Richard Keller
Richard Keller

Save the savannah, save the rain forest and save the wildlife of Africa are all goals of several global organizations, but every time I attend a meeting explaining the international need for more farmland, the discussion centers on putting large portions of Africa under modern farming practices.

It is my understanding that political and armed conflict about land use and wildlife protection is a part of African history. Today, environmentalists have made inroads in demanding enforcement of environmental laws to reduce timber clearing of the Brazilian Amazon. Such groups are also focusing on Africa. Additionally, globally wildlife activist groups disdain farmers as much as poachers.

In my way of thinking, it is doubtful all the land many agricultural economists have listed as potential farmland will ever be planted. 

When you look at the agricultural production areas of Africa, the descriptions usually are by terrain, examples being temperate grassland, brush-grass savannah and mountain forest tundra. Outsiders would prefer most of that terrain to stay undisturbed and not listed as production areas for maize, cereals and root crops. A further breakdown of agricultural land shows much of it is currently listed as pastoral or forest. 

Obviously most of Africa’s farming techniques are ancient, and the hundreds of small farmers could be producing much more on the land they have been farming, but the option of large land investors buying those small plots, to put together large farming operations with the previous landowners as employees, is not really palatable to much of the world’s population.

In the U.S., we have to counter such terms as “corporate farming”—used wrongly to describe large family farming operations. For Africa, the cry is to stop the “land grabbers.” Most descriptions I have heard at international ag investment conferences is that those so called “land grabber” investment groups are making a difference for the better, but the questions are about the final economic structure of the rural nations of Africa.

Commercial farming operations formed from small farms have tripled the output of the land that has been farmed. I’ve heard Susan Payne, CEO of Emergent Asset Management, speak about the company’s success. It is the largest farmland fund investor group in Africa with more than 3,000 staff growing more than 30 commodities across five countries in sub-Saharan Africa under the EmVest Agricultural Corp. The corporation’s goal is to maintain high standards of production across all of its projects and properties to earn income for the investors. The fund also owns processing plants and its own food distribution business. Payne has been a continual presenter at the Global AgInvesting conferences produced by SoyaTech, the last one held in early May in New York. Emergent continues to raise money for more African investment.

Groups such as Emergent are going up against nation-backed investors that are buying African land to guarantee food and agricultural resources (minerals) to keep their own nations self sufficient without buying from other countries. China and Middle Eastern nations are the ones heard about the most.  

There are groups attempting to finance improved farm output by small farmers without the land being taken over by outside interests. Often called “social investment” groups, their goals are similar in most ways. They want to help the people and countries achieve “social, commercial and environmental sustainability,” as I heard Keith Palmer, executive chairman of AgDevCo, explain during last fall’s Agriculture 2.0 Global Investments conference in New York.

The logical conclusion in my way of thinking is that African farming isn’t going to feed the world, or even that continent’s people, and helping U.S. farmers double their output in the next 20 to 30 years is definitely necessary.