Whether for profit or social motives - and often both - an increasing number of investors are targeting opportunities in African agriculture. At the same time innovative approaches for deploying aid to support farming businesses linked to smallholders are emerging. This blog provides a snapshot of who is doing what, where and how.

31 January 2012

The myths and realities of land grabbing in Mozambique

There has been a lot of misinformation, and some hysteria, in the press coverage of “land grabbing” in Africa. It is refreshing to read a well-researched study, published by the Oakland Institute and written by long-time Mozambique expert Joseph Hanlon, which gives a more balanced account of the realities on the ground.

The 58-page report titled Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa: Mozambique a Country Study  points out that much commentary on land grabbing is wildly exaggerated (e.g. headlines such as “20 million hectares granted to the Heaven on Earth Development Corporation”). And it recognises that rural poverty in countries like Mozambique will not fall unless there is increased public and private investment in the agriculture sector.

The report gives an insightful account of the debates within the Mozambican government about how best to promote agricultural development, in particular how to modernise the agriculutre sector and attract private investment while protecting the interests of small farmers and local communities.

Hanlon describes some recent high profile agribusiness failures in Mozambique and identifies others where the promised employment benefits never materialised. But he does not go so far as to say that all land deals are bad (indeed there is the suggestion, not fully developed, that “medium scale” commercial farming may be part of the answer). Rather, the evidence Hanlon presents gives lie to the myth that African agriculture is a one way bet for investors.

As shown by recent experience in Mozambique, agriculture is a tough business, prone to failure, and investors should be careful not to make unrealistic promises to governments, local communties or, indeed, to their own financial backers. But it would be disastrous for Africa, as commentators such as Professor Calestous Juma have noted, if governments and policy makers drew the conclusion that all foreign private investment in agriculture should be discouraged.

Hanlon does not go down that path and, while he does not exactly endorse large farm investments, he at least opens a window for a rational discussion about how to attract and regulate responsible foreign investment in the Mozambican agriculture sector.

Investors are unlikely to agree with everything in the  report. For example, the statement “investors are not interested in the poor quality land, which puts them in direct conflict with food production” is hardly justified when large areas of land in Mozmabique are idle (mainly because of missing infrastructure, as reported by the Economist Intelligence Unit). But it is worth reading to get a better understanding of how some of the myths and the realities about farming investments in Africa play out in the public sector.

There is enough common ground in this report for both sides of the polarised "smallholder farmer versus large-scale commercial farming" debate to come together and work out ways of promoting investment models which can genuinely deliver both social and financial returns.