Financial Mail | 30 October 2009
By Shannon Sherry
After months of negotiation, SA farmers have been given the green light to begin commercial farming in the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville).
Farmers' organisation Agri SA announced this week it had signed an agreement with the Congo-Brazzaville government that would pave the way for its members to expand operations into that country - and the rest of the continent.
Giving government's blessing on it at the recent Agri SA congress, agriculture, forestry & fisheries minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson said government was participating in similar negotiations with five African countries, and had already been offered vast tracts of land in two of them.
Agri SA deputy president Theo de Jager says similar discussions have started with at least 17 other African countries.
Matters dealt with in the agreement with Congo-Brazzaville include "farming-related aspects such as primary agriculture and the exchange of technology and knowledge".
"Matters such as the length of time farming can be practised by SA farmers have also been agreed on. At least 60 years is now possible," De Jager says. He is satisfied issues such as the repatriation of profits and compensation in the event of expropriation have been addressed.
About 1 700 farmers have already inquired about a possible move, De Jager says. "SA farmers' ability to produce under difficult circumstances and market conditions has clearly elicited great respect in Africa. The blurring of borders and greater incidence of formal co-operation agreements and formal investment protection make it possible for SA's commercial farmers to view Africa as a production area with less bias," he says.
De Jager says he is encouraged by Joemat-Pettersson's announcement, after government initially expressed reservations about the proposed moves. She said secure tenure was an important part of the agreements between the parties.
Says De Jager: "Farmers who go to other countries are doing so because they are positive about Africa, not negative about SA. They go where there are opportunities to make money. Government support is a bonus."
Joemat-Pettersson assured the congress government was not trying to drive white farmers out of SA. However, she reiterated government's commitment to placing at least 30% of agricultural land in black hands and admitted this would leave little room domestically for commercial farmers to expand their operations. "If there are no opportunities for white farmers here, we must find opportunities elsewhere," she said.
The move also helped to counter initiatives by competing agricultural producers such as China, India and Brazil, which were establishing farming enterprises and gaining preferential access to markets in Africa, she said.
Congo-Brazzaville, like many other countries, is concerned about food security. It has almost no commercial agriculture. An Agri SA fact-finding mission this year found there were about 10m ha of prime agricultural land available.
Andre Botha, chairman of Agri-Braz, a co-operative formed by Agri SA to steer the negotiations, says Congo-Brazzaville imports almost all its food and is a "dumping ground" for third-grade French food products. "The French, Congo-Brazzaville's former colonial masters, are not happy with us. They know what SA farmers can achieve," he says.
Besides the Republic of Congo agreement, Agri SA is also holding discussions with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Angola, Zambia and Uganda. Angola and Uganda have already earmarked 140 000 ha and 170 000 ha respectively.
But De Jager is most excited about an impending Agri SA fact-finding mission to Libya at the invitation of President Muammar Gaddafi. "If we succeed there, we can succeed anywhere in Africa."Botha stresses that farmers are unlikely to leave SA permanently. "They simply want to diversify and they have an excellent opportunity in this deal. They will probably send their sons, nephews or managers to run operations in Congo-Brazzaville," he says.