The Great African Land Grab: Another Story from the Jungle

According to, “the African people face an existential threat.” If there was ever a sentence dripping with hyperbole, in any context, this has to be it. Africa is experiencing a wave of foreign investment in the agricultural sector, with some good investment and some bad, and it’s being characterised by some western organisations as a “land grab”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that this sort of foreign investment is characterised as such points to persistent preconceptions about how Africans should live and what a prosperous and successful African country should look like. According to the “land grabbers” it does not involve a large scale commercial farming sector like you have in any other country. Why?

Image courtesy of Michael Musgrave, © 2012, all rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Michael Musgrave, © 2012, all rights reserved.

The claims made by the land grabbers almost beggar belief, but have their origin in deeply rooted perceptions of Africa. The vision of an African landscape, dotted with mud and grass huts, with happy Africans smiling as they tend their fields seems about as far as most of the land grabbers are prepared to go when they envisage the agricultural sector in African countries. This, together with a persistent and hard-wired propensity for generalising about Africa as if it were one country, betrays the land grabbers’ prejudice at the same time as it reveals their ignorance. If Chinese investors are reaping the profits of investing in the agricultural sector in Ethiopia, Zambia or Nigeria, it is because they have a far more realistic approach to what is possible in terms of investment in Africa, while western organisations continue to insist that donor aid is the solution to any African problem.  The reality is that the more successful these investments are, the less the donor aid will be needed and this threatens the existence of a large group of people. The hysteria is all too evident. The organisation behind quotes figures of exports of fruit, vegetables and flowers from Ethiopia as if these products were narcotics and their production in Ethiopia (of all places dear to the heart of the donor aid community!) a manifest evil. Ethiopia is only supposed to export images of starving children which in turn helps to fill the bank accounts of the aid organisations, and their anger at the fact that the country exports food is all too evident.

People do not become prosperous when they are largely engaged in subsistence agriculture. There is no doubt that small scale farmers can grow a surplus when adequately supported by extension services and good rainfall, but the simple fact is that food shortages in many African countries result from unpredictable weather patterns which are likely to become more unpredictable as climate change starts to have an effect. A large-scale commercial farming sector can provide a buffer against poor rains by using irrigation, by diversifying the economy to include crops other than subsistence foods, and by encouraging the growth of an agro-processing industry that creates jobs. If it grows sufficiently large it can support an agricultural research and development organisation which is currently only a pipe dream for most African countries.

There is no doubt that many investments in the African agricultural sector have been disastrous; biofuels generally, and especially jatropha, have a poor record of success. Moving people off their land for investment is never the right approach and creates problems which simmer for years afterwards. Low wages and poor working conditions on the farms are a source of discontent and need to be addressed in any sector. This still does not constitute a piratical land grab nor an existential threat to the African people, or any threat of any kind whatsoever. If land deals are corrupt then it is corrupt governments which need to be criticised and other sectors in addition agricultural investment will suffer from corrupt practices. The single-minded linking of African prosperity and well-being to land is nothing more than racial stereotyping and there is no reason why Chinese, Arab, Indian or even British investors should not be investing in agricultural production in African countries.

The superficial similarity of large-scale agricultural investment with colonial occupation is simply that and nothing more.  Investments in agriculture need the security of land tenure that is a sine qua non for any of the financing arrangements and to portray these tenure arrangements as neo-colonialism betrays a profound ignorance of simple economics. The main reason land tenure issues strike a chord with people in African countries, is that faced with the alternatives, tenure over a piece of land on which to eke out a subsistence existence is the best option under the dire economic circumstances which prevail in most countries in Africa. Indeed, even when the economy is doing well, it is indicative that the entrenched kleptocracy, tribalism and nepotism that prevail in these economies that individuals considers themselves to be better off with a patch of land rather than trying to get ahead in a growing economy.

As a product of the British colonisation of Africa, it is astounding to me that Britain and other colonial countries in particular, do not take advantage of the agricultural potential of African countries and has a more mature vision of what can be achieved in Tanzania, Zambia or Kenya with judicious investment in agriculture. If there is massive agricultural investment going on, we should be part of doing it properly rather than leaving it to China and India and carping about the way they do business from the side lines. Many of the first soil surveys and maps of agricultural potential in Africa were undertaken by colonial survey departments, and the reports are sitting in British, French and Belgian libraries. Agricultural investment in Africa, when done ethically and responsibly, is an opportunity to contribute to development in a way that builds a sustainable future for these countries. The extent to which western countries are able to exert influence in many African countries is waning as China and other countries invest in Africa’s economic development. If we believe our way of doing business, of building meritocracies rather than economic systems which enrich the few at the expense of the many, and all the other values which we hold to be universal are important, I can think of no better way of exporting these than getting involved in the agricultural future of Africa.  The response of the donor community will no doubt be to produce a stream of invective and puerile propaganda aimed at perpetuating their industry. The best prospects for the African people will be a future where these organisations face an existential threat of their own.