Analysis: Land grab or development opportunity?

Ethiopia, Agula regionof Tigray. Farming women walk along a bank to reach their allotment. The average size of the allotments Small-scale farmers have been the backbone of African agriculture

With land central to the livelihoods of millions of people in Africa, Lorenzo Cotula of the International Institute for Environment and Development examines the impact of large-scale land acquisitions on the continent's farmers.

"Land grabs" are now one of the biggest issues in Africa.

Over the past few years, companies and foreign governments have been leasing large areas of land in some of Africa's poorest countries.

Land deals as % of agricultural area

Source: FAOstat

DR Congo


























Many commentators have raised concerns that poor villagers will be forced off their land and agribusiness will marginalise family farming.

Others say that foreign investment can help African countries create jobs, increase export earnings and use more advanced technologies.

Three years since media reports started raising public awareness on this issue, evidence has been growing on the scale, geography, players, features and impacts of the land rush. The emerging picture provides ground for concern.

Last year the World Bank documented media reports of land deals over the period between 2008 and 2009.

The deals were for nearly 60 million hectares worldwide, roughly the size of a country like Ukraine - and two-thirds of the land acquired was in Africa.

While new figures continue to emerge, all evidence points to a phenomenon of unprecedented scale.

Also, some individual deals are for very large areas. For example, Liberia recently signed a concession for 220,000 hectares.

Money to be made

Media attention has focused on investments by Middle Eastern and Asian government-backed operators but Western companies have also been heavily involved.

Ethiopia, Gambella. Abago (28) from the village of Ibago waters the oil palm nursery in the Karuturi compound. Ethiopian Abago could lose his village to a foreign-owned oil palm plantation

Companies acquire land because they expect world food and commodity prices to increase - so there is money to be made in agriculture.

Some governments have also promoted land acquisitions abroad as a way to secure affordable food for their people.

In many African countries, agriculture has suffered from years of neglect - and investment is needed to improve productivity and market access.

But not all investment is good - and growing evidence strongly indicates that large land deals are not the way to go.

Short-lived jobs

A synthesis of over 30 reports worldwide found that many investments have failed due to insufficient soil fertility, financing difficulties or over-ambitious business plans. For example, in Mozambique and Tanzania, some large biofuels projects have now been abandoned.

Why land deals are good

International land deals are a form of trade - and for years Africa has been asking for increased trade, rather than aid, as a way out of poverty. Economists say a 2% increase in Africa's share of global trade could halve unemployment. When it comes to agricultural land, Africa has a significant global competitive advantage - a position that it needs to make use of.

Some acquisitions have resulted in a raw deal for local people - but this should not mean that the continent should steer clear of all deals. Statistics show that 84% of businesses fail in their first year. But this does not mean that starting a business is bad; instead measures should be put in place to reduce the rate at which start-ups fail. The same applies to land deals.

Africa's civil society groups have important roles to play - by demanding greater transparency from their governments and investors. Instead of being treated as helpless victims, local communities could easily be helped to become equal partners.

If land deals are implemented properly, they can bring many benefits to Africa - including increased food production; access to improved agro-skills and development in rural communities, which, in turn, will stem the tide of urban migration, one of Africa's most pressing issues.

Even where investments are profitable, it is often difficult to see how they contribute to poverty reduction. The jobs created are few, short-lived and low-paid - and public revenues are limited by tax exemptions.

A report published last year raised serious questions about the terms of the contracts that governments are signing up to.

Some of the world's poorest people are losing the land, water and natural resources that have supported their livelihoods for generations. In Uganda, for example, 20,000 people claim to have been evicted from their land and a legal case is pending before courts.

Not every deal is a "land grab" - much depends on local context, the investor's track-record, the terms of the lease, and whether these reflect the free, prior and informed consent of local landholders.

But for local people, the context in which the deals are being concluded tends to make negative outcomes more likely.

Best intentions

There are huge power imbalances among international companies, government and local landholders. Many land deals are being negotiated without transparency and local consultation.

In many parts of Africa, local farmers, herders and gatherers only have insecure legal rights to the land they see as theirs. Most have no written documents for their land. Much land is owned by the state, which can allocate it to outside investors even against local opposition.

The Africa Debate

Tune in to the BBC World Service at 1900 GMT on Friday to listen to The Africa Debate broadcast from Freetown: Is 'land grabbing' good for Africa?

Or take part in Twitter - using #bbcafricadebate - Facebook or Google+

And while international law provides relatively effective protection for foreign investment, international human rights law remains inaccessible and ineffective for people losing land.

So even when investors come with the best intentions, this means local groups are exposed to the risk of dispossession - and investors to legal disputes.

Family farmers have long provided the backbone of African agriculture - and, when given a chance, they have been able to compete on global markets.

Family farming

In Ghana, for example, a co-operative of 60,000 cocoa farmers has run a successful business for nearly 20 years and owns 45% of a UK company that manufactures and distributes chocolate.

Investor case study

Africa is our first investment choice. It is a huge continent with plenty of land and not as densely populated as Bangladesh.

We are looking at opportunities in Uganda and Kenya, where people do not eat as much rice as we do. This means we can sell 10-30% of the crop to the local market and export the rest, thereby ensuring food security for Bangladesh.

We would provide technical assistance to local farmers. Bangladesh has extensive experience of rice research. We have developed some seeds that can be used for farming in Africa - and we can also produce new breeds by mixing our rice seeds with African seeds

To keep production costs down, we plan to help Bangladeshi farmers move to Africa with their families - and give them land and equipment. We know there are concerns about foreign investors acquiring land in Africa. But I think this is mostly about richer countries and the former colonial rulers - not a country like Bangladesh, which is as poor as many African countries. I think we can live side-by-side happily.

The global demand for food and agricultural commodities creates new opportunities for African farmers.

Public policies and infrastructure to support family farming are needed today more than ever.

Evidence also shows that private investments to improve productivity or market access can be structured in ways that support local farmers.

Many companies successfully source agricultural produce from family farmers, and have invested in other activities along the production line - in ways that secure their supplies and improve local livelihoods.

In Mali and Zambia, some farmer associations own shares in the company they collaborate with, which gives them monetary benefits and a greater say.

Co-operatives or intermediaries can reduce the costs linked to working with large numbers of farmers. Public policy plays a key role in promoting fairer investment models.

The perception that large plantations are needed to "modernise" agriculture in poorer countries is dominant in many government circles.

But evidence shows that this perception is misplaced.

Promoting agricultural development in Africa and addressing the world's food security challenges requires investing in farmers - not in farmland.

Lorenzo Cotula leads the Land Rights Team at the UK-based research body the International Institute for Environment and Development


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    This would be an unmitigated disaster for Africa if allowed to continue to any extent. The people who are buying/leasing the land have no interest in Africans only in growing food for their own use. Luckily of course if they push Africans too far they (Africans) will simply take it back. If as a country you can't feed your own people at home its time to do something about it. You haven't got long.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    If we don’t use the land for food or bio-fuel then it will just sit there doing nothing, Africa is rich in land & natural resources but the African people haven’t been able to make a go of it & have become aid dependant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    African land for Africans only will soon take effect. These multinationals are NEVER friends of Africa. They will pollute and destroy african lands with chemicals so to ensure Africa rely on the West for food. There is enough food in this world but greed causes shortages.Land is power and though not a fan of Mugabe I think he got land issue spot on. ARISE AFRICAN NATIONALISTS!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    As long as the holders of the lease are encourged to hire local workers and train them (not just farmhands, but actually proper technical workers), and a certain amount of crops or goods are allowed into the African market (at reasonable prices to boot) then I can see this working.

    It just has to be monitored carefully for abuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Entering into land deals with Companies has to be done carefully & with transparency as often more than not, the poor villagers end up losing their land & their resources & with nothing to sustain in the future. Many such land deals are done to benefit rich business houses in connivance with greedy & corrupt politicians at the cost of the villagers.


Comments 5 of 9


More Africa stories



Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.