The conventional view right now is that land in Africa is a really big deal. Over the past few years, high-flying experts and journalists have continuously pumped out earnest reports on African land issues, often centred on the activities of foreign firms.
Some of these stories have rightly honed in on the misadventures of Western companies − such as the U.S.-based Herakles Farms' bungled foray into oil palm in Cameroon − but most have focused on firms from emerging economies. Plenty of controversy and countless column inches, for example, have been generated by the Indonesian Salim Group's 60,000-hectare endeavours in southern Nigeria, the efforts of Malaysian Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK) to acquire a vast swathe of Liberia, and the questionable multi-billion deals conducted by the likes of India’s Karuturi and Shapoorji Pallonji in Ethiopia.
The speedy scaling up of African ventures by companies registered in the BRICS, South Korea, and the Gulf states, and of wealth funds such as Singapore’s Temasek, has understandably provoked a degree of panic. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, amongst others, have warned of "neo-colonialism," and the snowstorm of anxiety around land grabs has contributed to the creation of new global guidelines aimed at promoting better land governance.
The guidelines are a step in the right direction, and the ongoing attention on land is important and completely warranted. However, overly fixating on land grabs risks obscuring more fundamental issues that ultimately underpin our concerns over the future of food in Africa. There is a danger that by concentrating only on grabbed land, broader food security challenges might remain cloaked in darkness.
Better out than in?
The time has come to move away from land-centric accounts and to examine how foreign powers have not only occupied African land but also African food systems. This is nothing new. From the salt flats of Senegal through to the shores of Lake Victoria, imperial conquest and colonial enterprise have left a lasting footprint on what and how Africans eat. The cultivation of inedible export crops such as rubber and cotton, for instance, continues to mean less land is available to grow food for local consumption. In ideal cases, sales from these crops give growers the purchasing power to buy the foods they want in the markets. But often, the persistent underperformance of cash crops and low incomes from plantation labour contributes to hunger.
Alongside these legacies of colonialism, there are also more recent forms of foreign involvement in African food systems. Today, global commodity traders, industrial food manufacturers, and retailers exert control over food volumes, prices, and qualities across the continent. Control over land is of course a central element in this story, but there are also many others.
For starters, it is worth noting how foreign investments in sectors other than agriculture have always had massive impacts on the potential for Africa to durably feed itself. It is significant, for example, that as governments across the continent leverage funds from the BRICS and elsewhere to build large-scale transport networks, the railways, roads, and ports being constructed are primarily aimed at bolstering Africa’s links to Asia and Europe. Rather than helping domestic or regional integration, which would make it easier for foods and other goods to be transported and exchanged within Africa, these forms of outward-oriented infrastructure make it quicker and simpler for Africa's crops to leave, and for food imports to enter.
For example, financed by China's EXIM Bank, Cameroon is constructing a highway between Yaoundé and Douala as well as a deep seaport. Unlike infrastructure that would enhance sub-regional linkages or a transport corridor that could run across central Africa, these mega-projects are geared towards exports and imports in and out of the continent. The road not taken, literally, is bad news for the movement of African foods and for African people.
Going against the grain
Overly focusing on land could also lead us to discount the important role of foreign foods on the continent. This idea often conjures up images of surplus U.S. corn being flown to hunger hotspots, but aid deliveries pale in comparison to the values and volumes of the everyday foods that flow to Africa.
To serve consumer tastes inherited from colonial times, Canadian and French firms, for instance, have consistently reaped fat profits from selling wheat to African mills. More recently the likes of Thailand and Vietnam have upped their capacities to export rice. And the surplus production of industrial food processors in Doha and Dubai now increasingly finds ready markets south of the Sahara.
In shops where tinned brie and off-year bottles of French wine once exclusively filled the shelves, packets of Chinese whiskey and Moroccan dairy products are now vying for space. Moreover, Indian tractors, Chinese hand hoes and Russian fertilisers have undercut many of their European competitors in commercial capitals such as Douala and Dar es Salaam.
The daunting task for experts is to peel back the dynamics and the politics behind these shifts. Food professionals tend to talk in the neutral and scientific language of ‘productive efficiency’, ‘yield maximisation’, or ‘basic food baskets’. But these and other buzzwords are themselves subject to political contestation.
The reality of rice consumption is enlightening. It would be simple to assert that Africa’s partnerships with rice exporters are a victory against hunger. After all, rice producers' desire to ship more of the crop to Africa lowers staple food costs. But, as we found in Cameroon, the greater availability of ‘cheap’ and ‘easy’ imported rice has had a nasty knock-on effect. The abundance of rice has raised the relative prices of highly nutritious and widely preferred local forest foods. The presence of the plentiful and cheap foreign crop has pushed many Cameroonians to change their diets due to forces out of their control.
A healthier debate
There are some things about which specialists tend to agree. Most accept that there is enough food available to feed all Cameroonians, but that food prices in Cameroon have trended worryingly upwards since the start of this year, that higher food prices typically mean more hunger, and that diets might no longer be nutritionally or culturally appropriate. There is also a consensus in Cameroon that each dimension of food security – from economic accessibility, to physical availability, to nutritional adequacy – is important.
Moving forwards, this political complexity must not be ignored, and land must not be the only issue on which the world focuses. Food systems are hugely complex, involving countless actors from governments to corporations to labourers, operating from the global scale down to the local, and encompassing myriad dynamics from land to infrastructure to politics.
These all need to be prised apart and examined. After all, more robust analyses could well help African governments, activists and citizens to better engage with questions around food security, and enable them to redress the corporations and countries that continue to unduly profit from the food insecurity status quo.