SA farmers in new scramble for Africa

South Africa is joining a ‘green rush” for the African continent. The Republic of the Congo has offered Agri SA 10-million hectares for South African farmers to produce maize and soya beans as well as to establish dairy and poultry farms.

Johannes Möller, president of Agri SA, says about 220 interested local farmers could soon be moving north.

Agri SA has approached the government to enter into an agreement with Brazzaville that ensures the safety of South African citizens and allows for the repatriation of capital and profits.

The idea is not to get farmers to leave South Africa but rather to allow them to diversify, says Möller. The food produced is intended to supply the Congo, whereas surplus produce will be exported to other markets such as the European Union.

The move takes place against the backdrop of an international rush for African land. Large tracts of land are being snapped up by cash-rich but resource-poor countries, as well as by countries struggling with the burden of feeding their swelling populations.

Whether it is land for food production, or as some reports suggest, for bio-fuels, alarms bells have begun to ring about whether this investment in African land is a threat or a gain for the continent.

A report by the International Food Policy Research Institute released in April highlights a ‘land grab” that has intensified since food prices hit all-time highs in 2007/08. Target countries include Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Nigeria.

‘Food-importing countries with land and water constraints but rich in capital, such as the Gulf States, are at the forefront of new investments in farmland abroad,” the report notes.

‘In addition, countries with large populations and food security concerns, such as China, South Korea and India, are seeking opportunities to produce food overseas.”

The report states that although some of the deals allow for investment in rural development, they may not involve equal terms for both investors and local communities. And the management and conservation of water and land resources are endangered by indiscriminate investments.

Herbital Maluleke, an international trade manager at the Agricultural Business Chamber (ABC), says many African countries are cash-starved and very willing to take up the money offered by investors. ‘But these countries will need to look at how these deals will affect them to ensure deals are not simply another form neocolonialism,” he says.

There are advantages for host countries, such as technology transfer, foreign investment, access to credit markets and infrastructure development.

Maluleke says South Africa, and particularly its private sector, is actively doing business on the continent: several ABC members operate in countries such as Egypt, Uganda and Nigeria as well as across the SADC region.

Interests include financial services and grain storage. Every time South African businesses cross a border, says Maluleke, they take skills with them. ‘In terms of technical know-how and expertise we can compete with the likes of China and India and we have been doing business on the continent for a number of years so we have a head start.”

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