Is the Scramble for Land in Africa Foreclosing a Smallholder Agricultural Expansion Strategy?

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

Recent global policy attention to “land grabs” by international investors, while very important, has diverted attention away from two other processes that may be even more fundamentally affecting Africa’s economic development trajectory: (i) the pace of land acquisitions by medium-scale African investors, who now control more land than large-scale foreign investors in each of the three countries examined in this study (Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia); and (ii) the overall impact of land transactions on the viability of African governments’ agricultural strategies, which for the most part remain predicated on smallholder-led development and will require the expansion of cropland by smallholder households. In Zambia and Ghana, the total farmland controlled by holdings between 5 and 100 hectares now exceeds the amount of land held by smallholder farms under 5 hectares. Farmland holdings in all three countries have become substantially more concentrated since the mid-1900s. The rapid rise in the number of farms in the 5 to 100 hectare category represents a relatively hidden but revolutionary change in farm structure, reflecting increased investment in land by relatively wealthy urban-based individuals. Only in Ghana has the rise of medium-scale farms been significantly associated with successful graduation of small-scale farmers into medium-scale stature. Continued rapid alienation of land to medium- and large-scale investors is likely to exacerbate localized land scarcity, restrict the potential of smallholder-led development, and put unrealistic pressure on the non-farm economy to absorb Africa’s rapidly rising labor force.