Tuesday, November 24, 2009

wealthy nations outsource crops to african land



WaPo | "If these deals are negotiated well, I tell you, it will change the dynamics of the food economy in this country," said Mafa Chipeta, the FAO's representative in Ethiopia, dismissing the worst-case scenarios. "I can't believe Ethiopia or any other government would allow their country to be used like an empty womb. The human spirit would not allow it." Few countries have embraced the trend as zealously as Ethiopia, where hard-baked eastern deserts fade into spectacularly lush and green western valleys fed by the Blue Nile. Only a quarter of the country's estimated 175 million fertile acres is being farmed.

Desperate for foreign currency, the government of former Marxist rebels who once proclaimed "land to the tiller!" has set aside more than 6 million acres for agribusiness. Lured with 40-year leases and tax holidays, investors are going on farm shopping sprees, crisscrossing the country on chartered flights to pick out their swaths of Ethiopian soil.

"There's no crop that doesn't grow in Ethiopia," said Esayas Kebede, who works for a new government agency that promotes agribusiness, adding that too many requirements on investors might scare them off. "Everybody is coming."

Especially Indian companies, which have committed $4.2 billion so far.

Anand Seth, director general of the Federation of Indian Export Organizations, described Africa as "the next big thing" in investment opportunities and markets.

As he stood on a little hill overlooking 30,000 acres of rich, black soil, Hanumantha Rao, chief general manager of the Indian company Karuturi Agro Products, agreed.

So far, he said, the Ethiopian government has imposed few requirements on his company.

"From here," Rao said, "you can see the past and the future of Ethiopian agriculture."

From there -- a farm just west of Addis Ababa -- it was possible to see a river designated for irrigating cornfields and rice paddies; it is no longer open for locals to water their cows. Several shiny green tractors bounced across the six-mile-long field where teff, the local grain, once grew. Hundreds of Ethiopian workers, overseen by Indian supervisors, were bent over rows of corn stalks, cutting weeds tangled around them with small blades.