The next breadbasket
National Geographic | June 2014
The next breadbasket
Large agriculture companies are taking an interest in Africa’s arable land. For now, most of the continent’s food comes from small farmers. These are the faces of some of those men and women.
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
Photographs by Robin Hammond
She never saw the big tractor coming. First it plowed up her banana trees. Then her corn. Then her beans, sweet potatoes, cassava. Within a few, dusty minutes the one-acre plot near Xai-Xai, Mozambique, which had fed Flora Chirime and her five children for years, was consumed by a Chinese corporation building a 50,000-acre farm, a green-and-brown checkerboard of fields covering a broad stretch of the Limpopo River Delta.
“No one even talked to me,” the 45-year-old Chirime says, her voice rising with anger. “Just one day I found the tractor in my field plowing up everything. No one who lost their machamba has been compensated!” Local civil society groups say thousands lost their land and livelihoods to the Wanbao Africa Agricultural Development Company—all with the blessing of the Mozambican government, which has a history of neglecting local farmers’ rights to land in favor of large investments. Those who managed to get jobs on the giant farm are working seven days a week with no overtime pay. A spokesman for Wanbao denied such allegations and stressed that it’s training local farmers to grow rice.
Chirime’s situation is hardly unique. She’s just one character in the biggest story in global agriculture: the unlikely quest to turn sub-Saharan Africa, historically one of the hungriest places on the planet, into a major new breadbasket for the world. Since 2007 the near-record prices of corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice have set off a global land rush by corporate investors eager to lease or buy land in countries where acreage is cheap, governments are amenable, and property rights often ignored. Most land deals have occurred in Africa, one of the few regions on the planet that still have millions of acres of fallow land and plentiful water available for irrigation. It also has the largest “yield gap” on Earth: Although corn, wheat, and rice farmers in the U.S., China, and eurozone countries produce about three tons of grain per acre, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa average half a ton—roughly the same yield Roman farmers achieved on their wheat fields in a good year during the rule of Caesar. Despite several attempts, the green revolution’s mix of fertilizers, irrigation, and high-yield seeds—which more than doubled global grain production between 1960 and 2000—never blossomed in Africa, thanks to the poor infrastructure, limited markets, weak governance, and fratricidal civil wars that wracked the postcolonial continent.
Sugarcane hawkers await customers on the Nacala railway in northern Mozambique, where Brazil and Japan hope to turn 35 million acres of small farms over to industrial-scale soybean production. The country has leased roughly 7 percent of its arable land—among the highest rates in Africa.
Many of those hurdles are now falling. Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth has hummed along at about 5 percent a year for the past decade, besting that of the U.S. and the European Union. National debts are declining, and peaceful elections are being held with increasing frequency. More than one in three sub-Saharan Africans now own cell phones and use them for mobile banking, to run small businesses, or send money to relatives in rural areas. After 25 years of virtually no investment in African agriculture, the World Bank and donor countries have stepped up. The continent is emerging as a laboratory for testing new approaches to boosting food production. If sub-Saharan African farmers can raise their yields to even two tons of grain per acre using existing technology—a fourfold increase and still a tall order—some experts believe they could not only better feed themselves but actually export food, earning much needed cash and helping to feed the world as well....
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