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Can foreign direct investment benefit smallholders and investors?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

As global demands for food and biofuel escalate, foreign investors have shown a keen interest in African land. The furious pace at which large-scale land acquisition investments are occurring have raised questions about the underlying motives, benefits and long-term impacts of these investments on host countries.

“Foreign direct investors are coming in with new technology and capital while small-scale producers are using the same old techniques,” said Tim Williams, Director of IWMI in Africa during his presentation at the 5th Africa Water Week in Dakar, Senegal.

Tim Williams presents research on foreign direct investment in Africa land at Africa Water Week. Photo: Abby Waldorf/WLE Tim Williams presents research on foreign direct investment in African land at the 6th Africa Water Week. Photo: Abby Waldorf/WLE

“The search is on for winnable investment business models that will allow the capital infusion and new technologies by foreign direct investors to have positive spillover effects on small producers,” he said.

To better understand the pressures, drivers and impacts of foreign investors, the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) has asked the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in partnership with UNEP, GRID-ARENDAL and FAO to investigate how these investments will affect water resources, the livelihoods of current land users, and the environment.

AMCOW aims to use the findings of this study to inform and recommend policy options for decision makers that will ensure that foreign direct investments (FDI) in agriculture lead to equitable benefits for all parties (investors, governments and current land users and communities) without compromising the integrity of natural ecosystems.

Researchers will simulate the impacts of large-scale land use changes due to FDI in agricultural land on the local hydrology, livelihood options and ecosystem services using data and information obtained from a river basin in Blue Nile region of Ethiopia.  The intention is to provide a strong base of evidence that can inform and direct policy makers on how to better manage and regulate land deals for sustainable development.

In a preliminary study, the team assessed 148 cases of documented and authenticated foreign direct investments (FDI) in agriculture across 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa between 2000 and 2012.  They took a closer look at 6 of these countries that account for 50% of the total area under FDI in Africa: Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ghana, Mali, and Zambia.

The water gap

Although land and water are interlinked resources, they found that water was largely ignored in the majority of the 148 cases.  Two crops – rice and sugar cane – that cannot be successfully cultivated without irrigation were intended to be grown on 24% of the total land area acquired.

This means that foreign investors aren’t just gaining land in Africa, they are also gaining unrivaled access to water resources, as only a handful of the cases studied included stipulations on the amount of  water that could be abstracted.  Not only does this have implications for existing water and land users, but it also has major implications on the ecosystems and landscapes due to changing demands on water and land resources.

An early recommendation made by researchers is that governments need to determine a value and price for water in FDI agreements that will ensure sustainable use and allocation.

“The pricing of water, especially in the agriculture sector, is a very sensitive subject in Africa but it is a challenge we need to face going forward,” said Yoro Sidibe from the IWMI research team.

Absence of local land users

Another major issue identified was that local land users were often absent from land deal discussions until after contracts were signed, if they were involved at all.  For a win-win business model to exist under foreign acquired land, not only should local land users be informed and consulted prior to land acquisition deals, but they should be compensated proportionately to the earnings they will lose from loss of land.

This unfortunately wasn’t the case in most of the schemes studied.  Overall, limited employment opportunities have been created and for the most part, displaced farmers have been inadequately compensated.  This has led to protests and conflict among displaced communities in Mali.  Farmers in Ghana complain of reduced incomes when they do gain employment from the companies that have taken over their land.

During the presentation of the initial findings of this study at the 5th Africa Water Week, one senior official from an African country (not included in the six study countries) requested that his country be added to the study, as they face many of the same issues.  There seems to be a good amount of enthusiasm among policy advisers and decision makers for better data and information on existing land acquisition cases in order to guide policies in the future.

Implications for agricultural water management policy

At the same session, Andy Bullock, an independent consultant focusing on water in development, noted that the management of agricultural water for FDIs doesn’t sound distinctly different from agricultural water management in general. And there is an important truth to his statement, as this study has the potential to influence the policies and regulations far beyond FDI deals; there is hope that agricultural water management policies on a national level will be shaped and influenced.

For more information, see the initial findings here in English and French.

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How are foreign direct investments regulated in your country? Have you had success in regulating water management on foreign acquired agricultural land?


FDI in LDC's is still an exploitative strategy to smallholders.In Tanzania for example most of smallholders dont have enough information on the benefits and advantages of FDI that investors most of the cases take advantage.the land which is given away is the same land that smallholders depend on to make a living and because they are poor they think that by renting it to foreigners they might get some advantages that will help increase their income.but the truth is nothing goes back to them and even the compansation that they are promised,they are not accomplished.a good example is in areas that were rented for biofuel investments in Kisarawe and Bagamoyo.so because of all this now the country experiences conflicts between farmers and pastoralists struggling for the land that has remained and conflicts with the investors.At the end of the day you ask youself who is real benefiting?is it the smallholders?is it the investors?or the few people in the system of investment that always identify suitable land to invest?

Sound to be very crucial discussion, however, a doubt is whether African countries , leaders and the fellow citizens have similar thoughts on the move. That is a query to be investigated. From the look, only researchers and few academician seem to think about the points in this document, the rest have not developed serious interest in the subject esp leaders!

Its ashame that pp are busy grabing land while the small holder farmer remains poor I dont undertsnd the motive behind this Africa is the only continent that can feed the world if well utelized

Smallholders in Africa are poor, have no voice in national discourse but remain the backbone of African agriculture. The emergence of FDI in the sector does not formerly include smallholders in policy formulation. This leaves them outside the direct positive impacts and exposes them to both anticipated and unanticipated negative impacts. This is made worse by the proclivity of foreign investors to produce exotic products for the international market to the neglect of primary products that feed into traditional food systems. One way of obviating this is to adopt out-grower system that empowers smallholders to produce for investor firms while growing traditional crops using modern technologies.

Both Zakia and Edwin are right in their observation about the wealth, power and information asymmetries between investors and smallholder land users. That is the reality in Africa today. Nonetheless, it is important that those whose livelihoods will be affected by large scale land deals are given a chance to have a say before these deals are concluded and later on in how they are operated. Elsewhere (see Williams, et al., 2012), we have argued that both state and non-state actors have important roles to play in addressing this imbalance. The state can revise relevant land and water laws to ensure that investors acquiring large tracts of land seek prior and informed consent of main stakeholder groups likely to be affected by the investments. Non-state actors (NGOs, civil society groups) can organize legal literacy campaigns in local languages to inform smallholder farmers about their rights and the process to be followed in seeking adequate compensation for involuntary loss of livelihood.

In response to Jeremiah, decision makers are aware of the issues surrounding foreign direct investment in agricultural land in Africa. They are interested in maximizing the benefits and reducing the negative impacts of these investments. But they often lack fact-based evidence to make sound decisions. That is why the African Ministers' Council on Water (AMCOW) requested IWMI, in partnership with UNEP, GRID-Arendal and FAO, to come up with research-based policy options for equitable distribution of benefits and sustainable management of land and water resources.

If foreign direct investment in agriculture is implemented responsibly and on the basis of an inclusive business model, it can lead to transformational benefits for African agriculture and smallholder farmers. One such model is the out-grower scheme mentioned by Edwin. There are other models. They have had varied records of success in Africa. It is important to research and document the contexts, pre-conditions and factors responsible for successful outcomes. This will help in designing programs to scale-out successful business models.


Williams, T.O., Gyampoh, B., Kizito, F. and Namara R. 2012. Water implications of large-scale land acquisitions in Ghana. Water Alternatives 5 (2): 243-265.

Great blog. All posts have something to learn. Your work is very good and I appreciate you and hoping for some more informative posts.keep writing.

this is good news for africa, this can definitely help in the economy.

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