* Past projects aroused hostility or unrest
* Zambia says land-lease terms will protect local people
* Countries want to raise funds to help local farmers
* Production to be split between export and domestic markets
* Africans vulnerable to being driven off their land - Oxfam
By Maha El Dahan
ABU DHABI, Feb 6 African countries that missed
out on Gulf cash pouring into agricultural projects elsewhere on
the continent are trying to entice Arab investors with deals
they say are designed to avoid problems of the past.
An earlier wave of foreign investment in African farmland
aroused domestic hostility or even unrest on some projects, with
opponents regarding them as land-grabs that eat into local
people's food needs. Undeterred, governments of countries
including Zambia and Ghana argue that everyone can benefit from
such investment provided it is properly regulated.
They took their message this week to a global agricultural
forum in the United Arab Emirates, offering land lease and
production sharing deals which aim to raise money for helping
their own small scale farmers and to feed local people.
"We are here because we want to interest some of these
investors to come and invest in Zambia. So far there hasn't been
interest from the Middle East and yet we are an important
destination," Zambian Agriculture Minister Robert Sichinga told
Reuters on the sidelines of the forum in Abu Dhabi.
In a multi-billion dollar search for food security, desert
states of the Gulf - which rely on imports for around 80 to 90
percent of their food needs - started investing heavily in
farmland overseas around 2008.
Bad weather in large food producing nations, growing use of
land for biofuel crops and curbs on agricultural exports by some
governments had sent grain futures prices soaring at that time,
prompting the Gulf spending spree to secure access to large
scale food production.
Investments included land to grow crops like wheat, rice and
maize in countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia and Namibia, but
other African nations have so far been left out.
Sichinga said land-lease deals could provide much-needed
money to take Zambia's agricultural sector to the next level of
Ghana, the world's second largest cocoa producer, was also
keen to strike deals for an agricultural sector that accounts
for over half of its gross domestic product.
"The government alone is unable to provide the needs for the
sector so we need to tap foreign direct investment," Rashid
Pelpou, Minister of State for Private Sector Development, told
LAND FOR FREE
Ghana's government wants to create a land bank for
investors. Its efforts also include offering some land owned by
the country's prisons for nothing to investors.
"We are looking to lease lands and we are happy to work with
people, at the moment we even have free land we can give to
people through the prison service as they have vast amounts of
land that are not being utilised and investors can partner with
them," Pelpou said.
In Accra, Ghana's deputy Information Minister Ibrahim
Murtala Muhammed said prisoners sentenced to hard labour often
work on prison farms and the crops are used to feed inmates.
However, he told Reuters that there was no active policy of
offering prison land to investors as far as he was aware.
Ghana also offers tax-free arrangements for agricultural
investments in the northern part of the country. In return, the
farming projects would typically split their production, with
part going to the domestic market for crops which are locally
consumed and the investor exporting the rest.
Resources are badly needed to develop small scale farming in
Africa. Zambia has only 500 commercial farms compared with
around 1.5 million small farmers, Sichinga said.
The country is farming only 14 percent of its 70 million
hectares of arable land but is self-sufficient in most crops and
exports food to neighbours. "Foreign direct investment would
help us secure more export markets," Sichinga said.
Still, foreign investments in farmland have entangled some
Gulf investors in political and social problems and, according
to some critics, their projects have been difficult to get off
In Ethiopia, where farmland in the Gambella region was
leased to Saudi-based billionaire Mohammed al-Amoudi, five
people died in April 2012 when an armed group ambushed the
Human Rights Watch, a non-government body, said it thought
the attack was linked to government moves to resettle villagers
to clear the way for commercial farming. Saudi Star, Amoudi's
firm, said at the time it thought the violence was propagated by
outsiders and has continued with its project.
The attack is one example of how land deals can create more
problems than solutions for Africa, but some observers believe
it all depends on the kinds of agreements negotiated.
Roy Steiner, Deputy Director of Agricultural Development of
the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said projects should
benefit the host country partly by helping small farmers to
develop their businesses.
"It completely depends on the context and how the investment
is done. If it is done well with consultation about issues that
develop small farmers then it is good, but if it is done as an
outside imposition then consequences are possibly negative,"
Steiner told Reuters.
Aid and development charity Oxfam said ownership of 90
percent of land in sub-Saharan Africa was unregistered. People
were therefore vulnerable to being driven off their land to make
way for big projects, said Oxfam's land adviser Kate Geary.
"Poor people are often left homeless, landless and with no
compensation to rebuild their lives, and any food that is grown
is flown thousands of miles away," she told Reuters. "Positive
investment in agriculture - which strengthens people's rights to
resources, improves their access to markets and supports women's
rights - is vital."
Al Dahra, a privately-held Abu Dhabi agricultural firm with
farmland across Europe, the Americas and Africa, says it has not
faced problems because it shares produce equally with the host
country and creates jobs where it invests.
"We care about food security in both countries - in our
country and in the host country in which we are investing - and
we almost always come up with a 50-50 sharing formula," Khadim
Al-darei, Vice Chairman of Al Dahra Holding, told Reuters.
African countries are confident that this time around, laws
and regulations will prevent problems from arising.
"We will not have these kinds of problems. If foreign
investors come they will come to terms with owners of land in
what way they want to share and if they want to be given a
certain percentage etc," Pelpou said.
Zambia also said that it would start giving investors leases
of no more than 25 years and would remove them if they found
investors were misusing land. "There will be terms for investing
and if there is a local market for the crops that are being
produced then in most cases you will only be allowed to export
up to 50 percent," Sichinga said.
(additional reporting by Matthew Mpoke Bigg in Accra and Nigel
Hunt in London; Editing by Veronica Brown and David Stamp)