Africa becomes the world’s food basket at what cost?

Reading time 3 min.

With increasing food price crisis, western and eastern countries short of arable land, such as Canada, China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Kuwait, have been seeking agricultural investments in Africa, to meet their food production and agricultural needs.

Population increase, changes in eating habits and demand for bio-fuels are putting farmlands at a premium worldwide; and countries are grabbing lands in Africa because African farmland prices are the lowest in the world.

As Africa’s land becomes more sought after by international investors, the risk only grows that a continent that is often in need of aid from the rest of the world may very well become the food basket of the richer nations.

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A report by the the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a Washington-based think tank, suggest that: since the state often formally owns the land, the poor run the risk of being pushed off the plot in favor of the investor, without consultation or compensation. The bargaining power is often on the side of the foreign firm, especially when it is supported by the host government or local elite.

Chief executive of Emergent Asset Management, Susan Payne, says that farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is a hot bet. “We only operate in countries where we can have clear land title. If we can’t get this, or we don’t have a 99-year lease from the government then we won’t operate in that country,” Susan Payne is quoted.

Emergent Asset Management is in the process of buying or leasing a total 50,000 hectares, equal to roughly 80,000 football pitches, in several African countries including Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Angola, Swaziland and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But some land deals have sparked accusations that foreign investors, corporations and countries are engaging in a damaging land grab in Africa. Development agencies say more transparency is needed as land deals are often shrouded in secrecy.

The G8 countries met in July and pledged to develop a proposal on principles and best practices on purchases of land in Africa. However anti-poverty campaigners Action Aid said this did not go far enough and have called for an independent United Nations commission to establish an enforceable code of conduct: The UN and other agencies warn that smallholders, who often don’t have formal rights to the land they farm, can end up being short-changed.

Earlier this year, South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics was forced to abandon a project to lease one million acres of land in Madagascar to produce corn; the deal was however scrapped following criticism that local people had not been consulted. While on paper many African countries have progressive laws that seek to take the voices of the local people into account, the special UN agencies insist that there are big gaps between statute books and the reality on the ground.

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