to repossess any farms but to agree with customers how they can best make repayment arrangements with Agribank.
“Customers are in arrears for a variety of reasons. It is therefore important that they approach us as individuals so that we can sit down and attend to their individual cases,” he said.
“We are satisfied that we are making progress with the arrear collections initiative. We have been consistently clear, and will use this opportunity again to make the call, that we would like our customers who are in arrears to make repayment arrangements with the bank – by either doing so with the debt collectors or directly with the bank,” he added.