When Anja de Feijter first set foot in Uganda 17 years ago, she had no idea it would turn out to be her permanent home. Anja, the executive director of Agribusiness Development Center (ADC) – an initiative of the Robobank Foundation and dfcu bank – is just one of many foreigners that come to Uganda and never leave. Strange that as millions of Ugandans would give everything to ‘escape’ their country to settle in the Netherlands where Anja was born and raised, there are people in the West whose dream is to hold a Ugandan passport like Anja does.
EXODUS TO AFRICA
When she was told of an opportunity to work in the East African country, she started to do research and the results were not pleasant. The country was recovering from the deadly Ebola virus that had killed hundreds including championing medical workers such as St Mary’s hospital Lacor’s Dr Matthew Lukwiya.
This, on top of the HIV pandemic that was becoming Uganda’s new normal. Her peers thought she was mad to abandon a well-paying job, good house, car and good life to go to a ‘jungle infested with deadly viruses and backward people’, as many in the West still envisage Africa. But it was to Africa and Uganda that Anja headed and found happiness. Born in August 1967 in South Western Netherlands, Anja is the only child of agriculturalists Raines and Jannie de Feijter.
Coming from an agricultural family, Anja says, at a very young age she also developed love for agriculture.
“When I was 12, I told my parents I wanted to be the minister of agriculture. It was a bit strange for a young girl; others my age would want to be hairdressers,” she said in a recent interview. Anja’s father was born just after World War II, which had left a trail of destruction with de Feijter’s farm having no single animal left.
Anja’s father and his siblings could not go back to school. Anja says her father, hurt by not getting full education, worked very hard so his daughter would not suffer the same fate.
“He started his own business selling vegetables using a wheelbarrow; he became a very successful businessman,” Anja says.
Aged 16, Anja left her family home for Amsterdam to pursue education because her home district was not as developed. She went to a horticulture school for four years. Thereafter she moved to the Royal Tropical Institute in the east of Netherlands and pursued a course in international agricultural marketing for four years.
Finally, Anja proceeded to Wageningen University and Research Centre and pursued a degree in agricultural economics, graduating in 1996.
“I took the longest route to study to become an agricultural engineer; I was 28 when I graduated,” she says.
After graduating, she refused to go back to manage the family business, opting to look for a job in the capital. She says she looked for jobs in vain, triggering anger and frustration especially after many years of studying.
A friend told her of an advertisement for an agricultural IT consultant, but she had no idea about IT; nevertheless, she applied. She excelled during the interview as the most eloquent.
“They said they can teach me how to do programming but they were not sure they could teach the other guys how to communicate. I got the job of consultancy despite the fact that I had just left the university,” Anja says.
She worked with the company for four years until one of her clients challenged her on when she was planning to ever use her agriculture education.
ROYAL VAN ZANTEN
There was an opportunity in Uganda as director of an eight-hectare Dutch flower farm, Royal Van Zanten.
“I said, ‘I haven’t been to Uganda but if you can give me a ticket, I can go check it out’,” she says.
When she arrived in September 2000 she was very excited and felt right at home in Uganda.
“I went to Mukono to see how people would react; they were very friendly; everyone was greeting me like I had been part of them. It was a normal thing to see a mzungu on the street. I said to myself, I think I should try the job,” Anja says.
She says that decision was not hard at all, seeing that she had no partner or children to worry about.