SPECIAL REPORT: Is Africa selling out its farmers?

BAKO, Ethiopia/JOHANNESBURG Thu Nov 12, 2009 9:56am EST

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BAKO, Ethiopia/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - For centuries, farmers like Berhanu Gudina have eked out a living in Ethiopia's central lowlands, tending tiny plots of maize, wheat or barley amid the vastness of the lush green plains.

Now, they find themselves working cheek by jowl with high-tech commercial farms stretching over thousands of hectares tilled by state-of-the-art tractors -- and owned and operated by foreigners.

With memories of Ethiopia's devastating 1984 famine still fresh in the minds of its leaders, the government has been enticing well-heeled foreigners to invest in the nation's underperforming agriculture sector. It is part of an economic development push they say will help the Horn of Africa nation ensure it has enough food for its 80 million people.

Many small Ethopian farmers do not share their leaders' enthusiasm for the policy, eyeing the outsiders with a suspicion that has crept across Africa as millions of hectares have been placed, with varying degrees of transparency, in foreign hands.

"Now we see Indians coming, Chinese coming. Before, we were just Ethiopian," 54-year-old Gudina said in Bako, a small farming town 280 km (170 miles) west of Addis Ababa. "What do they want here? The same as the British in Kenya? To steal everything? Our government is selling our country to the Asians so they can make money for themselves."

Xenophobia aside, a number of organizations -- including the foundation started by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates -- argue that Africa should support its own farmers.

"Instead of African countries giving away their best lands, they should invest in their own farmers," said Akin Adesina, vice president of the Nairobi-based Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). "What's needed is a small-holder, farmer-based revolution. African land should not be up for garage sale."

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Both sides of the debate agree on this much: a stark reality -- underlined by last year's food price crisis -- looms large over Ethiopia and beyond. The world is in danger of running out of food.

By 2050, when its population is likely to be more than 9 billion, up from 6 billion now, the world's food production needs to increase by 70 percent, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

In Africa, which for a variety of reasons was bypassed by the Green Revolution that transformed India and China in the 1960s and 1970s, the numbers are even more bleak. The continent's population is set to double from 1 billion now.

In all, the FAO says, feeding those extra mouths is going to take $83 billion in investment every year for the next four decades, increasing both the amount of cultivated land and how much it produces. The estimated investment for Africa alone is $11 billion a year.

For deeply impoverished Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa's second-most populous nation after Nigeria, even a fraction of those sums is unthinkable.

Yet with 111 million hectares -- nearly twice the area of Texas -- within its borders, the answer, in the government's eyes, is simple: Lease 'spare' land to wealthy outsiders to get them to grow the food. One unfortunate consequence of that thinking is Gudina and his little plot of maize are painted as part of the problem, rather than a potential solution.

"The small-scale farmers are not producing the quality they should, because they don't have the technology," said Esayas Kebede, head of the Agricultural Investment Agency, a body founded only in February but already talking about offering foreign farmers 3 million hectares in the next two years.

"There are 12 million households in Ethiopia. We can't afford to give new technology to all of them," he said, sitting in an office adorned with maps showing possible sites for commercial farms.

Indian agro-conglomerate Karuturi Global, whose involvement in Ethiopia so far has been exporting cut-flowers to Europe, has taken the hint, branching out into food production with a sprawling maize farm in Bako. Unlike with similar land deals elsewhere in Africa, the company insists crops will be exported only after demand is met in Ethiopia -- where 6.2 million people are said to be in need of emergency food aid because of poor seasonal rains.

"Our main aim is to feed the Ethiopian people," Karuturi's Ethiopia general manager, Hanumatha Rao, told Reuters, sitting under an awning at the Bako farm as hundreds of laborers harvested maize in the fields stretching up nearby hillsides. "Whatever we produce will go to the stomachs of the Ethiopian people before it goes to the international market."

ANOTHER AFRICAN REVOLUTION

While many governments have been busy courting foreigners, in most cases from Asia or the Middle East, to increase Africa's food output, small farmers like Gudina are not totally without friends.

An initiative backed by the Melinda and Bill Gates and Rockefeller foundations is aiming to kick-start an African Green Revolution, carefully avoiding the pitfalls that had engulfed previous such attempts.

In particular, Africa boasts a dazzling array of soil types, climates and crops that have defied the one-size-fits-all solution of better seed, fertilizer and irrigation that worked in Asia half a century ago.

Its perennial tendency to corruption and official incompetence has also played its part in keeping average grain yields on the continent at just 1.2 tonnes per hectare, compared with 3.5 tonnes in Europe and 5.5 tonnes in the United States.

AGRA's Adesina says sub-Saharan governments are slowly realizing the importance of small farmers, who account for 70 percent of the region's population and 60 percent of its agricultural output. But he urges governments to make good on a pledge six years ago to raise farm spending to 10 percent of their national budgets.

For its part, AGRA is pouring money into research institutes from Burkina Faso in the west to Tanzania in the east to breed higher yielding and more drought- and pest-resistant strains of everything from maize and cassava to sorghum and sweet potato.

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