WASHINGTON Growing interest from Asia and Middle East countries to lease agricultural land in Africa "is not a bad thing" but must be handled properly and in a transparent way, a top World Bank official said on Thursday.
Speaking at the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director at the World Bank, said it matters how those foreign investments are made.
"What we need to do is look at the political and social consequences of this," said Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister for Nigeria.
"As far as I'm concerned it is a good thing ... but you must make sure that you do it transparently and everyone in the country understands why is it being done, who is benefiting and how will ordinary people benefit," she added.
Okonjo-Iweala said such large commercial farming investments by foreigners could benefit local farmers by giving them access to new technology, irrigation and marketing.
In Madagascar, she said, demonstrations against President Marc Ravalomanana involved unhappiness over a deal to lease half of the Indian Ocean island's arable land to South Korea to grow food.
Madagascar's new president, Andry Rajoelina, took power on Tuesday after Ravalomanana handed power to the military following violent protests that killed at least 135 people, devastating the island's $390 million-a-year tourism sector.
Okonjo-Iweala said the World Bank was trying ensure that countries who want to farm the land of others know the socio-economic issues there and that there are proper contractual arrangements that above all also benefit the local population.
She said only 5 percent of land in Africa is irrigated and countries in the region could benefit from investment and expertise from Asia and the Middle East.
"There has been quite a movement. Some of the countries in the Middle East and elsewhere don't have the land or the water to farm enough for their populations, so they want to invest elsewhere where there is ample opportunity," she said, "It's not such a bad thing but the issue is how is it done."