Land grabbing, foreign investment and Nigerian agriculture

Business Day | Thursday, 08 November 2012

Land grabbing, foreign investment and Nigerian agriculture

Written by Tukeni Obasi

Last week on this column, I shed some light on the rice revolution and the part Dominion Farms, an Oklahoma-based farming company, is playing to build Africa’s largest rice farm in collaboration with Nigeria’s Ministry of Agriculture. News like this has, however, been received differently by Nigerians.      
The renewed interest in agribusiness and investment – largely in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2005-2006 and the increase in volatility of food prices – has made some decry what they have called the “re-colonisation of Africa” or the “New Scramble for Africa” which ultimately impoverishes Nigerian smallholder farmers.
With water scarcity in the Gulf countries, the threat of food insecurity has driven many countries to Africa where arable land and water can be more easily acquired. But countries in Asia, as well as the United States, have not been left out of this ‘land-grabbing’ trend. In concert with governments, these foreign investors have been able to acquire large plots of land (sometimes even as large as thousands of hectares) to grow lucrative agricultural enterprises. This new development, cautions a deputy director at the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), David Hallam, “could be a win-win situation or it could be a sort of neocolonialism with disastrous consequences.”
For many governments, the win-win rhetoric has predominated the political discourse as the growth of agribusiness and the agricultural economy and the creation of many development opportunities have been cited as some of the dividends of foreign investment. Other touted dividends include the acquisition of skills, the use of more efficient and mechanised farming methods, and the increase in domestic food security. In Nigeria, the story of the Shonga Farms in Kwara State and how Zimbabwean farmers transformed the agricultural sector in the state has been presented as a model and a plus for foreign involvement and expertise by pro-investment individuals.
But many Nigerians and international bodies continue to cry foul. International NGO Oxfam has also petitioned the World Bank to take stringent measures to stop the pace of large-scale acquisitions of land on the African continent. According to Nigerian writer Abdulaziz Abdulatif, the foreign acquisition of Nigerian farmlands has served to “dispossess the locals of their lands in the name of promoting agricultural investment, provision of housing estates, and industrial revolution.” In an interview conducted last year by GRAIN, an international NGO, Olaseinde Makanjuola Arigbede of the United Small and Medium-scale Farmers’ Associations of Nigeria (USMEFAN) said the material poverty of Nigerian smallholder farmers “is usually exploited by governments and their local and foreign land grabbers.” Urging a rethink of the concept of a win-win agricultural development coalition, he described the term RAI (Responsible Agricultural Investment) as a subterfuge designed to “hoodwink Africa and make crime wear the garments of salvation.” He also questioned the government’s hospitality to foreign investors over the years contrasting it with the treatment Nigerian indigenous farmers have received from the government.
In his words, “The same governments that neglected their own farmers provided these ‘magical’ South African farmers with all imaginable forms of support: credit guarantees, hundreds of hectares of farmland practically for free, access to fertilisers and other inputs, newly tarred roads from their farms, freedom to repatriate earnings, etc. Beyond this, the new farmers have had an inexhaustible supply of cheap labour whose conditions of work cannot be scrutinised by any media or reporter and who have not been allowed to form or join unions to protect their interests from farmers from such background as that of the expelled South African farmers. We now know that these ‘magical’ farmers are moving away from producing staple crops that might boost food security in the country to the less exacting work of livestock farming, especially poultry.”
As the FAO DG points out, land acquisition – or grabbing, depending on how you look at it – is now a reality that cannot be done away with. However, as he advises, what we can do is limit and regulate the practice to ensure that the interests of smallholder farmers are upheld. Arigbede’s arguments above in favour of smallholder farmers are not without merit and indeed provide us with some serious food for thought to help us assess the relevance of foreign acquisition of Nigerian farmland. According to the writer Sue Branford, the displacement of local farmers in large-scale land acquisitions is detrimental to agriculture as it destroys the very key to food security and climate-smart agriculture – small-scale sustainable agriculture buttressed by local farming knowledge.
This context enables us to properly assess the recent public-private partnership between the Federal Government and Dominion Farms. This is not an independent project as it is part of the government’s new policy to revamp the rice value chain. As I mentioned last week, under the agreement, 10 percent of the targeted land in Taraba State will go to Dominion Farms while the larger portion of the land (9010 percent) will be contracted out to local farmers. By virtue of Dominion Farms’ responsibility to train young students in farming techniques in Kenya and then absorb them into the enterprise or equip them for owning their own enterprises, there is already a demonstrated commitment to supporting and building local skills, knowledge and enterprise. On these counts, the partnership with Dominion Farms is not your typical land-grabbing project.
However, we will also need to ascertain the smallholders’ experience as part of this project on the measures that Arigbede points out: profitability, bargaining and competitive potential, access to credit, input, markets, infrastructure. As we work towards self-sufficiency under a truly transformative umbrella, it is our responsibility to make sure that land acquisitions are truly a win-win for everyone along the Nigerian agricultural value chain.
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