Visit a supermarket in Abu Dhabi and you’ll be greeted by row after row of picture-perfect produce, most of it imported. The Indian subcontinent has long supplied food to the wealthy desert capital. These days, though, it’s likely those rows of shiny vegetables and fruit came from an improbable source: Ethiopia, a country practically synonymous with famine. Yes, Africa, where one in three people is malnourished, is now growing tomatoes and butter lettuce for export.
Ethiopia’s biggest greenhouse farming operation is kept hidden from curious, or hungry, eyes; even in Awassa, the southern city where it’s housed, few know it exists. Two kilometres down a dusty private road, past a checkpoint guarded with AK47s, hundreds of pristine, white greenhouses suddenly appear, alien to the setting. Farming in Ethiopia is still done by sickle and ox-driven plough. But inside Awassa’s cool, humidity-controlled greenhouses, vines are fed by a computerized irrigation system, the latest Dutch agricultural technology.
Every day, a workforce of 1,000 locals pick, pack and load hundreds of tons of fresh produce onto waiting trucks, including 30 tons of tomatoes alone. After reaching the capital, Addis Ababa, the produce is flown to a handful of Middle Eastern cities, entirely bypassing Ethiopia, one of the hungriest places on the planet. The trip from vine to store shelf takes less than 24 hours. It’s the latest project by Saudi oil and mining billionaire, Sheikh Mohammed Al Amoudi. And it may be the future of farming.
Over the past 18 months, plantations like this one have been sprouting across Africa. Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia—rich in oil, but water-poor—as well as those dependent on imports like South Korea and Japan, and rising powers like China and India, have begun leasing vast tracts of land in Africa, outsourcing food production to the continent. Agribusiness and Western hedge funds are funnelling billions into the new projects, banking on future scarcity.
The controversial trend has been dubbed “outsourcing’s third wave”—following manufacturing and information technology (IT) in the ’80s and ’90s. The high cost of installing irrigation systems, and importing fertilizers, combines and tractors is no deterrent. Defenders of the new projects say they’re bringing desperately needed new technologies, seeds and investment to Africa. But opponents see the trend as a “land grab” that is forcing poor farmers off their land, and benefiting only the governments inking the deals.
Already, commercial farms dot the northbound highway to Addis Ababa. In the evenings, a steady stream of trucks loaded with fat, sumptuous berries and cherry-red tomatoes rumble past, rushing to Bole International Airport and Gulf state grocery stores beyond. The highway’s dusty shoulders, meanwhile, are littered with the carcasses of animals dead from starvation and disease, the bones bleached white from the sun. The contrast is grim, even by local standards.
The new scramble for Africa was triggered by a convergence of events: surging demand for biofuels, rising consumption patterns in China and India and the 2008 global food crisis, when the price of corn and wheat tripled, almost overnight. Responding to sudden hyperinflation, rioting and panic buying, at least 30 countries, including Argentina, Vietnam, Brazil, Cambodia and India, banned or sharply reduced food exports. In short order, Japan and South Korea, who import 70 per cent of their grains, joined a parade of countries turning to Africa to lock in means of production beyond their borders.
The scale of the effort is astonishing. More than 125 million acres—an area roughly equal in size to Sweden—has been or is being negotiated for lease or sale in poorer countries, mostly in Africa, according to a recent estimate. In Sudan alone, the U.A.E. and South Korea have leased one and two million acres respectively, for crops including corn, alfalfa, potatoes and beans; Egypt has enough land there to grow two million tons of wheat annually, and Saudi Arabia and Jordan have leased 25,000 and 60,000 acres each, mainly to grow wheat and corn. In February, the U.S. investment firm BlackRock launched a world agriculture fund, earmarking US$30 million for farmland acquisitions; Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley already offer investors access to similar funds. Calgary’s Agcapita, a three-year-old firm focused exclusively on farmland investment, says private equity firms have lined up some US$3 billion for farmland in developing countries.
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