Tricky Business: Foreign Agricultural Investment in Africa

The fashionable trend of purchasing vast acres of land from poor African nations such as Ethiopia, The Congo and Sudan is fast mutating to one of the greatest nightmares of the African farmer. To date, lots of capital rich nations are flocking to Africa to purchase land for farming with the pretext of coming under the umbrella of the foreign investor. In recent times, such purchase has nearly hit the 50 million acre mark. The quest for foreign investors by poor African countries has facilitated this trend. Apparently, there appears to be a misunderstanding amongst African leaders of the word “foreign investors”.

This idea means well on paper but in reality, little or nothing is gained on the long run. Investors of this kind have further depleted the African economy. It must be understood that proceeds from such massive acres are shipped en mass abroad and used to feed ever growing populations in other continents. A vast number of employees of such foreign owned agricultural enterprises are mostly not of indigenous origin. In fact it is estimated that within the next 2yrs, over a million Chinese farm labourers will be working in Africa. Although this might indeed be an avenue to decongest the massive population proving a menace to the Chinese society, it has not only further increased the burden of unemployment amongst Africans but has also affected the farming scenario as peasant farmers living below the poverty line have found themselves squeezed as their farmlands have been forcefully redrawn to smaller sizes (at the very best) and in most cases, their lands are seized by their irresponsible governments, who are too busy amassing wealth and have little or no time to understand the gravity of the situation at hand.  Many have overheard their peers in western worlds use the word foreign investors but do not realize that this has different levels.

The advent of the foreign farming investor has resulted in adverse effects on the land. The degree of deforestation and desertification as well as poor soil fertility shows a positive correlation with the rate of foreign farm investors.

The term motherland is stronger than it sounds. In reality, you do not owe as much loyalty to the land of your birth as you do to the land of your blood. Hence, one can understand the level of soil degradation going on in such countries, which have sold their lands to foreign companies. The use of beneficial soil rejuvenation techniques is not applied. Fertilizers and pesticides of any kind are used. Soils are getting less productive but who cares? When it’s done we’d move elsewhere. This has created an ecological imbalance and the fear of desertification appears more certain. One can understand the exodus of foreign investors from Kenya as currently the lands left for farming in Kenya have been utilized till they can produce no more.

Employment standards are rarely enforced in Africa and larger firms have their say in almost all matters. The few foreign owned farms, which employ indigenous workers, pay the lean wages and care less about the health or safety conditions on their firms.

African governments have also played their part in this. They have failed to understand that empowering their people to own industries is the key to a sustainable economy. This ensures their population is controlled by their nationals and hence people are not enslaved in their own country as is the case with the Delta Steel Company Aladja of Delta State, Nigeria which has been sold to a foreign company.

Traditional farming methods where animals and crops where raised simultaneously had its strong points as animal dung was used not only to fertilize the soil but also to add to the humus layer of the soil thus preventing erosion. There is a positive correlation between the increase in hunger and global warming. As the planet warms up we expect hunger to increase. Soils need to be shaded from the ever beating rays of the sun. The application of chemical fertilizers cannot be compared to the use of biological fertilizers as the continued application of chemical fertilizers increases leaching of nutrients from the soil, it also negatively affects the soil PH and also the plants or soil microbes as well as increasing the rate of erosion. This also makes more certain the scare of desertification.

Foreign acquisition of farmland is definitely not the solution to food insecurity in Africa. In fact this has further heightened the burden as the produces are not sold in Africa but in wealthier nations. Thus we are not producing enough food, our farmlands are further reduced, we can no longer work as farmers as the so called investors have their nationals working on the farms, and we do not see the food produced on our land since it is catered out of the country. One dares not complain as our governments have received massive sums of money in exchange for these lands. Such is the sad story of the African farmer who is bullied by the great foreign investor. Less food for the African stomach and an eruption in the scramble for the little food left.
This reduction in food supply coupled with an ever growing population has increased the demand for food and given rise to the souring costs of food stuffs. For instance, the price of Teff- the grain used to make the tradition Ethiopian diet Injara– has quadrupled in the past few years.
Nowadays, roughly 70 percent of the starving people in Africa live and work on small farms situated in rural areas in Africa. Reducing the size of their farmlands will simultaneously increase the level of poverty in Africa. This is sad as these people are already characterized by small farm holdings which can barely provide their daily needs.
Initially there was the hope that foreign investment in Agriculture would expose the African farmer to new trends of agriculture but truly speaking, acquiring advanced methods of farming has not been achieved as such technologies are not shared with local farmers. In addition, African farmers are not protected as acquiring hybrid seeds is not easy and the global seed market is grossly dominated by the major biotech firms who appear to violate the rights of the small local farmer.

To lure investors, you must make concessions but this is not the kind of investment Africa needs. What we need is one which will increase the number of employed Africans and not further burden the continent with millions of extra hands taking their jobs. To work in any foreign country, there must be a need for your service. Most countries will give a work permit to skilled workers who are needed. In most cases, there must be a vacuum needed to be filled. Definitely Agricultural labour does not require the use of expatriate labourers.

The offers from foreign investors are mouth watering though. Better jobs, new roads, schools, name it, it is there on paper. However, the quality of such laid down infrastructure is very low. Ethiopia is an example as the roads built in Ethiopia by Chinese firms within the last 5 yrs are already crumbling. The deal has been signed. You asked for infrastructure you got them. But with all fairness, materials used to construct such roads appear like what you would get from a Canadian dollar store. Acquiring farm lands with the pretext that you are aiding poorer countries must stop as it is a coined way of unleashing the demon of poverty on poor African souls.

This trend has not only affected the food industry. The flower industry also poses a danger to Africa as the industry uses huge amounts of pesticides and chemical fertil­izers. This has its consequences. The land gradually becomes infertile. On the long run, it would be difficult for respective African governments to cope with. For the foreign investors, the solution is easy- relocate to another land as it was done when there was massive exodus of foreign flower growers from Kenya (which was then the largest producer before their land became infertile) to Ethiopia- their new welcome host.

Workers on foreign flower farms in Ethiopia(forbidden to form unions) have been crying for intervention as they labour a minimum of eight hours under the scorching sun (almost 40 degrees Celsius) with only a single day off each fortnight only to boast of a daily wage of about a dollar a day. In addition to this, workers are exposed to the chemicals (of which 15 have been classified as carcinogenic by the world health organization) with little or no protective gear such as face masks, gloves etc. There is also the fear that in no time such chemicals will begin to sip into the ground to pollute drinking water. Perhaps women’s rights activists might want to take a look at this as women workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, sexual harassment and are not even allowed to go on maternity leave. Imagine the outcome of future babies from pregnant mothers, who keep handling hazardous chemicals?

The poor compromise their health by accepting such hazardous jobs to survive. It is the government’s role to protect their rights in the work place by ensuring they are well kitted and that the use of hazardous chemicals must be with proper protective gear.  In addition, these people must be paid well if not, the huge revenue received by African governments from sales of farmlands might be used to care for sick workers who fall ill as a result of such jobs. African governments must put a halt to the sale of farmlands and if the sale must continue, the terms must be stated clearly and our leaders must learn not just to read in between the lines but also to see several moves ahead. This is the only way to deal without being the loser as it is clear Africa is losing out on almost all her deals.

Jovi Otite

Jovi Otite (Ph.d) is the co-founder of BornBlack. He is an Animal Science Expert in Animal Reproduction, agriculture and alternative renewable energy.

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