Agence France Presse | 1 December 2009
By Guillaume Lavallee
KHARTOUM, Dec 01, 2009 (AFP) - Arab and Asian investors are scrambling for vast swathes of arable land in Sudan, but the African giant needs to modernise its agricultural sector if it wants to become a "bread basket".
A drop in crude oil prices last year deprived Sudan -- which exports more than 300,000 barrels a day -- of precious revenues, drawing the country back to agriculture, the traditional driver of its economy.
Poor despite being located next to the oil-rich Gulf, Sudan is endowed with vast amounts of tillable land and has turned to foreign investors to breathe life into its unstable "agro-economy".
And with American economic sanctions in place, the door was left wide open for Asian and Middle Eastern investors who have been flocking over to Africa's biggest country.
"The investment for last year is not by any means less than five billion US dollars in preparing the projects for production and also for facilitation of the work in the various investments," Sudan's Minister of State for Agriculture Abdulrahim Ali Hamad told AFP.
Private and public investors from Qatar, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia as well as China and Korea hold long term rights to a total of two million feddans (8,400 square kilometres, 3,243 square miles) of arable land, according to ministry figures.
"We are expecting that by 2012, Sudan would be the bread basket for the whole region," Hamad said.
Foreign investors are multiplying contracts to obtain long-term rights to arable land, but less than 15 percent of the surface is currently cultivated, according to official figures.
Once bought, the land is abandoned until investors deem the time correct to invest.
But the Sudanese authorities want more regulation.
"There's an initial period, a specified period, in which the investor has to prove their seriousness to invest. Otherwise the land will be confiscated and the contract terminated," Hamad said.
But some see progress as slow.
"We talk a lot but actually on the ground nothing much is happening," said Osama Daoud, chief executive of the Sudanese DAL group which runs large agricultural projects.
"I think it is not right to sell or give your land to foreigners... until you have exhausted every local possibility," he told AFP.
Many companies are concerned about "land-grabbing" that gives foreigners control of arable land for their own food security.
The problem was a key topic at a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation summit in Rome.
"In Africa, foreign investors buy farmland, transforming themselves into new feudal lords against whom we must fight," Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi said at the summit.
Sudan, spread over 2.5 million square kilometres (nearly one million square miles), has an arable land surface of 160,000 square kilometres (61,776 square miles), more than all the arable land surfaces in the Middle East.
"The potential comes from the Nile as well as underground water reserves and rain water," said Suleiman Shugeiry, vice-president of Arab Sudanese Blue Nile Agriculture, a Sudanese company financed in part by Gulf money.
But large-scale agriculture demands more aptitude than what is currently on offer by Sudanese farmers, observers said.
The African country must limit the obstacles to investment, modernise the methods used by small farmers and manage medium and large-scale projects, in order to deliver on this potential."The Sudanese farmers have a lot of experience but it is often surpassed," said Mohammed Elsebaey, who represents the Egyptian group Farment, which specialises in the management of agricultural projects.