Foreign investors often blamed for Africa land grabs conducted by local ruling elites

Thursday, 27 March 2014 12:36 GMT

A worker irrigates a sugarcane plantation at Kenana Sugar Company main plant, south of Khartoum in South Sudan. May 14, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

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African middle classes and local ruling elites often are the biggest drivers of the transfer of land ownership on the continent rather than foreign investors, land experts said.

(New paragraph three to correct attribution to Thomas Jayne, professor at Michigan State University)

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Policymakers and media organisations are ignoring the fact that African middle classes and local ruling elites are the biggest drivers of the transfer of land ownership on the continent over the last few years, rather than foreign investors, experts said.

The focus on large-scale overseas investors is distracting from the real story that mid-sized farmers are behind agricultural growth in Africa, and this has policy implications which are not being addressed.

"The foreign land grab is one issue but it pales in comparison to domestic investment in land," said Thomas Jayne, a professor at Michigan State University.  "There has not been much documentation of this trend until recently, but this incontrovertible data is coming in from the countries," he said. 

USAID studies conducted in Ghana, Zambia and Kenya showed that big farms are changing the landscape of land ownership in Africa. But they disproved the notion, often reported in news media, that foreign-owned large corporations are grabbing most of the productive lands in most African countries.

Experts at the World Bank conference on Land and Poverty, where the studies were discussed this week, said the majority of land guidelines fail to recognise the impact of mid-sized farms, and so governments may not be addressing the impact that farmers within this category have on land use.

Milu Muyanga, assistant professor at Michigan State University, said most of these mid-sized farms are owned by indigenous urban dwellers who are utilising their access to capital, information and powerful political people to buy increasingly large tracts of farmland. This group, whom he called ‘emergent farmers’ have risen from owning 2 percent of the total number of farms in Ghana to 7 percent over the past few years.

Land consolidation has longer term implications for employment. According to United Nations’ data, Africa has the youngest population in the world.  Some 200 million Africans are between 15 and 24 years old.  This young population is expected to more than double by 2050, when there will be 800 million Africans aged 25-59.

 “If a career in agriculture is not viable for this group of people, there will be serious social problems for governments,” says Muyanga. “Agriculture is believed to provide the best route to drive people out of poverty and food insecurity. However, growing population means land is becoming fragmented. To complicate things, the scope for expansion is limited in most of these countries.”

He said the studies raise serious concern about a process of land conversion that favours a small, but growing middle and upper class of Africans who are starting their farming ‘careers’ with relatively large land holdings.

A concentration of land in the hands of a few individuals means a larger percentage of the population will be driven further into joblessness, poverty and despair.

In order to address this, governments need to change their land and agriculture policy to favour small-scale farmers, according to Klaus Deininger, a lead economist at the World Bank. He also warned that African governments need to pay more attention to how land is distributed, with regards to productivity and employment.

“Small-scale farms could be more viable with supportive policies,” he said. “Most of the rural to urban migrations over the last 30 years or more had been driven by policy decisions made by governments. If you change the policies, you will get a different outcome.”


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