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Food or shelter: Africa’s land dilemma

May 04, 2018
topic:Food Security
tags:#Africa, #land, #real estate, #population, #food security
located:Ghana, South Africa, Kenya
by:Bob Koigi
With the African population growing at an annual pace of 2.55%, demand for basic needs like food and shelter have skyrocketed.

But therein lies the problem. While the population growth shows no signs of slowing and is even expected to exceed 42 million people each year by 2050, land, the resource that is so prized in the continent is dwindling, and fast.

Almost all African countries heavily rely on agriculture for household incomes and national wealth. In Sub-Saharan Africa for example, it makes up an approximate 20%  of total GDP while employing up to 80% of the rural population. The sector is Africa’s largest, estimated at $100 Billion, representing 15% of the entire continent’s GDP. This, while feeding both rural and urban populations.

But dwindling returns from the sector occasioned by poor yields as a result of climate change, medieval farming practices and lack of requisite attention from governments has seen the majority of farmers, especially the youth, dump it for lucrative alternatives including migration to urban areas. This, coupled with a booming middle class with an affinity for spending and an increasing number of multinationals keen on setting up in Africa (due to its strategic resources) has seen an upsurge in demand for housing, setting in motion a phenomenon experts now describe as catastrophic for Africa’s food security future.

Up to a third of Africans live in urban areas creating incessant demand for housing. With construction land now having been exhausted, real estate developers have been training their eyes on agricultural land with previously fertile land now being turned into concrete neighbourhoods.

Infrastructure development, including modern roads and rail networks, has enabled underdeveloped areas to open up to businesses.

Businessmen in these areas approach landowners, who have traditionally used the land for farming with irresistible sale offers. “So you find a situation where a farmer has been growing crops that have not been doing well in the market. On a normal transaction, the farmer would sell the land at say $7000 but the land buyers and brokers promise to buy it at triple that amount. Of course the farmer will jump at the offer. Before you know it, every farmer around that area has sold off their land, and towering buildings stand where crops once flourished. It is a worrying trend,” said Dr. Stanslaus Masinde of the Department of Real Estate and Construction Management at the University of Nairobi.

The quick sales, Dr. Masinde adds, stem from the low returns farmers are reaping from crops which they have been relying on over the years for income.

In Kenya, coffee and tea, some of the greatest casualties of the pent up demand for housing have been the greatest foreign exchange earners for the country, but their fortunes have been in the doldrums over the years as smallholder farmers, the bulk of the growers, lose interest following years of mismanagement which has seen the farmers earn meagre returns despite the crops attracting high premiums in the international markets. “In the 80s and early 90s, we used to earn top dollar from tea and coffee. We educated our children from the returns, invested and lived well. Now it is painful being a coffee or tea farmer and that is why I decided to uproot my coffee and sell my land when buyers came calling.

The deal was too enticing,” said Naftali Kiuga, a smallholder farmer in Ruiru area at the outskirts of Kenya’s capital. He, like hundreds of farmers in the area, has resigned himself to the fact that farming will never be lucrative again and has sold his fertile ancestral land. The results are so deleterious that the county government of Kiambu, which borders Nairobi, has issued a decree that no agricultural land will be sold to real estate developers going forward and has even instituted an aggressive campaign to have farmers replant coffee and tea. “While there is a school of thought that believes that urbanisation will definitely herald a boom in construction, I still hold that we cannot gamble with our food production because as a country that sector is the lifeline of our people and economy. We cannot condemn ourselves as a nation that depends on food aid in the land of plenty like ours,” Charles Kagwa a land economist argues.

In Ghana, one of the largest West African economies, the script is similar. The brisk uptake of fertile land for construction, mining and natural resources exploration has displaced thousands of farmers and created a recipe for chaos as farmers displaced from their lands now turn into food beggars. In Awutu and Gomoa East Districts of Central Ghana, up to 1,000 hectares of agricultural land has been converted into houses or sand mining zones with the practice to continue unabated. This has seen the contribution of agriculture to the national economy dip from 31.8% in 2009 to 12.8% in 2016.

In South Africa, former president Jacob Zuma, aware of the dire situation in the country, proposed the Regulation of Agricultural Land Holding Bill that posited that foreigners were not allowed to own agricultural land in the country. While the decision, which was greeted with widespread consternation, was informed by a cocktail of events, the government argued that the growing appetite for land by foreigners who were keen on owning homes, buoyed by the advanced infrastructure and scenic beauty, was a threat to food production.

African land has also been a magnet to foreign investors with studies showing that the continent accounts for about 47% of total land area transferred to foreign owners, the highest world over, with Asia coming second at 33%.

From huge tracts of land Ethiopia being transferred to Indian and Chinese investors, to multinationals buying huge tracts of land in Cameroon to grow produce for export, the scramble continues. World Bank in a report dubbed Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant: Prospects for Commercial Agriculture in the Guinea Savannah Zone and Beyond, captured the latest obsession of African land by foreign investors who considers it a good value for return on investment.

However, with the African population rising at unprecedented highs, expected to grow at 42 million each year to hit the nine billion mark by the year 2050, demand for food is poised to grow to phenomenal highs, sparking fears that if agriculture land is not safeguarded, it could ignite a food war never seen anywhere before.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Ghana South Africa Kenya
Embed from Getty Images
Almost all African countries heavily rely on agriculture for household incomes and national wealth.
Embed from Getty Images
Up to a third of Africans live in urban areas creating incessant demand for housing.
Embed from Getty Images
However with the African population rising at unprecedented highs, expected to grow at 42 million each year to hit the nine billion mark by the year 2050.
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