Can Africa's Fields Feed The World?

Dean Rouseberg Author: Dean Rouseberg Time for reading: ~14 minutes Last Updated: December 10, 2022
Can Africa's Fields Feed The World?

"If you wrote a letter to God and asked him for the best soil and climatic conditions for farming, you would get this," says Miguel Bosch, an Argentine agronomist from the nearby Oyo-Oyo corporate farm, which grows soybeans on 10,000 hectares of land in northern Mozambique. - This is a paradise for farmers. I worked for many years in Brazil and Argentina, but

She didn't even see when that big tractor arrived. First he plowed her bananas. Then corn. Then there are beans, sweet potatoes, cassava. In a few minutes of noise and dust, mashamba disappeared near the city of Shai-Shai in Mozambique , half a hectare of field that fed Flora Shirime and her 5 children for many years. The new owner, a Chinese corporation, is creating an agricultural enterprise here on 20,000 hectares. A brownish-green checkerboard of fields has already covered a wide strip of the Limpopo Delta.

"No one even spoke to me," says 45-year-old Shirime. - Just one fine day I saw a tractor plowing my entire field. And no one was ever compensated for the loss of mashamba!” Local civil society organizations say Wanbao Africa Agricultural Development has already displaced thousands of people from land and livelihoods — all with the blessing of the Mozambican government , which traditionally disregards local villagers' land rights when big investments are in the offing. Those who managed to get a job on a giant farm work without days off and overtime pay. A representative of Wanbao denied such claims and emphasized that the company teaches local villagers to grow rice.


Shirim's position can hardly be called unique. She is just one of the characters of a new trend in world agriculture : the amazing desire to transform Tropical Africa, which has always, if not the most, suffered from hunger on the planet, to the new main granary of the world. Since 2007, near-record prices for corn, soybeans, wheat and rice have set off a global land rush among corporate investors eager to lease or buy land in countries where it is cheap, the government can be negotiated with, and property rights are often disregarded. Most of these land deals have been concluded in Africa, one of the few regions on the planet where there are still millions of hectares of virgin land and sufficient reserves of water for irrigation. There is also the largest gap in the world in terms of yield indicators: if the USA, China and the countries of the Eurozone receive approximately 6 tons of grain (corn, wheat or rice) per hectare, then in the countries of Tropical Africathey collect 1 ton per hectare, i.e. this is how the peasants collected during the time of Caesar in a harvest year. Despite several attempts, the “green revolution” of fertilizers, irrigation, and high-yielding seeds that more than doubled global grain production from 1960 to 2000 has not succeeded in Africa because of inadequate infrastructure, limited markets, weak governance, and civil unrest. wars that ravaged the post-colonial continent.


Many of these obstacles are now disappearing. During the last decade, the economic growth of the countries of Tropical Africa accelerated to 5% per year, surpassing the pace of the USA and the EU. National debts of countries are decreasing, peaceful elections are being held more and more often. More than 1/3 of people in sub -Saharan Africa own mobile phones and use them for banking, small businesses or transferring money to relatives in rural areas. After 25 years of virtually no investment in African agriculture , the World Bank and donor countries stepped up. The continent is turning into a laboratory where new methods of increasing food production are tested. If African farmerswill be able to increase the yield of at least 4 tons of grain per hectare (that is, 4 times, which is not an easy task) at the expense of current technologies, then, according to experts, they will not only provide themselves with food, but will also be able to work for export, earning money , as well as helping to solve the world's food problem.

Of course, this is a rather optimistic option. Thailand now exports more agricultural products than all sub-Saharan countries combined, and the specter of climate change threatens Africa 's crops as well . However, the main problem is this: who will lead agriculture in Africa in the future? Poor peasants like Shirime, who farm their scraps of land and make up nearly 70% of the continent's workforce? Or giant corporations like Wanbao with industrial farms modeled after American Midwestern farms?

Humanitarian groups that study the problems of hunger in the world and protect the rights of peasants call land acquisition by corporations neocolonialism and agro-imperialism. But agriculture development veterans say the massive impact of private capital, infrastructure and technology that such contracts can bring to poor rural areas will drive much-needed development — if big projects and small farms can come to an agreement.

"If you wrote a letter to God and asked him for the best soil and climatic conditions for farming, you would get this," says Miguel Bosch, an Argentine agronomist from the nearby Oyo-Oyo corporate farm , which grows soybeans on 10,000 hectares of land in north of Mozambique . - This is a paradise for farmers. I have worked in Brazil and Argentina for many years, but I have never seen such soil anywhere."


Fertile land, soaring demand for soybeans and rice and a government willing to make massive land deals have put this former Portuguese colony at the center of a continent-wide land rush. In 2013, Mozambique was the third poorest country in the world. Almost half of children over the age of 5 suffer from developmental delay due to malnutrition. Recently discovered reserves of coal and natural gas of world importance, as well as concessions for mining and cutting down forests, are gradually improving the standard of living. Large-scale infrastructure projects are emerging, most of which are financed mainly by loans from states that seek to establish good relations with the country's political leaders in order to benefit.

Since 2004, about 2.5 million hectares have been leased to foreign and domestic investors for logging, biofuel production, sugar cane cultivation, etc. This is about 7% of the country's arable land and one of the highest figures in Africa.

Signing an agreement with a ministry official in a luxury hotel in Maputo is only half the battle. It is much more difficult to organize the work of a large farmand profit in the midst of hostile neighbors. The Oyo-Oyo enterprise, located in the best soybean-growing region of Geru, should be a shining example of the new African agricultural production. Instead, it became a vivid example of failure. In 2009, local officials leased nearly 10,000 hectares of the abandoned state farm to a Portuguese company with government ties. However, local peasants have grown crops here for years to feed their own families. When the Portuguese governors arrived, they met with the leaders of the village community and promised them twice as much land elsewhere, as well as a cola, a hospital and water wells.

The promised is still waiting. The school and hospital were never built, although the company purchased an ambulance to transport patients to the hospital in Geru (the journey takes an hour). Only about 40 men were able to get a low-paid job at the enterprise, and several hundred were resettled. Some did get land, but it is very far from home, and the plots themselves are overgrown and swampy. One of these "lucky" ones is Kushtodiou Albertu. He was on the stream near the border with "Oyo-Oyo", among two dozen parishioners of the local Roman Catholic church, who were threshing soybean sheaves with wooden flails. The same number of women winnowed the beans in wicker baskets. The 3 hectares of their land, which is still owned by the church, lie next to the endless fields of "Oyo-Oyo" stretching to the green mountains on the horizon.

"For us, small farmers , soybeans grown here will provide income for the family. You can even send your children to college to study to become an engineer or a doctor, says Albertu. - The field is everything for us. There is no field - there is no life."

The resettled peasants who survived 16 years of war are poor, but far from helpless. Shortly after the start of the "Oyo-Oyo" lease (which, by the way, means "welcome" in the local language), problems with the farm began. Imported American John Deere tractors strangely did not start at all. "I don't know why this happens," commented a local farmer working nearby with a sly smile. "Probably African magic."


The conflict over Oyo-Oyo pales in comparison to what the future holds. In 2009, the Mozambican government signed an agreement with Brazil and Japan to create an agricultural megaproject called ProSavana: nearly 14 million hectares of land in northern Mozambique were transferred to the industrial cultivation of soybeans—perhaps the largest land deal in history. This plan was inspired by a Japanese-Brazilian project that turned the plains of Brazil into one of the world's leading soybean exporting regions, most of which is exported as livestock feed to Europe and China. A strip of land the size of Greece will be developed with modern farms (10 hectares each) under the leadership of Brazilian entrepreneurs. In technical centers on the farms of local farmerswill teach how to increase the yield of various vegetables, including cassava, soybeans and other beans. At least, that was the idea. But when a group of Brazilian farmers came to the region in 2013, they were in for an unpleasant surprise.

"They saw beautiful lands, but there were rural communities everywhere," says Anaclito St. Mart, an employee of the American non-profit organization TechnoServe, which works with farmers in the region. "The reality was very different from what they were told about in Brazil." Experts who thoroughly studied the maps of the area say that the land here is mostly leased to mining or logging enterprises, belongs to the nature protection zone, or is already cultivated by local farmers . Only about 950,000 hectares are still unused — and these are the least suitable lands for agriculture .

"And who do you think will win in the situation with the ProSavana project? - asks Devlin Kuyek from the non-profit organization GRAIN, which for the first time drew the attention of the world public to corporate investments in agricultural land. — Now the land is cultivated by small farmers and yet the government hands it over to corporations. I'm sure there are companies with good intentions. But they also profit from low wages and low land prices. Industrial agricultural production will simply lead to even greater exploitation."

With the right approach, small farms can be very productive, Kuyek says, citing the example of rice farmers in Vietnam or small dairy farms in Kenya that provide 70% of the country's milk. Simply giving women (and they make up the majority of Africa's farmers ) the same access to land, credit and fertilizer as men, can increase food production by 30%. However, the Mozambican government does not agree with this. Although small farms have begun to produce more food over the past few years , 37% of the population is malnourished, and the south of the country suffers from droughts and floods. Despite rich mineral resources, Mozambiqueremains one of the hungriest countries in the world. According to the government, large farms will help solve this problem .


"I consider ProSavana and the Zambezi Valley to be the breadbasket of the country," says Raimundu Matule, Director of the National Economic Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture . — I don't see such giant farms here in the future as in Brazil, but rather medium -sized farms of 3-10 hectares. Brazilians have knowledge, technology and equipment that we can borrow and transfer to small farms. If ProSavana does not contribute to food security, it will lose state support."

A few kilometers down a bumpy dirt road from Oyo-Oyo, the soybean farm of a retired teacher is showing off — an example of a successful middle ground. Armando Afonso Katsava started growing vegetables in his free time in a small garden, and in a few years he bought almost 26 hectares of land. He now grows soybeans under contract to a new company called African Century Agriculture, which supplies him with seeds and mechanical weeding. For this, he sells his harvest to the company at the agreed price, deducting the cost of the services provided. Currently, this arrangement is beneficial for both parties.

"In my opinion, the secret of success is medium-sized farms ," ​​says Katshava. - Large farms occupy too much territory, and people have nowhere to live. If everyone had 5 hectares of soybeans, this would be enough to make money and not lose land." Contracts like his have proven to be quite successful for both poultry breeding and the cultivation of valuable crops such as tobacco, and even organic waxy corn, which is exported to Europe. Currently, Mozambican farmers are starting to grow fodder soybeans - poultry farming is rapidly developing in the country.

Rachel Grobbelaar is a tall and strong Zimbabwean who left a well-paying job in London's financial center to run African Century. The company has concluded agreements on growing products with more than 900 small and medium-sized farmers cultivating almost 1,000 hectares of land. Each of them is visited 7 times per season by a company consultant to teach the basics of rational agriculture and the use of inexpensive seed treatment (instead of expensive fertilizers) to increase yields.


"Yesterday I visited one of our small farmers up there on the mountain - he harvested 2.4 tons per hectare," says Grobbelaar about last year's harvest (this is more than 2 times the average yield). He couldn't believe it was true. He received 37 thousand meticals (about $1200) of profit. It's a lot. I strongly support the contract model in Africa. Commercial farms can create jobs, but they take land away from people and usually pay minimum wage. I believe That the way we are doing it, we will be able to increase production."

However, with proper management, large farms can also benefit the local population. 14 years ago Driz House, a former surgeon from Zambia, planted 12 hectares of a failed citrus farm near Maputo with bananas. Over time, his business developed. Now he calls it "Bananolandia". The 1,400-hectare farm is the largest banana farm in Mozambique and one of the country's main employers, employing 2,800 workers year-round. During this time, the Haus firm helped transform Mozambiquefrom an importer of bananas to an exporter. As the farm expanded, Haus built roads, built a school and hospital, dug wells, and laid 55 km of power lines that supply electricity not only to his irrigation system but also to the surrounding villages where his workers live. Workers in the lowest-paid positions receive 10% more than the minimum wage, and tractor drivers and plantation managers earn twice as much.

Haus sees a mix of large and small farms as appropriate , where small farmers raise livestock and cultivate their allotments to eat what they grow themselves, while large enterprises provide roads, electricity and infrastructure that the state does not provide. Large farms create a certain number of jobs, the rest of the population looks for other ways to live. The secret to local citizens' trust in corporations is very simple, says Haus: keep your word.

"I brought electricity to this village," says Haus. - I was never asked to do this, and it is not my business at all. But there comes a moment (if you don't get too philosophical) when you want to make this world a little better, right? After all, everything can't revolve only around money."


It should not be forgotten, however, that it is money — and not the lofty idea of ​​feeding humanity — that is at the heart of the land rush in Africa. A recent conference for agricultural investors in New York brought together about 800 leading financial companies from around the world with almost 3 trillion dollars of investments at their disposal. Among them are giant pension funds, insurance companies, hedge funds, private equity funds and sovereign wealth funds, which have now allocated about 5% of their total assets to investments in agriculture.. Over the next decade, this share should triple. Such a massive infusion of private capital, technology and infrastructure is exactly what the global agricultural sector needs, according to experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. According to their estimates, from now on it will be necessary to invest $83 billion a year in agriculture in developing countries to feed another 2 billion people by 2050.

However, some villagers had never heard of the ProSavana project. 35-year-old farmer Kosta Ernestu and his wife Cecilia Luis are trying to feed their family from 1 hectare of corn, and they also make a living by selling bamboo poles for roofing. They have 5 children, ages 6 months to 11 years. The eldest, the shy Ashwalta, crushes corn with a wooden pestle almost bigger than her, just like her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother used to do. It is noticeable that children and parents suffer from malnutrition.

There are other peasants, whose condition is clearly characterized by worn clothes, bloated bellies and poor huts. They do not hesitate to exchange their small farms for work on a large farm.

"I pray that it will happen," says the oldest man. "Because I really need a job." 

The future will show whether Mozambican peasants will work on large industrial farms, as in the American state of Iowa, or on small but productive ones, like the owners of rice fields in Vietnam. But everyone agrees on one thing: the status quo cannot continue.


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