The only option for Ethiopia

There is no alternative but to combine smallholder production with large-scale commercial farms, according to NAI guest researcher Wondwosen Michago Seide. Yet many are concerned about land investments and view them as means of colonising and scrambling African states. Research by Wondwosen, however, shows that in Ethiopia most investments in land are domestic.

“The debate on land investments, or land grabs, in Africa is patronising. It seems difficult for the West to accept that African countries can make rational choices about how to develop their farming production. The narrative that anything can be grabbed from Africa debases the whole continent. Africa is not a bunch of eggs to scramble,” Wondwosen states.

Mostly domestic investors

He looks at land deals in Ethiopia, and particularly in the Gambela area close to the border with South Sudan. Interestingly, the vast majority of the nearly 240 investors are Ethiopian, living in the country or in the diaspora. Only 12 are foreign investors. However, their investments cover larger land areas.  

“Ethiopians willing to invest at home often choose to do so in hotels or other tourist complexes.  To invest in agriculture is a new phenomenon and perhaps shows a growing interest in the nation’s food security by domestic businessmen,” Wondwosen observes.

Depending on food imports

Ethiopia is dependent on food imports to feed its population. The last 30 or 40 years have shown that smallholder farmers cannot produce enough food, and with the rapid population growth the situation will only get worse. The most pressing question, according to Wondwosen, is whether Ethiopia can feed its booming population by 2020 without using large-scale commercial farms?

“Researchers give advice to policymakers, so it is important to see the full picture. We can’t just say that land grabs are colonising us. Instead, we must think of how the population will be fed in the future and ensure that local communities benefit from the investment.  Some Ethiopian experts complain about the land deals in Gambela, but many of them live in houses built outside Addis Ababa. That land was also used by farmers, who had to move when their land was bought for urban housing and development purposes, Wondwosen observes.  

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