The first time the bandits came, Si Su’s wife was home alone. She locked herself in the house and managed to scare them off with a warning shot through the front door.
The couple bought guard dogs to prowl their 80-hectare farm at night. They also put up an iron gate, but that was not enough.
Si casts an eye over the rolling green fields he has farmed on the outskirts of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, for the past decade.
The wheat is just coming through, and it looks like the crop this year is going to be a good one. But the 55-year-old from Jiangsu is not smiling.
“I know of 10 Chinese here who have been killed in about 10 years,” he says. He has lost count of how many have been robbed at gunpoint or at the end of a machete.
The front of Si’s ramshackle farmhouse is riddled with bullet holes. The bandits have been back seven times, and he believes they will be back again.
“They break into your house and rob you. If you don’t give them money they shoot. If you resist, they kill you. My neighbor didn’t give them money. They shot two of his Chinese workers, then he gave them the money.
“It’s not just Chinese who are robbed, but about 70 percent of the people the thieves target are Chinese. They think the Chinese here make more money, and that’s why they target us.”
This is the hidden cost of farming in Zambia, Si says.
But he and his wife Zhou Xingxi are not about to walk off the land.
Many Chinese agricultural companies and farmers like Si are toughing it out in Africa because they believe they are sowing the seeds for a brighter future, and are committed to staying the course.
When Si bought his plot 11 years ago, it was nothing but scrubland. The Zambians he recruited had no experience in modern farming.
It was a case of starting from scratch, he says, and of investing everything he had in the farm and those working on it.
Si now has 80 hectares of cultivated cropland, a modern irrigation set-up shipped in from China, 28 Zambian farmhands and two experienced Chinese supervisors. The locals live on site with their families in a rough and ready looking concrete building. Si’s home, which also doubles as his workshop and shed, is just as rudimentary.
The interior walls and floors are raw and unfinished. The roof is a patchwork of tin and fiberglass. For Si, his house is proof that the stereotypes about Chinese in Africa are often a far cry from reality.
“Not every Chinese man here is a rich man,” he says.
Last year, Si says, he only just broke even. In 2011, during a daylight robbery, bandits tied up his wife at gunpoint and fled with the farm’s entire earnings for the year, the equivalent of $75,000.