“Damned if you do; Damned if you don’t”


Desalegn Lidetu  12/05/09


I borrowed my headline from Fortune’s editorial (Fortune, Nov. 29). In this editorial titled: “Land Use: Where Skepticism, Opportunity Meet; Oversight is Key,” Fortune drives home to us why we should not overlook the benefits of FDI in food crops’ development. Clearly the item is meant to help raise public awareness that the rumors high in the air that the growing overseas investments flowing into Ethiopia of late for food crops’ growing could be looked at as something of a big free lunch for foreign nations is wide off the mark.


I’m afraid we’ve taken pride for too long for being a nation with untapped resources. We sang too many songs of the same tune for decades on end. We sang sitting on our untapped potentials. I believe it is high time we took to heart the morale there is in the fable: “The Ant and the Grasshopper”. High time we deferred our singing for the big harvest.


The irony is that one can be almost certain that the government would have faced criticism if it had had declined the offers from these companies. In this other scenario, who else would’ve invoked the word against?


Modernity has not come easy to this country. I always wish we had the sound bite of that debate between Emperor Menelik versus his right-hand man, Ras Mekonnen on the prospect of the Ethio-Djibouti railway project. The later was said to have vehemently opposed to the idea because it might’ve served a sort of a Trojan horse for the then forces on a colonizing spree. That was in the wake of the 20th century. It turned out that “oversight” triumphed. The railway served for a century. Ras Mekonnen’s was understandably an honest concern, I suppose.


In a similar vein, Menelik had the first tap-water installed on the premises of his palace – known then as Gibbi – and the old man was rumored against as having succumbed to witchcraft by the fashionable townsfolk clad in Sarian clothes, wrapped neck to waist in Gabbi, loose weave-cotton fabrics the size of a French-door curtain, walking bare-feet up and down the then narrow streets of Addis Ababa, or on board horse-driven carts, or riding mules or horses. Many are anecdotes of this kind from that generation who saw many of the “firsts” of public utility, gadgets, facilities and all. (I’m not sure how much of these are part of recorded history. But the spirit of suspicion and skepticism lives on to this day.)


Let’s face it: We as a nation are net importers of technology; we will remain so for quite some time into the unforeseeable future. It takes time and our great effort as a nation to change this. On too many cases, our resistance to new things seems to be impulsive. We of this generation might well have inherited the spirit from the past. But then, the world is changing and going ahead with inventions and innovations of all kinds at breakneck speed.


But wait a minute. This sounds too simplistic an explanation and cannot tell the whole story. There must’ve been, one may suspect, something that runs deeper.


Often, our skepticism emanates from mere suspicion, which doesn’t find its reason why. And, there are many cases where political interests play out on peoples’ fears by fomenting all sorts of fabricated stories; or at times half-truths, at best. This is not to mean there never have been genuine concerns and honest fears. But, here again, “genuine” and “honest” are not synonymous with “truth”. Not necessarily.


The recent inflow of multi-million agri-investments has triggered mixed feelings among the elite circle in the host nation. Not surprisingly, detractors of the government are raising their voices to try and discredit the government’s having welcomed these companies to grow food for export to address the bids of wealthy nations to meet their domestic food security needs. Alarmists dub it “land grabbing,” “neo-colonialism,” “food piracy,” and what not. None of these newly-minted descriptions is anywhere near the truth and reality of what is going on.


Booing, the saying goes, is louder than cheering. Some political interests are trying to patronize the public opinion. The truth is the agri-investments of scale such as offered by Karuturi Agro Products Plc, an Indian company, and Saudi Star Agricultural Development could, as long as the necessary regulatory frameworks are in place, be beneficial to Ethiopia in more ways than one. Following are some points why we should cheer, and not boo, the new trend.


It’s Global.

Ethiopia is not the only country allowing land for foreign companies to grow food for export. It’s not the first, either. Not even in Africa.


“In November, South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics made the startling announcement that the company had secured a 99-year lease on 1.3m hectares of land, an area roughly half the size of Belgium, from the government of Madagascar. Daewoo’s investment of $6bn (six billion dollars) is intended to produce 4m tones of corn and 500,000 tonnes of palm oil a year, mostly for export.” (African Business, Feb. 2009.)



“Investments in African land by foreign interests are gathering pace,” says J P Morgan in his article titled: “The big land sell-off”. “In August, Al-Qudra Holdings of Abu Dhabi said that it was looking to acquire 400,000 hectares of land in Asia and Africa, with Sudan a likely candidate, for the cultivation of corn, rice and [rearing of] cattle. The company already farms 1,500 hectares in Morocco and Algeria. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already acquired substantial holdings in Sudan. The Abu Dhabi Fund for Development alone is set to cultivate some 30,000 hectares of land in the north of Sudan, and Hadco of Saudi Arabia, is investing more than $ 96m in the country to lease 10,000 hectares on the banks of the Nile, near Khartoum, to produce wheat, vegetables and fodder.


“There have been similar investments in Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe, as well as globally in the Philippines, Cambodia, Pakistan and Ukraine – amongst other nations. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, has been actively soliciting Middle East investments …. Egypt too has been touting for such investments….”


The list of countries looking outward for food production to address their food insecurities is getting long; so does the number of countries with large expanses of unused arable now closing deals with foreign agri-companies growing.


It all began amidst the global food crisis of the past couple of years. The hike in prices of food items globally seemed to have sent a message to wealthy countries that doesn’t have sufficient arable lands within their respective boundaries that they could, and they should, no more rely on the food market alone. In this regard, at least, the global food crisis may have come as a blessing in disguise for poor African nations to secure increased FDI by putting to use the large swathes of arable land left idle.


“The motives behind these investments in African land are straightforward enough. The opportunities …offer great commercial potential. The surge in food prices last year … led to wealthy food-importing nations seeking greater food security through the acquisition of reliable agricultural resources.” (African Business.)


There are a number of benefits to accrue from such investments for the host nations, though generally some political risks and displacement of local farmers are feared to entail the trend. “Many economists feel that there are clear grounds for optimism and that foreign investment in land will result in gains in irrigation, infrastructure, greater output and the benefits of technological transfer. Local farmers would also gain from agricultural innovations, such as better seeds and learning to improve planting techniques,” says J P Morgan. The employment aspect of such extensive plantations should not be overlooked, also.



Food for thought

A news item in Nov. 29 issue of Fortune says Saudi Star’s machinery procured from Caterpillar for 80m dollars arrived at the port of Djibouti. The import included, it said, construction materials and 300 tractors complete with spare parts for the farm the company leased in Gambella for rice production. As a background information, the newspaper quoted Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development as saying there were only 4000 tractors being currently employed in agriculture countrywide. And, it quoted Saudi Star’s product’s managing director as saying their products would be marketed both locally and abroad.


These alone are telling figures that should clear confusions. And add this and try to be on the cheering side:


“Of the 70 million hectares of arable land in Ethiopia, only 15 million hectares are said to be occupied by subsistence farmers and small-scale cash-crop growers ….” These are facts and facts are obstinate, for better or for worse.


How do we set cynic boo-ers apart from others? Cynic boo-ers have dread fear, called phobia in the parlance of medicine, to hard facts. They boo no matter what.


Whatever our political import, we should know better than such tendencies as “damned if you do; damned if you don’t”.