He traveled to Mozambique, Uganda and Angola looking at properties before turning to Zambia, which he decided he would give a second chance.
Searching through a database of hundreds of available properties, Thorne eventually found an abandoned organic vegetable farm overgrown with thorn trees and weeds just north of Lusaka, where he secured with a 75-year lease from the government.
Backed by $1 million in loans from a local bank and the Richmond, Va.-based Universal Leaf Tobacco Co., Thorne planted his first crop of 200 acres of Virginia leaf tobacco and 625 acres of maize last year.
Walking through his dusty compound, Thorne proudly showed off his 14 new metal sheds used for curing tobacco and a mammoth warehouse, where Zambian workers sort, grade and bale tobacco under fluorescent lights for shipment to auction.
Rising out of a thicket of thorn and acacia trees is Thorne's new home, a stunning brick house with oriental carpets and cathedral ceilings.
"At the beginning, this was all bush," says Thorne, who lived with his wife and son in tents for the first five months of their stay. Thorne is planning to build brick homes for his 400 Zambians workers, many of who have never held regular jobs before.
Innocent Bwalya, a 21-year-old who pressed handfuls of yellow and brown tobacco leaves into a baling machine, said he plans to save his earnings to study agriculture.
"My aim is to have my own farm someday," he said.
If Bwalya's dream comes true, it would be a step in the right direction for Zambia, whose leaders would like to see the country's newfound tobacco fortunes shared with the black population.
Zambia's government is reluctant to advertise the arrival of the white farmers, on a continent where efforts to reclaim white-owned land enjoy enthusiastic support, including in South Africa and Namibia. Last year, in what analysts considered a face-saving move at a conference in Paris, Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa publicly dismissed reports that white farmers were moving to his country.
Likewise, Zimbabawe's transplanted white farmers are wary of trumpeting their successes here too loudly, afraid that their economic success might breed the same ill will it did in Zimbabwe.
"I thought we were working closely with the government [in Zimbabwe] but we didn't work closely enough. ... You need to be sure you are carrying everyone with you," says Peter MacSporran, whose lost his farm in 2001 before moving to Zambia, where he set up Agricultural Advisors International, a company that assists farmers relocating to Zambia.
In an effort to spread tobacco wealth beyond the white farming community, Universal Leaf Tobacco Co., which is backing the white farmers with $30 million in loans, plans to offer $12 million to black Zambian farmers wanting to join the industry.
For the tobacco industry, investing in Zambia makes good business sense, says Philippe Rusch, managing director of Universal Leaf Tobacco. After years of reaping a dependable harvest from Zimbabwe, the economic and political turmoil left the tobacco industry without a dependable supply of Virginia leaf tobacco.
Now the tobacco industry is diversifying its investments, investing in farms not only in Zambia, but also Malawi and Mozambique.
"They realized that putting all your eggs in one basket is not a clever thing to do," says Rusch.
Even so, Thorne is placing his bets on Zambia, putting all his savings into his farm in Zambia and hoping that after jumping from Zambia to Zimbabwe and back again, he has finally found a place he can call home.
"This is our third time around. We have to make this one good," he says. "We'll do it."