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What is wrong with renting out African land?

BBC Africa HYS Team | 12:36 UK time, Thursday, 9 June 2011


Kenyan farmer struggles to produce a crop of maize


A report from the US-based thinktank The Oakland Institute claims that the scramble for arable land in Africa by foreign investors is forcing millions of small farmers off their ancestral land.


As global food prices rise and exporters reduce shipments of commodities, wealthy countries and investment funds are seeing an opportunity in Africa and acquiring huge tracts of fertile land to produce crops like wheat, rice, corn and biofuels for consumption back home. The report says that an area the size of France has already been sold or leased to foreign investors.

Because of poor land ownership laws in many African countries and a lack of transparency about deals, it is claimed, these land deals are delivering almost none of the benefits promised to African citizens. The report also raises concerns about the lack of community consultation, and environmental and social impact assessments in many cases.

Are you worried by this? Is it a case of deja-vue, the modern version of Africa seeing its minerals and cash crops turning a profit for other countries who add value to them? Should African land be producing food for African mouths only? Could Africans be better exploiting the agricultural potential of the continent themselves?

If you would like to debate this topic LIVE on air on Thursday 9 June at 1600 GMT, please include a telephone number. It will not be published.


  • Comment number 1.

    That title looks like an innocent question.

    But yes, I am worried. African land should grow African-specific crops, and it should be able to feed firstly the people that it holds and the excess could be exported - but that would be in an ideal world were African people would care about African people.

    It is a deja-vu, only this time it will be enhanced to a global scale.
    We should stop the attack on forests & crop diversity.

  • Comment number 2.

    This issue is not just about land but also the water required to maintain that land, and how climate change is highly likely to add stress to situations that may not be critical at this time.
    This was recently highlighted by a study on water stress by Maplecroft. [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 3.

    If it is true that foreign investors are buying lands from uneducated African landowners for next to nothing, these foreign investors should be made to pay market price. Africans and her leaders need to start being equal partners in trading with the West and foreigners. I don't know why Africa continued to let others exploit her natural and human resources. From crude oil, diamond and other minerals,cocoa and other agricultural products to brain-drain of Africans in the diaspora. As the saying goes, others would only do to you what you allowed them.

  • Comment number 4.

    Its an economic inevitability that these resources are deployed to give the maximum return in a globalized capital market.

    Sadly, some sort of African idyll of jolly, small-holding, independent farmers living off produce they either consume themselves or peddle in the local equivalent of a "corn exchange" market through honest merchants is as anachronistic as it would be here in the UK.

    I am looking out on a piece of agricultural land as I type. I don't know who reaps the ultimate rewards from any profits it might make - they might as easily be Thai, Australian or Mexican as British (I include in "profits" any rents a resident farmer may pay to any owning investment fund, lender or mortgager). Nor do I have any meaningful control over what is grown there (There would only be a planning issue if they stopped farming and tried to build a processing plant or a housing estate instead).

    There certainly isn't any "community consultation or environmental and social impact assessment" over whether the owners decide to use it for industrial crops, dairy herds or potatoes or whether the profits (if any) are re-invested or spent in our locality or off-shored through some financial structure for the beneficiaries to invest in ship-building projects in the Far East.

    Why should we expect things in Africa to be any different?

  • Comment number 5.

    History shows it’s a recipe for future acquisition of land by dubious means that’s why. Renting out African land or leasing whatever one may call it is pretext of forcing them African farmers out of their ancestral land or an attempt to permanently own it. In most cases the buyers or tenants are in collaboration with African governments, they draft such agreements with the devil hidden in small print for the unfortunate African.
    This is one of Africa’s key land problems today “The so-called educated leaders” they are ONLY educated not clever they lack the wisdom of our ancestors but our ancestors primitive as labelled were clever and never gave away land for free (depending to which country or area in question) unless forced by “the-strong-blowing-wind”.
    Remember nationalism, was about land and is one of the key bases for struggle, justice, freedom & equality in the world, in Kenya, Algeria, Cuba, China, USA, France and Russia. (Malcolm X). Unfortunately, history has bad habit of repeating itself. Who cannot say never again time if the trend of land renting land goes on?

  • Comment number 6.

    I cannot see anything wrong with renting African land and growing crops on it.
    European settlers were doing this long ago so it is nothing new.
    Not sure that the best use for it is for growing biofuels though unless it is wood for local use.
    I would be worried if grazing land for "Wild Africa" was being rented out and if the farming was not environmentally friendly.
    Large scale farms are damaging the countryside the world over because of the need to feed the worlds overpopulating humans.
    Obviously this cannot go on for ever but the worlds politicians seem unwilling or unable to say or do anything about it.

  • Comment number 7.

    The pessimist:

    I acknowledge that the country receiving agricultural FDI may experience economic growth as wages and the tax base increase. Furthermore, more productive farming methods may be adopted as skills and technology are shared and copied.

    However, the country will face manifold challenges. The ‘resource curse’ describes natural resource economies growing slower over time than diversified economies. Growth collapses may occur if policies are adopted that limit diversification so that the economy becomes locked into a staple trap (when a nation or region is trapped by structural dynamics within the export of a particular natural resource). ‘Dutch Disease’ can take hold (whereby growth and inflation diminishes the value of other tradable goods and services), with specialisation meaning increasing exposure to boom-and-bust. The overdependence on a single sector, subsequent lack of diversification and high exposure to commodity prices may bring short-term riches but not sustained economic development. We may also see unsustainable consumption, meaning a lower welfare down the line if boom turns to bust.

    The term resource curse has emerged largely from study of the hydrocarbon and mining industries, which differ in many ways to agricultural endeavours (higher barriers to entry, more pronounced J-Curve return characteristics ensuing from upfront capital expenditure-intensity, and lower pipeline visibility). However, my concern is that specialisation in agriculture could produce a new resource curse for some regions or countries in Africa. Precedents can be found: for example, post-colonial Caribbean states have suffered resource curses borne out of a specialisation in sugar and other products (and indeed hydrocarbons – eg Trinidad & Tobago).


  • Comment number 8.

    My African brothers and sisters,when it comes to land think Zimbabwe. Remember when we asked for OUR land back the British ordered the IMF and World Bank to create hyper-inflation, declared our minerals "blood diamonds", ordered MI6 to create regime change (i.e.create a puppet gvnt. that answers to Whitehall), ordered their powerful media agencies to go on a relentless anti-Zim campaign....until WE give OUR land and mineral resources to their kith and kin again.

    So if you want to go this experience in the future...give your land away now.

  • Comment number 9.

    Giving out African land, is like giving out african true Identity.It should be remembered that we african value land and land is compared to our mothers.
    Land was not sold but was always given out to memember of the family to
    start on life that land would go from the fast son to the next four generations.

    land is the only insurance of african families and giving large land way will eradicat african true calture,there will be internalconflict and foreigner will be seen as enemies than friend.

    The african ctizen should look out or vote out the Governments that are tying to sale that land of its ctizens and should also suports the famars on how to do farming better than salling out land.

  • Comment number 10.

    Disgusting. Yet another example of the West's unending exploitation, manipulation and abuse of its privileged position. Like many other parts of the world we will continue to plunder and support corrupt regimes in order to exploit. Shame on capitalism!

  • Comment number 11.

    Having read the BBC's articles, it appears that the primary argument proffered by the investors is that what they are doing is totally in accordance with the laws.

    This is hollow. Firstly, simply because one does something within the confines of the laws does not mean that it is morally meritorious. The purpose of the law is to define the outermost limits of actions. It is definitively not a guide to what is right.

    Secondly, and linked with the aforesaid point, the companies that rely on the lawfulness of their activities assume that the law is correct. However even in developed countries such as the UK, the law is shown to be insensitive to the pressures of a modern world that is both increasingly interconnected and in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few (perhaps even including myself). For example, consider property rights. Strictly speaking, if one owns a certain piece of land, one can exclude the world from entering into it. But imagine if one person owned 99% of the land. What of everyone else? Moreover, simply because that one person had the money to buy that land does not mean that he 'deserves' it. More often than not, those who have the money were born in a relatively fortunate position to those who they are buying from. Thus we ought to be wary of those who leap behind the shield of law for more often than not, it can be used as an instrument of oppression.

  • Comment number 12.

    How is that different from plantations owned by Europeans during colonizations?
    African governments should consolidate local farmers rather than selling their lands to Chinese, Arabs, Indians, Americans and Europeans.
    After selling our peoples a few centuries ago African rulers are now selling our lands. In the entire human history there will never be shortsighted leaders like the one the continent has during our generations.
    If we can't farm what can we do in this world?
    There is food problem and high unemployment in the continent and all we can do is farming to produce fuel for developed countries cars, give farming business to foreigners and turn our small farmers into jobless?

  • Comment number 13.

    Everything is totally wrong, renting out land in Africa without going through the right source. Most traditonal rulers there are selfish and greedy humanbeing on earth, that rejoyces in pains of their people. In normal way; before renting or selling out land, a real agreement has to be reached with everyone involve and not just few people that don't care about the well being of others. And under no condition should any government in Africa, support that idea of renting or selling out land without considering the local people that leaves there.

  • Comment number 14.

    This what our politicians always want. You elect them to mortgage your country while they live happily on bribes and corruption. In the next 50 years, i think the states shall be owning all the land in each nation in the continent. Things like customary tenure among others nolonger exist.........one day we will grab our own lands.

  • Comment number 15.

    The epitomy of greed and selfishness, trumping even the idea of 'food derivatives' (whatever they may be) mentioned by some financial genius or other in last week's debate on food supplies. Perhaps the question should be the other way round - 'What's right with it?'
    This shows the real underbelly of capitalism: speculation by financial companies with names nobody's ever heard of, ignoring the welfare, even lives, of millions of people for the sake of a fast buck (or perhaps more accurately, a fast billion)
    There's nothing wrong with responsible inward investment to improve the efficiency and breadth of use of the most valuable of all natural resources - agricultural land. But this isn't intended to help Africa or Africans. It's entire purpose is to put money into rich people's pockets. There's starvation and misery on an unbelievable scale in Africa, and what use will cut flowers and biofuels be in mitigating that? There will be talk of 'trickle-down' benefits, but organised speculation reduces this to a minimum to give the best return to the gamblers. Perhaps there will be biofuel factories employing as little labour as possible under minimal safety conditions, a threat to the workers and the local communities alike (it's happened before, hasn't it?).

  • Comment number 16.

    There is nothing wrong in renting out an African land to our friends from other countries as long as you are also bringing in an income to your family. An example is given to our friends from western world they are well advanced in Agriculture so when they use our land we learn some techniques they use in farming thereafter when they go back to their countries we remain using their method of farming which is a good thing. The only hindrance we face as Africans is lack of penetrating to the outside countries in terms of export.

  • Comment number 17.

    Why would the IMF, working to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world; loan money to African countries (to help them grow), Protect the locals (Small and Medium Size Entrepreneurs) of these Countries by implementing Trade Barriers, then renting out land to Multi-Nationals to invest. How can the Locals compete with them? It's like giving Food to somebody and cutting off his arms and then trying to feed him.

  • Comment number 18.

    Africa is noted for it vast arrable lands, most of which have not been utilised properly for effecient productivity. In spite of this the renting of these lands to foreign investors will do more good to the african people in terms of employment creation and infrastructural development. What I believe must be put in place to ensure equity is the right structures that will determine what the indigenes will benefit as well. In this case i want to propose that since these practice is becoming widespread transcontinentally, the UN, (as the world organisation) can formulate laws governing the renting of such lands not only in Africa but any where to ensure uniformity and avoid discrepancies in the application of individual country's law. This will ensure that there is mutual benefit so that no one will be at a disadvantage. Africa has received food aid for so long a time. It is time we also produce food on our rich soil for the world market, which will require huge capital injection from both local and foriegn investors.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    Perhaps Zimbabwe should rent some land back to the white farmers it dispossessed? Might be a good way of rebuilding the economy whilst retaining the ownership of the land for the greater good?

  • Comment number 21.

    I Think for people to take land in africa and farm on them is not a problem for . reasion is the land is just westing is of no use if some want to develop it i dont think is a problem

  • Comment number 22.

    I do not see any wrong in renting out African land for productive farming. In Nigeria for example, there are lots of wasteful arable land. Some Universities in Nigeria can boast of unproductive land running into thousands of acres. There is the problem of food shortage in Africa which ostensibly have raised the prices of commodities. These shortages and the budget constraints faced by many African familes has also led to malnutrition amongst other illness. If the process of lease or rent or outright sale is transparent then I do think that this wiil do more good than harm. Every nation is in need of an effective and efficient farming system and this include developed and developing nations. A good example is the case of farmers in South Africa which were immdiately wooed by the country of Georgia.

    Olalekan Olanisa from Los Angeles-USA

  • Comment number 23.

    I'm a little disappointed with this articles.. After excusing 'hedge funds' and other investment vechicle of poor investments and swallowing up land in Africa, this article, and the one it cites do not give any actual examples.. In addition to this, it fails to mention that foreign investment is desperately needed across Africa, including the agribusiness sector which I am personally involved with. Read Paul Colliver book' the bottom billion, and you might appreciate how important some of these investments can and might be. This is not to say that these type of investment can't have negative impacts.. but this article is wildly unbalance. If you have no investment, also, you will continue to have famines, and food shortages, and countries and regions needing to import food just to survive. Yes, chucking people of land isn't good, but neither is making it impossible to invest and improve production.

  • Comment number 24.

    Renting the land in Africa means that African leaders are proven to be uneducated about the importance of the land in today's economy. Once the land is rented, the government have no control over of how that land will be used. With the ever present loopholes in many contacts, neither the locals nor their official can defeat the content of the contract in the court of law, especially when you are dealing with big cooperation. When the rest of the world recognized the importance of having arable land and the need to protect it for better future use, African leaders have no knowledge of this essential natural resource. The saddest part of this melodrama is once the land is no longer fertile to cultivate for commercial consumptions, these giant cooperation’s will desert Africa and continue elsewhere. It is because of these short sighted leaders; Africa is still considered as a playing field for any outsiders who want to make quick cash. The future of Africa is very hazy because of these selfish and ill-informed so called leaders. True independent and pragmatic leaders are needed in order for Africa to establish its rightful place in the world stage as an equal partner in international business and world politics.

  • Comment number 25.

    Its very wrong for any African to contemplate of Renting larges portions of arable African to foreigners or multinationals. These African leaders who are doing so are jeopardizing the food security of Africans at large. Instead these lands should be dedicated to commercial food production solely for Africans and if any surplus then export it to foreign countries. The African governments to should develop and encourage indigenous African farmers to manage these lands and support them financially and implements protections measures just like Europe and American to safeguard them from European and American dumping. Food security and African Land is at the core of uplifting millions of Africans to equal status with everyone else in the world. Food is business and Jobs and its high time Africans intellectuals and those of thinking progressively made sure that such deals or arrangements are stricken down immediately for sake of every African and people of African diaspora. Treat others with the same measure and capacity as they have treated us. African lands belong to every African and should be protected at all cost and kept in the hands of indigenous Africans. Lease no lands to Koreans, Bangladesh and the rest. They need food let be grown and sold by Africans not them. They would not allow Africans to do otherwise.

  • Comment number 26.

    Oh my God !! Help this poor continent and its wonderful people. The best brains and minerals are gone to benefit others beyond the seas, and now in the only thing that keeps the hope of the people hanging, their land, wow!! I don't know whose idea is this, but one thing I am certain is that, this is NOT and WILL NOT benefit Africa and its people.

  • Comment number 27.

    It is not the Leasing out of land per se. that is the problem. It is the way and the manner it is done. In my native Ethiopia, for example, there was no consultation with local people. They are simply told to move away without proper compensation and means of survival in place. The leasing period ( 100yrs) and reportedly dirt cheap price is blatant cheek by the ruling regime. Morally, there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole concept of countries like China and Saudi Arabia farming in a country constantly ravaged by food shortages and taking away the produce from the mouth of hungry people! I understand the need for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) but why not look for industrial businesses to invest there? That is much more viable and beneficial for the country. Instead of lazily selling god given land so willy nilly. The government should have also allowed and open the market internally for people and businesses who want to go into farming. ( some 75% of its population rely on farming) This would have made economic and political sense as jobs would have be created locally and the unbearlable food price would come down hence stability. For once, this might even have made us self-sufficient. But, in true Ethiopian politics , the priority for the regime is self-preservation by any means necessary rather than development.

  • Comment number 28.

    Land ownership is a challenge globally and focusing on Africa sounds interesting. All the developed world went through the evolution of land policy framework that got them to where they are today. However, that said, Africa may not be an island but the background to the land policy framework and ownership may be wanting.
    Sure, the foreign nations claiming to lease land for investment for the benefit of the locals may not be transparent or truthful. First, no local community stakeholders are ever engaged in the process which ends with eviction notice to the unsuspecting citizens. Two, the African political leaders and particularly the legislators may want to take the heat on the land scandal deals. Finally, the leasers or buyers need to be aware they may find it hard to benefit or use the land without the on ground stakeholders consent.
    So, it may be appropriate for those willing to invest to do a grassroots approach and only engage the government when things are ready to roll.

  • Comment number 29.

    African farmers are always at the mercy of their governments when it comes to land acquisition. Many a time, the lands are even sold by the governments before they come to negotiate with the real owners. If African farmers cannot feed themselves, why should foreigners come and cultivate food on their lands and export the food to their countries? This is a sad thing but it looks that the trend will continue because people at the helm of affairs are always looking for their interests first and foremost. The African politician will always go at any length to get some money in his pocket before a deal is signed. Food produced in Africa should first be available to Africans before the rest could be exported. Our inability to use technology to solve our problems is always making us like fools in our own country. Let us all try and reverse the trend.

  • Comment number 30.

    It is unfortunate that Africa as a rich continent cannot see and value her potential. She can produce more than enough to feed herself as well as export surplus to other parts of the world that require food. I think the way commercial agriculture has been practised in other parts of the world especially industrialized nations has contributed to climate change, the same ideology is being brought to Africa and that is a worrying concept. In Africa, there are individuals with vast acres of land under customary land systems and it is important that African country governments first take care of their own citizens and then lease what is available to foreign investors who prove that they are going to practise sustainable agriculture and use local resources. But that is not the case because of corruption and lack of integrity. It is a disheartening issue.

  • Comment number 31.

    Obviousely another case of Deja-Vue.It is a confirmation that Africa has not learnt from the past.If a 1-year old child recognises the danger posed by fire after he got his finger burnt,then why is African leaders so dumb that they cannot see the consequences of leasing out their fertile land.It's also a confirmation that African never value what they have got and will always let foreingners expore and exploit their resources.

  • Comment number 32.

    Grow the cotton but never wear the clothes
    Grow the sugar but never eat the sweets
    Oil rig in the back yard my car's not running
    Fish the fish till the sea runs dry so
    They'll be sold in Paris with a really good wine

  • Comment number 33.

    this is very sad. how is Africa supposed to move foreward and prosper if the more if other countries and companies keep exploiting Africa and stealing all the wealth from the people? this is like imperialism all over again, by indirectly and its the same with the resources as well. the problem is there is too much corruption and their are too many African governments which are puppets of other countries. control of African land should be controlled by the Africans.

  • Comment number 34.

    Africa Has NO HOPE for it's future

  • Comment number 35.

    African countries need work and money. Other countries need resources. Instead of leasing the land itself, why not multi-national buy the produce from farmers directly. Land is the commodity that these people have and renting out for a century is to be honest a poor decision on part of their government. And given the level of corruption in these countries, I doubt if a multinational would be signing a fair deal with these countries.

  • Comment number 36.

    This is a recast to slave trade of the 18th,19th and early 20th centuries whereby Africa was pillaged by europe and america for its human and natural resources through demeaning and shameful exchanges mirrors and gunpowder for the human lives. This secured the advancement of other economies to Africa's detriment.

    Now in the 21st Century, the same is playing out. Governments and multinationals are exploiting the lack of formal processes and political structure to exploit the same continent on whose backs their economines were built.

    It is a shame because the only thing my leaders can see right now are dollar signs while they further jeopardize the future of the continent rather than secure the future. Its just a shame!!

  • Comment number 37.

    Nothing is wrong. We need development, and space for more multinational companies to invest in mechanized agriculture, real estate and other developments.

  • Comment number 38.

    One of the arguments people make is that its good for the locals since they will get at least some income in return (as if the corporations are doing charity) But then, the profit margins are absolutely ridiculous and nothing is shared with the farmer (much like the feudal system where landlords made all the money and the farmers none). However, then they would justify it saying its capitalism and if one stands to make a large profit they are entitled to it. Again nonsense ! Why do they forget that the very principle of capitalism is competition ! and in these areas there is no competition (even if more than one player is involved there is price fixing) .The contracts are obtained through governmental coercion of the locals who are then forced to give it away without being offered a competitive bid from any others. Who says feudalism is dead !

  • Comment number 39.

    Africa has to stand up and protect our natural resources otherwise there is a time coming where we will have nothing to even boast of.Where are the high class intellectuals in Africa,STAND UP TO FIGHT FOR AFRICA!!!

  • Comment number 40.

    What a load of liberal tripe! The truth about African land is that it has never been utilized to anywhere near its full potential by local people.
    African leaders have been using land as a weapon of politics to gain popularity for decades, so called re-distribution of land and resources, which as it happens has translated only to re-distribution of poverty.
    The problem with africa, is that its people to not know how to make the leap from subsistance existances, and simple trading, to mass free market business and commercialization. One only has to travel to Africa once to see first hand Africa's inability to build something, maintain something, and profit from something larger than simply subsistance initiative or small enterprise.
    Africa appears to have failed to understand the fundamentals of operating in w world economy where currency (money) cash flow, equity, etc are the pillars of growth. This is not only a problem of education, empowerment of normal citizens and enablement of business entrepreneurship, it is a problem of leadership and governments which have been suppressing their own people for too long, brainwashing their populous for too long, and seeking only one thing - lust for power and personal wealth at the expense of their citizens.
    Its not anyones fault particularly, its everyones fault. From foreign liberalism and aid, to government corruption and lies, to ignorance, to sheer laziness and ineptitude.
    African therefore should seek to blame only themselves, take responsibility for their own problems and free themselves of the situation they now find themselves in.
    Whilst they are at it, perhaps they should also seek foreign investment and offer opportunity to foreign business to invest in land and other key sectors, not to rape them and remove the resource, but to stimulate growth, provide jobs and empower local economy.

  • Comment number 41.

    Africans selling (ehem, renting) out their land their will eventually be Aborigines on their soil. The trend looks set - first pocket the quick cash in form of debts or loans. Then when they are not able to pay back, they then mortgage their land. Sad indeed because those African Aborigines don't have any clue over what is going to hit them.

  • Comment number 42.

    land grabbing is an old age problem in Africa. Not that the land should not be rented out. But a clear cut contract must be made, and all parties must respect it.

  • Comment number 43.

    Renting lands in Africa is lease for 99 years or more, this will break the ancestry line, and next generation could not know and the land will be lost for good. most land in the country side are leased with no proper document, the owners cares about the money and soo ignorant about their future, to them the world is now, forget about tomorrow, same as our leaders,

  • Comment number 44.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 45.

    Leasing of land in Africa is both an opportunity and a potential threat to africans. It all depends on what the deals are. Properly handled, these deals will benefit africans.

  • Comment number 46.

    The first priority is to feed the local people at reasonable prices and then food can be exported. In addition, there should be more jobs for the local people and the labor should not be imported into these lands.

  • Comment number 47.

    Like India, land is mother and any part taken results in killing. Better stay away from even a lwayer who makes the deals. I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

  • Comment number 48.

    We live on a miraculously beautiful planet. All thoughts of 'ownership' are delusional, divisive and lead to war. Wake up! everyone, wherever you are! Stop it!!


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