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Africa’s Land Rush: Rural Livelihoods and Agrarian Change – a new book

There is a rush on for African farmland – a phenomenon unmatched since colonial times. Africa’s land rush, and the implications for rural livelihoods and agrarian change, is the subject of a new book that I have edited together with Ruth Hall (from PLAAS at UWC, South Africa) and Dzodzi Tsikata (ISSER, University of Ghana at Legon). It includes a series of cases from Africa, written by researchers associated with the land theme of the Future Agricultures Consortium, and you can get a taste of the content from the introductory chapter, available here. The book is available from James Currey publishers (and for a 25% discount here). You can also buy it in all good bookshops  – and if you must, Amazon. It was launched in Cape Town last week at the Book Lounge.


By some estimates, 70% of the land transacted globally in large-scale deals in recent years has been in Africa, often considered the world’s last reserve of unused and under-utilised fertile and irrigable farmland. This is what has lured investors motivated by rising food prices, by growing demand for ‘green’ energy, and by the allure of cheap land and free water. But governments have often allocated to investors land that is occupied, used, or claimed through custom by local people, resulting in disrupted livelihoods and even conflict.

The case studies in the book show the striking diversity of such deals: white Zimbabwean farmers in northern Nigeria, Dutch and American joint ventures in Ghana, an Indian agricultural company in Ethiopia’s hinterland, European investors in Kenya’s drylands and a Canadian biofuel company on its coast, South African sugar agribusiness in Tanzania’s southern growth corridor, in Malawi’s ‘Greenbelt’ and in southern Mozambique, and white South African farmers venturing onto former state farms in Congo.

In many cases these big international deals were on land that had previously been state farms, and before that colonial estates. In the mainstream narrative of a ‘land grab’, there is little sense of the history of large-scale farming and how this evolved at different moments – and our research shows how recent land deals mimic and even resurrect forms of large-scale farming from the past.

A recurring theme in the book is the pivotal role of African governments – as actors and referees – in large-scale land transactions and how this is influencing change in local agrarian systems. States were willing to make major changes to their economic policies, provide preferential terms and often failed to leverage benefits in their attempts to keep investors coming.

Contrary to the popular depictions of a rampant neo-colonial push, dispossessing local people while investors cashed in, in fact some investors are having a rather hard time of it. New commercial investments are vulnerable to difficult agroecological conditions, changing market trends and local politics. Local people are certainly carrying many of the costs – most commonly, the loss of grazing land, water and forests – but there are also clear local ‘winners’ from the process. The picture is far more complex than has been portrayed in many mainstream accounts.

Many of the book’s case studies document deals that failed. Land was demarcated, people excluded, but in the end investments failed to materialise – or did so only with low levels of production and employment. But despite the African countryside being littered with failed agricultural commercialisation projects (as it has been for decades), there are major changes afoot, as land changes hands, and a new politics of access unfolds.

Such changes in who holds land, how it is farmed, at what scale, with what technologies, and for what value chains are profoundly reshaping rural societies and economies in ways that will have long-lasting impacts. Will farmers become wage workers or move to cities? Will smallholder production persist – or perhaps even thrive – alongside large-scale investments? Will people be incorporated into commercial ventures as outgrowers, and will this enable them to improve their livelihoods, educate their children, and move out of poverty?

While these deals are diverse in their contexts and design, the direction of change is clear: towards commercial production by medium- to large-scale local farmers alongside larger estates, now owned not by colonial powers but by foreign or multinational companies, often in partnership with domestic capital. As with previous moments of enclosure and commercialisation, Africa’s recent land rush is already sparking resistance and counter-movements.

Community responses have varied from enthusiastic support to outright hostility and resistance. In some cases, initial support for investment and the promise of development turned to hostility in the face of disappointments. Within communities, certain groups found new opportunities for employment or for enterprises linked to new commercial operations. But across our studies, many were locked out of these new opportunities and we found people resorting to various acts of resistance including theft, destruction and acts of vandalism.

Since its peak following 2007-08, Africa’s ‘land rush’ has slowed, as the real implications of investment and production have become more apparent, as opportunity costs in other investment destinations have changed, and as drivers such as spiking food and oil prices have abated, even if temporarily. Today, investors are far more cautious in their prognoses for profits: several ‘bubbles’ have burst, not least the hype surrounding biofuels. However, while the land rush may have slowed, it has not stopped. All indications are that global demand for food, fuel and feedstock will continue to drive demand for fertile land and water into the future. Growing African economies and consumer demand in urban centres compound this effect.

As the book shows, the land rush is best seen as one of a number of processes of commercialisation of agriculture, involving financialisation and commodification – not all of which result in the appropriation of land. The story is therefore far more complex than the simplistic caricatures of the ‘land grab’, as either catastrophe or opportunity. While there are both winners and losers in this process, the direction of change is towards large-scale farming linked to global markets. What is certain though is that rural Africa is being transformed in profound ways.

This blog is based on a piece by Ruth Hall for the African Griot, James Currey’s magazine profiling new books

This post first appeared on Zimbabweland


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Land policy and governance: the launch of LEGEND

The first in a series of Land Policy Bulletins from a new DFID-supported programme – LEGEND – came out recently.

This is from the Bulletin:

“Land Enhancing Governance for Economic Development’ (LEGEND) is a new global DFID programme designed to mobilise knowledge and capacity for design and delivery of new country programmes, improve land governance as an essential and inclusive basis for economic development, and strengthen land and property rights at scale.

Through building policy coherence globally and stimulating innovation across civil society, private sector and sector at country and local levels, LEGEND aims to improve the quality and impact of land investments of all kinds so they contribute sustainably to growth while safeguarding rights and opportunities for poor people – rural and urban — especially women”.

This is an important departure for DFID. A decade or more ago, DFID was a leader on land and agriculture issues, but the move away from the productive sectors has meant a loss of capacity both within DFID and outside. In the last few years DFID has supported a number of efforts focused on land. Many of these are now part of the wider LEGEND umbrella – including CCSI’s Open Contracts, Landesa, The Land Portal and RRI and the Munden Project, as well as on-going land work within FAO and the World Bank – allowing more coordination and coherence to result.

Through the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC), I am involved in a small way with LEGEND, together with Ruth Hall from PLAAS. We are contributing to the work of the Knowledge Alliance that supports LEGEND, led by ODI and involving IIED and NRI. Our inputs can draw on a substantial body of evidence and analysis through the FAC network (much of it funded until recently by DFID). This has included extensive research on the effects and consequences of the ‘land rush’ in Africa, including several conferences, and now a book from James Currey (more on this in a future blog – meanwhile you can get 25 per cent off if you quote code 15350 on the publisher’s website). We have also worked closely and helped launch the Land Deal Politics Initiative that has convened an important researcher-practitioner network globally. And we have published a wide range of journal articles, special issues and Working Papers and policy briefs on land issues in Africa.

In launching LEGEND, David Kennedy, DFID Director General, Economic Development, observed: “Changing the way in which we deal with land is critically important for growth and poverty eradication”. This will require in-depth analysis leading to practical solutions, and hopefully LEGEND can help deliver both. To date DFID’s approach has been framed (rather problematically in my view) by Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘golden thread’, which focuses particularly on private property rights driving growth. As anyone who has studied land and property in different parts of the world, this simplistic narrative, modelled on the arguments of Hernando de Soto, is insufficient. I hope LEGEND can bring a more sophisticated response to the debate about land governance, and think about land and investment beyond the large-scale to encourage a more rounded approach that allows for genuine ‘inclusive’ growth.

To keep updated on the work of LEGEND do sign up to the Bulletin, and look out for Evidence Updates, Analytical Papers, events, and a State of the Debate report each year. The contact is: legend@odi.org.uk.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland


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What role for large-scale commercial agriculture in post-land reform Zimbabwe: Africa’s experience of alternative models

Much of the debate about the future of Zimbabwe’s agriculture has got stuck in the dualistic trap of contrasting ‘large-scale’ with ‘small-scale’, without thinking about the mix, and the relationships between them. In southern Africa with its colonial inheritance, this dichotomy is deeply entrenched. But with a new agrarian structure, there is a need to escape from this framing and think more creatively about opportunities and constraints.

A recent paper by Rebecca Smalley, published by the Future Agricultures Consortium, and produced as part of the Land and Agricultural Commercialisation in Africa (LACA) programme, led by PLAAS, sheds some light from historical experience from across the continent. This review offers some important pointers for Zimbabwe, when we ask what forms of commercial agriculture makes sense today?

Following land reform in Zimbabwe, there are farms of all sizes, although now dominated by a small-holder sector in the communal, old resettlement and A1 resettlement areas. However in addition there are A2 farms, largely medium scale operations of several hundred hectares in extent, and so-called large-scale A2 farms, that are larger. In addition there are existing estates that were untouched by land reform, including the large sugar estates in the lowveld of Masvingo.

How then should we think of ‘large-scale commercial farming’ in contemporary Zimbabwe? How can a mix of farm types and sizes complement each other? And what lessons can we draw from elsewhere to inform this?

Smalley offers a simple three-way classification of large scale commercial farming operations: plantations (or estates), contract farming (with and without a nucleus operation) and commercial farming blocks or areas. From a review of a vast literature, Smalley suggests that in general (but of course with huge variation), plantations grow one main cash crop; require capital investment; are larger than an average-sized holding; rely on hired resident or non-resident labour, often including migrant labour; and are centrally managed; and ownership may be foreign or domestic, private or corporate. By contrast in contract farming, farmers agree in a written or verbal contract to supply produce to a buyer, usually at a pre-determined price, on a specific date and to a certain quality. Within contract farming arrangements, there are several variants, including one that involves nucleus outgrowing, where contracted smallholders complement production on a central estate. Her third category is ‘commercial farming areas’, sometimes known as farming ‘blocks’. This involves multiple private commercial farms of medium or large scale that are more or less contiguous in an area.

What are the findings in the literature on each of the three commercial farm types/configurations? The following paragraphs are adapted from the executive summary of the paper (although 70 pages long, the paper is definitely worth reading in full, as the literature shows a great deal of diversity, with broad findings nuanced and contextualised).

For plantations/estates, the literature shows widespread evidence of low wages, long hours, poor housing and health risks for workers. Employment conditions are usually best for workers on permanent contracts. With the shift from salaries to piece work observed in recent decades, wives and children have been called upon to help men in the fields. Women are however frequently employed in their own right. Plantations can affect local food production by diverting labour from peasant agriculture and alienating land. It may help with workers’ incomes and wider food security if plantation employees are allowed to work on family farms at peak times, and if residential workers are granted farm plots on the plantation. Some people, including widows and single mothers, are drawn into plantation labour by poverty and landlessness. In other circumstances, plantation employment is more an opportunity to diversify income sources. Pre-existing poverty and inequalities in land ownership are likely to be exacerbated by plantations. These broad findings of course resonate with the Zimbabwe context, as shown by the work of Rene Loewenson, Blair Rutherford and others.

The literature on contract farming asserts that participation in contract farming schemes provides a good earning, income stability and access to credit. Unfortunately such benefits often fail to reach the poorest farmers. There are typically barriers to entry, and agribusiness contractors have been known to tighten the terms of contracts or retreat to own-estate production over time. Two processes of socio-economic differentiation are associated with contract farming: differentiation between participants and non-participants; and differentiation among participants. The literature suggests that positive spill-overs from contract farming, such as technology transfer, can be inhibited by suppression of competition by the contracting firms. There is, however, better evidence for employment and spending linkages. Because deductions are taken from pay to cover advances, cases of indebtedness and exploitation have been reported, although results vary considerably. There can be tensions within the household if the new crop requires an adjustment in working patterns, and if the earnings are paid to a male household head to control. The risks posed by contract farming to food security within the household, and in the local area, can however be minimised by ensuring that some of the pay goes to women, controlling land conversion and introducing a crop that does not clash with the farming calendar, while supporting local food markets. Again, the general findings very much resonate with the Zimbabwe situation. Despite the current hype for contracting and outgrower arrangements, these certainly have their downsides. Although, some of the resettlement models (such as the A2 schemes in the sugar estates) are centred on outgrowing arrangements, many challenges have been faced.

Large- and medium-scale farming areas create jobs for farm labourers. Some workers have been able to use their earnings to expand family holdings or set up their own operations. But in other cases workers are unable to accumulate enough savings or skills to get off the farm. Limited evidence was reviewed on conditions in commercial farming areas specifically, but generally speaking waged farm work is one of the worst paid, most hazardous and least protected of all livelihoods. As with plantations, commercial farms may have legal duties as employers of permanent staff but have increasingly transferred their workforce into casual or piece work. For female labourers, standards and conditions are generally low. Large-scale farms seem to create more local linkages than plantations. For example, there is a possibility that small farmers will adopt the crops introduced by commercial farming areas and that local agriculture will be stimulated, particularly if the commercial farmers or government introduce infrastructure. Many workers are allocated garden plots by their employers, who recognise that wages are below subsistence levels but resist increasing them. Again, the Zimbabwe parallels are clear. Until 2000, large-scale commercial farm areas certainly created employment, but exit was rare, and conditions poor. While linkages did exist, they were minimal because of the economic and geographic separation from small-scale farming areas.

Smalley highlights three overall conclusions from her extensive review (again taken from the executive summary). The first is that although the record of plantation firms as employers has been criticised, the wages and conditions for workers can be better, or perhaps less bad, on foreign-owned plantations than on large farms and smallholdings. This should be borne in mind as we search for farming models that can benefit the rural poor. Before accepting the argument that contract farming, for instance, can reduce poverty because it involves poor smallholders hiring local labour, we should consider the wages and conditions that those hired labourers will face, as well as other dynamics that affect local labour patterns and entry barriers to participation. The second observation is that large-scale agriculture can affect women in many ways, good and bad. This deserves careful study, not only because women have proved to be especially vulnerable to a range of negative consequences from large-scale agriculture, but also because the gender related changes that occur within rural households lead, in turn, to changes in agricultural production and patterns of labour at the local level.

The final theme to emerge is the instability of such commerical arrangements. Large-scale agricultural developments have proved vulnerable to competing land claims, internal financial and management pressures, labour unrest, external events and political opposition. Participants in contract farming schemes may exit while still under contract; farmers’ organisations may evolve into competitive rivals and migrant workers may return to farm at home.

Smalley concludes “we need to think beyond simple models of dualistic African agricultural sectors, polarised into large-scale enterprises and smallholdings, and consider a diversity of social relations”. This review has much relevance therefore to contemporary Zimbabwe. Having moved from a dualistic system to a diversity of social relations underpinning a range of farm types, what types of commercial farming make most sense? Who wins and who loses? And what are the likely longer term impacts?

Commercial farming, as the review confirms, has had a chequered and unstable history in Africa, and no one type can be seen to be most effective – either for commercial gain or from broader based growth and poverty reduction objectives. Most people agree (and I certainly do) that a mix for farm sizes/types makes most sense, but there are no easy solutions. Contract farming, and outgrower schemes, have been much touted as solution, but they have their own challenges. Equally the large estate model may offer a commercial solution, but they remain isolated from the wider economy, and labour always remains a challenge. In the new post-land reform agrarian landscape of Zimbabwe, there are a emerging ‘blocks’ of farms, associated with the A2 resettlements (and some A1 consolidated farms) that offer potential for commercial growth, but only if connected to smallholder areas to supply labour and offer markets.

While we can agree that we must move beyond the dualistic mindset, the question of where to is less clear. This extensive review of past experience, however, can help inform this debate, and help avoid mistakes made elsewhere in the past.


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Young people and agriculture

The Future Agricultures Consortium has just finished its annual conference, and the focus on was on youth and agri-food systems.  The big question is how is the next generation going to engage in agriculture? Will they repeat what their forefathers did and take over (part of) the family farm? Or will they abandon farming, seeing a brighter future in the city, working in industries or the civil service? Or will they engage in farming and food systems in new ways, not replicating what their parents did, but using their improved education, their technological skills and their business acumen?

There were no clear answers to these questions across the papers presented. Of course, it all depends. But the debates did highlight some important issues for the Zimbabwe context.

–          How does education help young people gain skills for engaging with agriculture?

–          What type of technology development will allow for added value creation?

–          How can agriculture maintain a labour-absorbing role in growing economies?

–          Will the consolidation of farms in large scale units create more opportunities for skilled labour for young people, compared to small scale farming?

–          How can young people gain access to land in settings where land is scarce and controlled by the older generation?

–          How are gender relations changing in the next generation, and how is this affecting demand for land and engagement in agriculture.

–          If agriculture does not provide gainful employment/livelihoods what are the risks of conflict?

Examples from across Africa highlighted the dangers of not addressing youth employment. The consequences can be dire, including mass violence exacerbated by ethnic and political conflict. We have seen this in Sierra Leone, where the youth joined armed gangs which helped foment a civil war. The election violence in Kenya many agree was also linked to youth dissatisfaction and land issues. Yet also the conference highlighted the opportunities unleashed by young people, with new skills and capacities, getting engaged in agriculture.

A review of policy issues from across Africa shows that, while everyone is happy to talk about ‘youth’ as a category, there are virtually no policies directed to the relationship between agriculture and food systems. The wider social, economic and political dimensions are simply not addressed. And young people’s own views, perceptions and aspirations are rarely taken into account.

What of Zimbabwe? In our Masvingo study, we found that younger people were critical in the land invasions of 2000. They were the people that were able to leave home, join the ‘jambanja’, set up camp at the bases, and endure the hardships that the land occupations entailed. The result was that the A1 farms had overall a younger, better educated profile than the nearby communal areas. The A1 small-scale farms contrasted too with the A2 farms which tended to have older households, as they gained land through application (and patronage) and were not involved in the invasions.

The A1 farmers demonstrate that there was certainly a demand for land among younger people living in the communal areas. Many had inherited vanishingly small plots from their parents, and were finding it difficult to make a living. Many talked of the difficulty of continuing to be reliant on parents, only having a hectare or less to farm, and the challenges of establishing a family (or even getting married). With the economy in decline, and options for jobs in town or in the mines shrinking, joining the land invasions made much sense. A new, if uncertain and risky, opportunity opened up, and they grabbed it in large numbers. And it was not just young men who joined the invasions. Younger women were also part of the invaders, eager to stake their claim to land as independent farmers. In the communal areas, the patriarchal institutions of land allocation and inheritance often only allowed them land through marriage. But those who sought greater independence, or who had separated or divorced, could seek opportunities in the new resettlements with their young families.

However, A1 farmers who established homes in 2000 may have been in their 20s, but now are in their 30s. With many ‘accumulating from below’ they have invested in social reproduction and accumulated assets. There is now a further generation wanting land. New land invasions in the past years have often involved younger people, eager to gain land before it is too late. Sometimes, it is reported, their parents have invaded land on their behalf, staking a claim for the next generation. With the youth absent, perhaps border jumping to South Africa or in a temporary job in town, those who are resident can grab the opportunity and join a new invasion.

But there are clear limits to this process. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for further redistribution of land, and the government keeps insisting that the process of land invasion must cease (although larger scale land grabs continue). The police are sent and evictions occur. So what hope is there for the new post-land reform generation, and the generations that will follow them? Are there new opportunities as new value chains are created, and new linkages between farm enterprises are made.

In our book, we argue that in the new rural economy, there has been a radical reshaping not only of land ownership and use but economic relations. This offers many opportunities for value addition, marketing, transport and service support for the new agriculture. Also, with a new rural economic geography, there are real additionalities to be gained by the connections between A1 and A2 and the new resettlements and the old communal areas. Trade, exchange and business opportunities can open up if a territorial approach to economic development takes place. This is happening at the margins, but needs greater support and impetus.

Perhaps it is in this context of a reconfigured pattern of economic growth that in the longer term ‘youth’ will make the greatest contribution. For, even if they do not own land, they can engage in a revitalised agricultural economy that is not controlled by large farms and enterprises and where value chains exist where new entrepreneurs with new skills can enter. To make this happen, not only must investment in economic planning and growth occur at territory level, but education and support systems for youth must be fundamentally regeared.

Here, then, is a fantastic opportunity for the reevaluation of aid efforts in Zimbabwe.


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