Leave it to a do-gooder organization to spoil a major new effort to develop poor African countries.  Oxfam has called for a moratorium on African governments “selling” land to foreign investors.  I use quotation marks since most of the land is leased, not sold.  Oxfam argues that the land “sold” could be used to feed many of those starving in Africa. 

Let´s look at the facts.  First, if the land could feed many of the starving why isn’t it doing so now?  Oxfam seems to believe that simply leaving the land as is will feed more.  But the truth is that the land needs significant investment to produce the additional food needed in Africa.  Leaving it as is will destine millions of farmers to a lifetime of scratching a meager supply of food from land left mostly fallow, or worse, the land being farmed in a manner that destroys it.

While this bold new development in turning fallow or underused land into fruitful production is happening across the whole of Africa I will limit my comments to two of its countries with which I am familiar. 

I just returned from Ethiopia and Eritrea RPCVs´”Return to Ethiopia” visit where some 100 RPCVs and their companions spent two seeks in Addis Ababa and throughout the land renewing their knowledge of the country and old friendships as well as giving abundant public exposure to the Peace Corps that continues to serve there.  While In Ethiopia I had the opportunity to learn all about one of these foreign investments in African land. 

Ehtiopia´s singular resource is an incredibly rich soil that covers almost all of its area.  It is also blessed with an optimum climate for agriculture in its higher elevations.  It also has millions of farmers.  What it lacks is good water management.  I say management, since it receives sufficient rainfall in the highlands but it does not husband this water.  Most farms in Ethiopia could yield three to four crops in a year if there is water available. 

To bring better water management to its agriculture Ethiopia has set aside 42 million hectares (2.47 acres to the hectare) for lease to foreign investors who have the funds to invest in water management facilities.  There is no question of ownership rights since all land  was seized by the government during the Communist military regime and remains the property of  the government.  Farmers are allowed to farm their traditional plots but the land belongs to the government. 

I became well acquainted with one of these projects during my week stay in Harar, the city designated by UNESCO as the fourth holiest city in Islam.   There I met the crew working to build a new agricultural enterprise not far from the city.  The company leases 500,000 hectares from the government at a rate of 4 birr per hectare which means about $100,000 per year rental income.  The lease was originally taken by an Israeli company planning to raise biomass for fuel for local consumption.  The Israelis gave up and turned it over to a German company working with Pakistani management partners that will soon bring in an American partner to produce edible (cooking) oils for domestic consumption.  The key to the project is the vast reservoir built by the company to hold essentially three years water supply.

No Ethiopian farm group could have done this.  And land that was in marginal or no production will soon be producing a valuable addition to the Ethiopian diet as well as building a viable major agricultural facility that will employ hundreds of local farmers and workers. 

My other reference is Mozambique where I brokered the first American investment ever in the country.  At the end of the civil war that destroyed the country in the period following independence, the government there invited Portuguese farmers, who had left following independence, to return to their former farms in Mozambique.  Since all land had been seized by the Communist regime that is still in power, the returning farmers had to pay rent for the land that had formerly been theirs under Portuguese colonial rule.  But in spite of having to lease the land, many of the Portuguese farmers returned to rebuild their farms and thus provide more food for the country and for export.

These are but two examples of a phenomenon that is sweeping Africa.  The concept is straight forward, use foreign investment to build a strong agricultural sector that can provide more food for domestic consumption and for export.  Not only will this provide more food, but it will also create job opportunities for millions of farmers and others.

Now Oxfam opposes this movement.  It would appear that instead of promoting real development of Africa´s agriculture, Oxfam would prefer leaving most of Africa lie fallow or for use by marginal farmers who often destroy the land through poor farming practices.  As for the complaint that farmers are being removed from their lands, I point out that in my two examples the land is owned by the government and farmers are allowed to use it, but have no ownership claim on the land.  The choice is clear, build a modern agriculture that can better feed Africa´s people and provide valuable exports, as well as provide thousands, if not millions, of job opportunities, or condemn African farmers to a continued life of grinding poverty and food deficits.