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Africa: from famine to the world’s next breadbasket?

Foreign interests buy up cheap agricultural land across Africa to grow tomorrow’s food. But will any of it benefit Africans?

By Correspondent / December 17, 2009

For years, farmers like these in Ethiopia have tended small wheat plots. Now they work next to huge commercial farms as foreigners buy up tracts of land.

Barry Malone/Reuters

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In Western eyes, Africa is a land of hunger – a place of famines and starving children, emaciated limbs, and desperate United Nations feeding campaigns.

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Soon, however, the United States and Europe might be forced to change this view. Thanks to a rush of outside investments, Africa is poised to become the world’s next breadbasket – a situation prompting sharp debate among many international aid and food agencies.

Over the past year, dozens of private investors and foreign governments, including those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, South Korea, and China, have snatched up hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in Africa. Though their goals vary, many involved with the acquisitions say they want to secure farmable land to protect their home countries against what they see as inevitable
future food shortages.

And when it comes to open, arable land – and governments willing to make a deal – Africa is the world leader. Saudi Arabian investors, for instance, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into farmland in Ethiopia, according to groups like GRAIN, a nonprofit that supports small farmers and has been tracking these international land acquisitions.

China has invested $800 million in rice production in Mozambique, and Jordan has secured tens of thousands of hectares for livestock and crops in Sudan. In September, the South Korean government announced that it will develop 100,000 hectares of farmland in Tanzania, at least half of which will go to South Korean businesses raising grains and producing processed food such as cooking oil and starch.

Corporate investors are also getting involved. London and Wall Street firms have shown new interest in farmland investment vehicles. Given the state of the global financial market – and the 2008 food crisis during which wheat and other food staple prices soared to record highs – food and land seem safe long-term investments, says Devlin Kuyek, a researcher with GRAIN.