Hunger and food security: One way to create an African breadbasket
Foreign investment in a Zambian farming firm may be a business model for Africa's hunger and food security problems.
The rolling hills of this part of Zambia were long known for the copper that brought mining companies from the United States, Britain, and China to compete for contracts here. And, in turn, it was known as a jobs mecca for laborers from miles around.Skip to next paragraph
The unpredictable cycles of boom and bust, supply and demand, ensured that today's success story would soon be tomorrow's padlocked factory gate.
But the food crisis of 2007, when food prices skyrocketed because of growing demand for biofuels, has attracted a very different kind of foreign investor. Where mining executives look at maps and calculate the riches they can extract from shafts 300 feet deep in the ground, the new foreign investors are calculating wealth above ground, in rows of corn and wheat; and their plans envision the creation of tens of thousands of steady jobs and a revival of a rural economy that contributes more to the local community than mining ever did.
"Africa itself is an importer of food, but there is so much fertile land available," says Neil Crowder, cofounder of Chayton Capital, a London-based investment firm that, backed by the World Bank, has invested $10 million in the local Zambian firm Chobe Agrivision to lease 25,000 acres of land in the Mkushi area, with plans for 25,000 more. "Unfortunately, some of the poorest countries in the world pay the highest prices for food, and having farms in Zambia can cut out the cost of transportation, so we decided to set up a model to supply food, mainly maize and soy and wheat, to Zambia and neighboring countries."
It's a model that the Zambian government has welcomed. President Rupiah Banda's administration aims to ease the nation from a reliance on boom-and-bust mining and to improve food security. It's a popular move for a country with a relatively small population and large plots of well-watered lands. And the move enjoys support from local farmers, who see foreign investment not as a threat, but as welcome new attention from government on the needs of farmers.
"According to the census, which is going on now, our population may be in the range of 12 [million] to 15 million, which is not huge, and we have [74 million to 111 million acres] of arable land, the large majority of which is not utilized," says Bradford Machile, Zambia's minister for livestock and fisheries.
Unlike countries like Madagascar and Mozambique, in Zambia there is no major groundswell among local farmers and consumers against foreign "land grabs," Mr. Machile says, in part because there is so much land to go around. "The land is here," he says. "You can't pick it up and move away with it."